No time for tears

Publié: 16 décembre 2015 15:42 CET

A personal account of working through a gruesome disaster

By Majda Shabbir, IFRC

My eyes were glued to the television screen. Despite the urgency of the situation, I could not focus on what I needed to do. This was not the first time I had to send frequent situation updates, nor was it the first act of terror being hammered through the media channels. But I felt an extreme unease. For the first time, I was getting emotionally involved in a disaster situation which had caught the attention of the global media and I, heading the communications unit at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Pakistan, was responsible for responding to constant interview and information requests.

This was the bloody day of 16 December 2014, the day every Pakistani heart ached regardless of colour, race or religion. One hundred and forty-four innocent schoolchildren were brutally murdered within the boundary of their school in Peshawar and we all watched in horror as the gory scenes unfolded.

In times of human suffering, be it natural or manmade, news reporters develop the ability to communicate disturbing information while remaining emotionally detached in order to remain focused on their job. My experience as a desk editor with a major English daily newspaper for almost four years taught me to be a bit emotionless while at work. Tight deadlines to complete the copy layout and printing before midnight didn’t allow us much time for contemplation on the news of the day. Being based in Pakistan had its tastes of horror, as almost every other week we experienced devastating acts of terror, many of them in Islamabad, and those losing their lives in these accounts became mere numbers.

But on 16 December, I couldn’t bring myself to see those killed as just numbers. My heart was bursting with pain, more so because my nephew, who I have helped raise as my own, is the same age as those killed in the school massacre. As any other parent, I could see him in every child that lost his life that day, wondering constantly about the unexplainable plight of the unfortunate parents.

I continued to swallow my tears to meet the urgent requests pouring in. I received dozens of calls that evening, asking for more in-depth information, as Pakistan Red Crescent ambulances had been given access to the school to give first aid to the injured students. I was expected to connect the media with a Pakistan Red Crescent eye witness to narrate the details of the whole disaster.

But the chaos at the scene of the disaster was another challenge. My Red Crescent colleagues were also in shock, as they provided first aid to the injured and managed to transport some of them to the hospitals. From 3pm till after midnight, I continuously found myself on the phone or responding to emails, all the while experiencing an episodic trance, trying my best to conceal the horror and disbelief that refused to go away. Finally, at 2 o’clock in the morning, I settled down and had the chance to face my anguish. I cried my heart out. I hadn’t cried in years with such intense pain. The innocent faces of those children were too beautiful to be ignored. The pain continues even after a year. Such a day should never be experienced again.