That day in December 2014. That attack on Army Public School, Peshawar. That December 16 that became the day many, many people were killed. That day when a school was turned into a pit of carnage. That day when men armed with machine guns and grenades entered a school building and turned it into an unrecognisable inferno splattered with blood and human bodies filled with holes.
The real number is uncertain. Reportedly, 150 people including the school principal, teaching and other staff members were massacred. 141 of the slain were children and teenagers. The number varies in different reports. The youngest was six, the oldest was 20.
Many children were shot at point-blank range. There was indiscriminate firing, too. Even that was methodical. Many of the children were pulled out of their hiding places and shot in the head. Some of them were sitting doing things children in school do and were shot. One after the other, students of APS were singled out and shot and killed.
Haris Nawaz was 13 years old. He was shot in the head.
His brother, 14, was shot in the arm. He lived to tell the story of the killing of his brother, of the massacre of schoolchildren, of humanity shrinking into the pitch black barbarity that has a few parallels in the recent human history, of a tragedy so huge six years later every word of it is dipped in the indelible blood of those who were murdered that day.
This is the story of the 14-year-old whose arm was so severely damaged the doctors lamented that amputation was the only option. In February 2014, he along with his family was sent to the UK for his treatment. They stayed in the UK, trying to rebuild their lives with the memory of their slain Haris deeply touching everything in their lives. But humans are resilient. Superhumanly. They survive the worst, some of them choosing to rebuild their tomorrow shaping their pain into the strength that becomes their daily hope, a steadfastness that is diurnal inspiration for everyone who has lived through soul breaking tragedy.
His name is Ahmad Nawaz. On January 3, 2021 he will turn 20. He is a student at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, UK. At Oxford, he reads Philosophy and Theology. As he and his family, dealing with his shattered arm and their shattered hearts and minds, recoded their day-to-day existence, young Ahmad too young to even fully understand the enormity of what had happened that unimaginable day in December 2014, with the help of his incredibly brave and supremely devoted parents Mohammad and Samina Nawaz, focused his mind on things that were good, that were positive, that were healing, that were unbroken.
Today, Ahmad, a handsome young man, intelligent, very witty, eloquent, older than his age, is focused on his activism, the work he has been doing for years. The memory of his brother Haris is his strength for his today, his every tomorrow. His mom and two siblings, Umar, 13, and Adil, 1, are his strength. His dad, Mohammad, is his rock.
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On the sixth anniversary of arguably the worst day in the history of Pakistan, Ahmad talks about the coronavirus-marked 2020, his work in the last few years, his future plans. No one tells Ahmad’s story better than Ahmad:
“The attack of December 16, 2014. My life after that. My work as a teenage activist. The main focus of the work that I started was on youth empowerment and tackling extremism and radicalisation, in general. For youth empowerment, we started with educating young people, equipping them with tools that would turn them into change makers and action takers in their respective societies.
I spoke at many colleges, universities and conferences. Last year, I was a speaker at the World Leaders Conference in Portugal. I spoke at One Young World at the Nobel Peace Laureate Summit. Most of these summits advocate for the right of young people to speak out and to advocate for all the causes that we all stand for. These conferences are important, in particular, for the young people of Pakistan who are quite under-represented at such platforms.
As part of my campaign, I provided scholarships to many young people in the northwest region of Pakistan, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. I’ve also built a school in Lebanon for three hundred refugee children.
The journey of the last few years has been quite interesting. 2020 in particular has been a very interesting year in the sense that it limited my work to virtual in the time of coronavirus. Adapting to the situation and the new circumstances, at the beginning of the pandemic, I began an initiative called Dialogues for Change. It’s an online forum on which I invite speakers of different backgrounds specialising in human rights and youth empowerment with the purpose to connect them with my audience. The aim is for young people to get advice from experts on how they could be part of the change making process and be involved in that despite the pandemic.
I invited the managing director of One Young World. I had a session with CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation. I had a conversation, a Dialogues for Change episode, with Muzoon Al-Mellehan, a refugee rights activist. One of the special dialogues was with United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth who gave some wonderful advice to young people.
I discuss with my guests ways to engage young people, especially in countries like Pakistan, in activism and in change making processes in their societies on a smaller community level, and also on a global level.
I spoke to the European Youth Parliament in September; young people from many parts of Europe attended the event. Recently, I attended the Youth Leadership Day conference of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, the guest list of which includes world leaders alongside Nobel laureates.
Mid-August my Oxford acceptance happened. A very big day for me. I was admitted to Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford, a college previously attended by Benazir Bhutto and recently by Malala Yousafzai. It was a huge honour to be accepted to Oxford.
At Oxford, along with my studies, I’m involved with student societies, especially with the Oxford Union, which I believe is the most prestigious student society in the world. I’ve been elected to a committee of Oxford Union. I’m also involved in Oxford’s Pakistan Society.
One of the things that I love about Oxford is the intelligent and bright young people with me in the courses. You can speak to them in an academic way and have intellectual debates in a very productive way.
