Luke stirred in his sleep, but thankfully showed no signs of distress. I relished the warmth of his hand, grateful again that the terrorists hadn’t taken him out, nor the many others they targeted. He continued to sleep setting me free to continue recalling the attack, less than 12 hours earlier. How did it end?
Suddenly one of the terrorists gave a loud yell. People wondered what it might mean. The firing stopped abruptly. What happened to the terrorists? Had they gone into empty rooms to launch a second offensive? One teacher saw a couple of them scale the fence and flee into the forest. Did they plan to attack again? No one knew. Staff phoned each other sharing information. Students stayed in their places while some faculty members searched every room. When all seemed secure another gunshot was heard – someone’s gun had gone off accidentally. An hour after the shout, the administration declared the school site secure, giving the all-clear. The army and police arrived. The children stayed inside until the victims could be taken care of and the worst of the glass and blood cleaned up.
While all this was going on many of us parents carried on with normal business on the other side of the mountain. We heard sirens screaming as ambulances brought victims to the hospital. News spread like wildfire. Ian heard about the attack about 12:30pm while in the bazaar. He headed straight for school, finding a reluctant taxi driver who charged three times the normal fare and terminated the ride 100 metres before the school. The army had just arrived and allowed him entry telling him all the children were safe.
The director had called everyone together into the auditorium. Weeping and frightened students, staff and residents keenly looked to see who was present or missing! Relief washed over Ian as he saw Luke – alive and well. The director debriefed everyone: Terrorists had entered the school compound by the main gate. It seemed six people had been killed and three people sustained injuries. The dead and wounded had all been taken to hospital. No terrorists were on the property, all had escaped. The army and police would carry out investigations. Parents had been notified. Children were to go home. All classes were suspended. People living in hostel accommodation on the campus could remain. Others on the hillside could move in if they wanted more safety. People should stay indoors. With that, Ian and Luke set off for home, walking along the road till they found a van that brought them the rest of the way.
News of the attack rocked the community with terror, shock and grief. Much uncertainty prevailed knowing that terrorists were on the loose. Helicopters circled overhead as the army and police looked for suspicious persons. Hundreds of Pakistani holidaymakers abandoned Murree. Schools and shops closed. Hotels emptied out. People drew their curtains and few ventured onto the streets. An eerie, ghost-town atmosphere enveloped us.
Back at the school they found a note on the ground that gave the name of the attacking terrorist group, the reason for the attack: in retaliation for crimes committed against Afghanistan, Kashmir and Palestine, and a warning that more attacks would surely follow. But what sent shivers down our spine came with the discovery of all the ammunition the terrorists discarded in the forest when they fled: a sports bag laden with many rounds of bullets, daggers, 15 Kalashnikovs, grenades, pistols and nine kilos of explosives – enough to devastate the whole campus and more.
The government stationed extra security guards on foreigners’ compounds. Still feeling vulnerable, we sought the support of each other. In our compound and by phone we shared stories and shed many tears. The deaths of the six locals needed to occupy our thinking. People mourned in their houses, but needed to get out to comfort those who lost loved ones. Burials normally are carried out within 24 hours of death and custom mandates that friends and family bring condolences straight away. How could we as white foreign Christians go to the funerals? Would we be walking targets on the street? Would our presence invite terrorists to strike again? Would terrorists attack a funeral seeing many Christians grouped together? The school had advised people to stay out of sight.
Most of the parents didn’t know the six men, but they served our school and had given their lives to protect us. Two of the victims belonged to the local pastor’s extended family, whom Ian and I did know. Ian decided to take courage. He walked the kilometre along quiet streets, finally arriving at their compound, joining the mourners –all locals except for one other foreigner. His going turned out to be a wise decision. The locals badly needed to see that foreigners didn’t just think about themselves but appreciated them, caring enough to grieve with them whether terrorists took advantage of them or not.
Now, after this terrible day, while lying beside Luke, my heart overflowed with gratitude for Luke’s life and the way MCS had handled the situation: keeping people calm, informing us, caring for the victims, and shielding the children from most of the horror. I felt like hunted prey, vulnerable because of skin colour and religion. What did the future hold? How long would Islamic terrorism go on? Should we stay in Pakistan or find a safer place? What effect would this have on us all?
I looked at him sleeping, his hand still in mine. But now his grip had relaxed and my grip held him. I loved his reaching out to me, needing comfort and strength. The imagery struck me as I realized that when anyone puts their faith and trust in Jesus they reach up their hand to him. We connect with him, giving him our anxieties and fears. As we continue to trust he gives comfort and strength. But in reality, our hand often grows weak, our grip falters and we can’t hang on anymore. In these times God holds onto us with his power and strength – our good, absolutely trustworthy Heavenly Father who never sleeps. This verse in the Bible spoke to our situation:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, I will also help you,
I will also uphold you with My righteous right hand
I reflected on the words Luke sang during the attack, words that illustrated reaching out his hand to the one he trusted supremely as his own God: “My Jesus, my Saviour, Lord there is none like you. My comfort, my shelter, tower of refuge and strength…” Luke had a relationship with God, not just with a set of teachings or principles. God had been a tower of refuge and strength for him, and helped him through an evil, vicious attack.
God held Luke’s hand as he held ours. We had proved God’s sustaining power many times as we sought to follow him – particularly over those previous 17 years working in Pakistan. We didn’t have an easy life, but we found that as we stuck to following him, he capably held us steady, helping us overcome many difficulties – all in preparation to live with him in eternity. In the days and weeks ahead, we would hear many more experiences that made us realize God’s awesome, powerful, ‘righteous right hand’.
Dr Ian and Mrs Dorcas Denness served for many decades in Pakistan