We moved his mattress into our room to lay him down for the night next to our bed. Luke, our 11-year-old, had good reason to fear sleeping alone in his room. Just that morning he had lived through a terrorist attack against Murree Christian School (MCS), and we had been warned about more anti-Christian/Western attacks. His sixth-grade class had escaped by a hair’s breadth from being mown down by AK47s in the hands of young men who had gunned their entrance into the school compound just 10 hours earlier.
Luke put his head down on the pillow and I lay down on our double bed next to him. He reached up his hand to hold onto mine. His warm grasp brought sweet comfort as we prayed and chatted about the events of the day. As the evening darkness closed in on us, bringing the nightmarish day to a close, love and trust bonded us together. A short time later his breathing became deep and steady as he dropped off to sleep. With his hand still in mine, I began replaying the scenario in the cinema of my mind.
This day, Monday, August 5, 2002, dawned like any ordinary day for us. I woke up in the refreshing cool air in these beautiful Himalayan foothills, once again glad for another month away from the intense heat, dust and barren brownness of the plains which usually shaped our lives. I loved it that the school encouraged family life by having parents live nearby for the summer, giving them respite from their different areas of ministry, while their children kept going to school. Families had the benefit of living together and strengthening ties with each other and the wider missionary community. This summer in Murree, we rented a small flat in O’Spring, a compound housing about eight other Christian families. My husband, Ian, travelled backwards and forwards to his work in Balochistan, while I stayed with the children in this mountain resort town. It had its challenges, but it gave us all opportunities to refresh, connect with others and devote time to projects such as intensive language learning.
After breakfast, Luke boarded the school Coaster on its round picking up students from scattered houses around the hillside. Ian headed off to the bazaar to practice his Pushto language with a friend he had made. I prepared my Urdu literacy/Bible lesson for local mountain ladies.
In the eleven months since 9/11, security measures had hugely increased for Christians in Pakistan. We heard Islamic rhetoric against Christians/Westerners, who nationals generally perceived to be one and the same. We had to put new security measures in place. Life became more complicated as we limited activities, secured properties, hired guards, and staggered our routes, routines and meeting places. Our school, an old garrison stone church, used to be very open, fronting onto a busy mountain road, with the forest on another side. All that had changed in the last months. Even though MCS was situated on army property, we’d had to surround the three-acre campus with strong fences and high walls topped with barbed wire. People could enter the school only through two gates, now manned with security guards. They kept watch over the campus night and day. The security had come at great expense and effort, but the threat of attack was very real. Generally, the locals liked us and profited from our business, and most Muslims would not want to attack, but jihadi Islamic ideology stirred up many people. We got used to seeing guards and guns around us, and within the confines of the walls, school continued as usual.
Then what we feared might happen did happen. The morning began with thick, black monsoon clouds dumping unusually heavy rain over the area. Later we would realize what a critical role this rain played in saving lives. Because of the wet ground the teachers didn’t take their students outside for class, other than the kindergarten and sixth grade teachers. Luke’s teacher took his sixth-grade class out for a get-to-know you session. They trundled out of the compound, bought soft drinks at the shop across the road, then came back in. Manzoor, the security guard at the front gate, opened and shut the doors for them, locking them securely. Instead of sitting on the mushy ground, Luke’s class sat around the nearby picnic table. The time was just after 11.00am. No sooner had they started chatting when a couple of loud, percussive shots exploded into the air from the front gates they had just passed by. Luke’s teacher from his experience in Afghanistan, recognized the gun fire, and immediately told the children to run and follow him.
Everyone in the school heard the shots but some wondered if they were firecrackers, common this time of year when Pakistan celebrated its Independence Day. Seeing the teacher leading his students running through the campus alerted others to lock down. More gunfire reverberated through the air. Luke’s class raced past the basketball court and tore up the hill via the stairs. When they got to the top, they met Rafiq, one of the armed security guards coming to check things out. Fearing for his life, Rafiq joined the class running to their classroom. But when the teacher reminded him of his duty to guard, he turned, his face as white as a sheet, and went to confront the terrorists. Luke’s class slipped into their basement room, locked the doors, turned off the lights and squatted under their desks. Rafiq walked on into an ambush. Some of the next bullets snuffed out his life.
Throughout the school people secured their doors and took refuge to the sound of bullets peppering the walls and sniping through windows. Luke looked up at the high windows and realized he was in full view if any terrorist looked in. He had nowhere else to hide. In his vulnerable state he turned to his ultimate source of protection and started to softly sing a popular song,
My Jesus, my Saviour, Lord there is none like you.
All of my days, I want to praise the wonders of your mighty love.
Tower of refuge and strength.
A couple of other students joined in quietly. His teacher went around, put his hand on each of the children and prayed with them. All over the campus people were praying, crying, singing and comforting each other. To the beat of their terrified hearts and machine gun fire they wondered who was getting killed, what would happen next, and would they suddenly be exploded to pieces.
Using Kalashnikovs, the terrorists stalked the grounds shooting at anything that stood in their way or moved, but they saw almost no one. They looked in the dining room windows but that room looked deserted. They shot through those windows and tried to get entry by bashing in the doors, but the doors opened outwardly and had recently been reinforced. For fifteen long minutes they continued shooting and sniping.
Inside the different buildings staff phoned the police, army, friends, and relatives alerting them to the attack and asking for help. The greatest wisdom of the day turned out to be to stay inside. Those who did, kept their lives. Those who stepped out or fled faced terrible danger.
– Dorcas Denness
To be continued