On Monday, I visited the Army Public School in Peshawar out of respect for the innocent children and teachers murdered a year ago. It moved me greatly to be there. It was a horrific terrorist attack that cut short their lives. It shocked the world, just as I know it shocked Pakistan. This week, we remember the loss Pakistan suffered. We mourn along with the families and communities of those teachers and students.
The unfathomable evil behind the attack respects nothing, least of all human life. It is they, the perpetrators of murder, who have lost their humanity. And what a contrast they are from you, and from me, and from the generous people I met at APS and have met throughout my short time so far in Pakistan.
What I saw in the faces, words, and actions of the people I met on Monday in Peshawar was humanity. Humanity grieving the loss of last year, but looking ahead with resilience, resolve, and hope – some of the qualities that make life worthwhile. The classrooms I visited were full of students eager to learn. The teachers were busy engaging young minds. The school administrators were developing curriculum and planning for the future. They were all doing what students, teachers, and administrators do everywhere in the world, but perhaps with a special resolve. I heard from the APS Peshawar community that they would not let what happened there define them.
Ten of the students and two of the teachers I met had traveled to the United States earlier this year. They survived the attack. They recounted to me their personal experiences that day, so chilling and sad. But they have also moved on. We talked mostly about their trip to America, and about their career decisions. Last summer, they participated in a science, technology, engineering, and math education exchange sponsored by the Department of State.
During their two weeks in the States they served as cultural ambassadors of Pakistan. They taught American students, teachers, and families about their country, the warmth of its people, their challenges and contributions, and even how to play cricket. They made lifelong friends and connections. On Monday, they regaled me with stories of learning about nanotechnology. They told me of their plans to become Pakistan’s next generation of scientists, military officers, doctors, and engineers. In short, they are focused on our shared future.
This small program and others like it sponsored by my government are about our solidarity and commonality with the people of Pakistan. We strive to connect with Pakistan’s future leaders, and give them a chance to be a bridge of understanding between Americans and Pakistanis. If in this way we can increase each country’s understanding of the other and build trust, we will have done something worthwhile.
America knows of and is humbled by the sacrifices Pakistanis have made in the struggle against terrorism. We know the attack against APS Peshawar galvanized Pakistan. I have already learned first-hand of the resolve of the Pakistani government and military to root out terrorism and extremism, and of the results they have achieved, at a cost. We stand with Pakistan in this fight. We offer with open hands whatever we can to assist Pakistan as it eradicates this scourge.
President Obama recently spoke about the hateful ideology that groups like the Taliban promote. He said we must “speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”
And that is what I saw in Peshawar on Monday. Last year’s horror is unforgotten, but this year and future years bring hope. Hope not just for the future of the students of Peshawar, but for the future of all of Pakistan, for its prosperity and security. And for the region, and for us in America as well, since none of us is very far away and the fate of all of us is linked. While the young of Peshawar plan to fulfill their dreams and connect to people across the globe, so do the youth in America, with similar goals and aspirations.
The attack on APS Peshawar brutally deprived families and communities of their loved ones. It tested the resilience and resolve of Pakistan. Pakistan emerged from that test not only intact, but strengthened. That is something that should inspire us all.
Note: The following op-ed was published today in English in The Nation and in Urdu in Nawaiwaqt.