A survivor’s tale of perseverance after Ittehad Town school attackPakistan
KARACHI: Three years after being wounded in an attack on her school which paralysed the lower half of her body, fourteen-year-old Atiya Ali is finally able to sit and move her legs. She suffered a back wound after a bullet went through her spinal cord causing her legs to become motionless. “I want to get better soon and teach at the same school,” she says, while sitting on her bed.
On March 30, 2013, Atiya was among the 456 school children plus teaching staff and guests who were attending a prize distribution ceremony at The Nation Secondary School in Ittehad Town when a grenade attack on its premises killed its principal and member of the Awami National Party (ANP) Rasheed Ahmed. The attack was followed by shooting from outside the school. A student of grade four, Tahira Noor, 10 was killed in the attack and six female students, including Atiya, were injured.
Those close to Ahmed said he was receiving threats to pay protection money and was targeted for taking a strong stance against ‘criminals’ in the area. No one was willing to elaborate on who these criminals were. Ahmed’s 20-year-old son, Aijaz Ahmed, initially said that some people “despised my father for initiating education for girls in the locality”, which many of his relatives agree may be one of the reasons why he was targeted.
As the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had gained considerable strength in Ittehad Town and its surrounding areas at the time, the school administration says that they received updates about the perpetrators being caught or killed by the police during joint operations or during infighting amongst the ‘criminals’ but “didn’t pay much heed to it.” By September 2013, a Rangers-led operation is widely considered to have “brought a sense of normality” to the area, but the school administration admits to being “self-reliant when it comes to our security”.
Soon after the attack, a security guard was appointed to protect the school for a monthly pay of Rs7,000 which was paid through the donations the school received from Ahmed’s friends. But he was asked to leave after the money dwindled.
The attack left the fate of the school in uncertainty but the administration is determined to move on despite lack of funds to run the school. Former students also teach at the school as this was the late principal’s idea; many of them volunteer their services.
Children such as Atiya were the ones who bore the brunt of the attack. After spending three months in the hospital, she eventually was moved to a stretcher and is on a wheelchair now. But for a year after her injury she went through a strenuous routine of waking up at 7am to leave for a two-hour ride to the hospital for further check-ups and physiotherapy.
For the first three months it was at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center (JPMC) and for another three her parents moved her to PNS Shifa for physiotherapy. The latter part of the year was spent in figuring out a proper arrangement which would be easy on her.
“We went through a lot initially,” says her father, Arshad Ali, sitting beside Atiya’s bed at their home, which is a block away from the school. A labourer working at a flour mill in nearby Khyber Chowk, the thought of paying for her treatment as well as her education seemed a lot to Ali. But it was soon sorted out as the school said they would pay for her education as well as for her siblings.
“They requested me to send Atiya to school, along with my other seven children, and asked us to not worry about the payment. From the required stationery to the textbooks, everything is paid for by the school administration,” he added.
As for Atiya’s treatment, a physiotherapist visits their home 14 days a month and charges Rs6,000 for the necessary therapy. Though their financial budget is inconsistent, Atiya’s mother, Khair-un-Nisa, beamed the most as all eight of her children are going to school. “There was an uncertain period after Rasheed sahib was killed. Thankfully, his family is as caring as he used to be,” she added.
There are a fair number of schools and madressahs in Ittehad Town, as most residents send their children to school in the morning and to a madressah during the afternoon. “But we often request parents in the neighbourhood to send their children to a school first,” says senior ANP member Mian Syed Wahid who was a close friend of Ahmed, and survived the attack.
“What can the children learn by spending 10 or 20 years in a madressah? At least, they have many options by attending a school,” he argued.
Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2016