In my free time, I like to hang out with my friends. We work out at gym or go out for walks. I’m quite a big fan of walks, for some reason. It’s a bit cold nowadays, but in summer it’s beautiful to walk around here. I play sports. Sometimes, I play football or cricket with my friends. Recently, I’ve started rowing at Oxford. Rowing is quite an interesting addition to the sports that I play. I also play a bit of piano, self-learned. An instrument I enjoy, I find it soothing.
When people look at me that I do all this activitism stuff and study all the time, they might assume that I’m weirdly austere! But let me assure them that I’m a normal young person with normal young person activities!
My bond with my family is extremely strong. While being at university due to the high workload and other activities, it’s quite difficult to communicate much, but now I’m back home for Christmas holidays. [Laughs] It’s really good. I really enjoy being at home with my family. Our afternoon green teas, a ritual I’ve with my mum. Green tea is one thing that is incessantly drank in our home, one of the things we bond over. My little brother Omar, he’s 13, but even he enjoys it, and that too without sugar!
My [virtual] speeches at different conferences and my Dialogues for Change initiatives continue in the time of coronavirus because I think it is extremely important that we continue our work irrespective of the circumstances or the pandemic. Hopefully, next year, once the pandemic is over, much more work would be done through my foundation. Some incredible work has already been done, more of that, hopefully.
I wish to do more of my engagement work in Pakistani communities to motivate more young people to be involved in the SDGs. Involvement of more young people, I believe, would have a positive effect in Pakistan, increasing the momentum, and creating a spark for change in the Pakistani youth. Hopefully, in 2020, I’ll be focusing on providing more scholarships and advocating for the young people of Pakistan and from many other parts of the world.
My Philosophy and Theology courses are very versatile. In Philosophy, critical thinking and deep analyses of texts adds more articulation to any argument, skills that are transferable to the social work that I do. Theology is also a very important subject; nowadays many issues globally have something to do with religion. The issue of extremism is due to the misinterpretation of religion. The study of Theology, I think, can help me in my work related to tackling extremism and radicalisation.
The causes that I’m passionate about are empowerment of young people, peace, and eradication of extremism and radicalisation. It can all be captioned under youth empowerment: by educating them, by equipping them with tools that can turn them into change makers. They can, in turn, convince more people to take up activism. They can make a bigger impact. It is a dominoes effect. An empowered youth is resistant to radicalisation, and that results in decreasing the number of people being radicalised. This is something that I have been focusing on, especially in Pakistan. The number of the youth population of Pakistan is quite high.
I reach across the youth of different countries through my participation in conferences and through my social media. This year is mostly virtual, but my work continues.
My message to the survivors of terrorism is that when an incident happens we are usually faced with two choices. One choice is that we can just try to forget about that incident, and move on, and try to live a normal, peaceful life. But we are also given the choice that we can stand up, speak out and take action against what happened. And make sure that it never happens to anyone ever again. I chose the latter: speaking out and taking action.
I want to say to all the survivors of terrorism that they all must speak out and take action to ensure that no one else has to go through what they went through. I think this is something that is very important for all survivors of terrorism and other incidents of violence.
My message to all the young people in Pakistan is that they should try their best to be involved in different communities: start small, make a little impact in their respective communities, and build up on that. The little impact that we make collectively leads to a vaster impact. So I’d encourage everyone to please step up and start taking action.
After graduation from Oxford, I hope to continue with my campaign, and hopefully, grow it into something bigger. Engage more young people to be involved. At some point, I hope my foundation would be a global organisation that can further highlight the issues that I’m passionate about. I also hope to work with the United Nations to work for the implementation of SDGs and be involved in finding solutions for other important issues that are affecting our societies the most.
My late brother Haris, he was one year younger than me. We were best friends. And enemies [Laughs]! We used to fight a lot. Lots of arguments, sibling stuff. But at the end of the day we had a lot of love for each other. We used to take care of each other. We were almost identical in age. The fact that he is not here is just so hard because even though my other brother, thank God, survived [in the APS attack], and we are all here, Haris just cannot be replaced.
Haris was a very kind boy. I think he was probably the most soft-hearted one in our family. He would cry if a [bad] incident happened. At that time lots of incidents [of terrorism] were happening in Pakistan. In Peshawar, in the northwest region of Pakistan. Haris was very emotional about that. He was probably the most caring person I’ve ever met.
I hope that with the loss of Haris and so many others who lost their lives at APS, young people can look at these acts of terrorism and be motivated that they want to stop these sorts of attacks from happening in the future to anyone. I wish that they are motivated to ensure that they can instead become the future star that Haris could have been, his friends could have been, my friends could have been. The young of Pakistan can work towards becoming the shining stars that we were expecting the students of Army Public School to be.”
That one day
December 14, 2014
Army Public School, Peshawar
Those whose lives were cut short. Those who left us.
They are in our minds. They live in our hearts.
May Haris and all his friends and school fellows and school staff members rest in eternal love and light