Aitzaz Hasan — the lad who would be a hero

CHILDREN can be brave, reckless in their pursuits. Not given to contemplating the consequences of their actions, they are not stalled by the possibility of danger. The closest we are to being immortal is when we are boys and girls. Even when death stares them in the face, children are not paralysed by the fear of its finality.

Perhaps Aitzaz Hasan Bangash didn’t think of what it means to confront a suicide bomber, didn’t know the meaning of something as irrevocable as death. Perhaps he did and that didn’t stop him.

Children also put a brave face on things. They will make light of life’s horrors, appearing valiant even as adults crumble and fall apart with every blow life deals them.

You only have to look at the stone-faced survivors of the Peshawar school attack last month to know that. The matter-of-fact, detached enactment of their grisly ordeal in quiet voices. Something inside them had curdled, something had hardened.

From the hospital beds where they lay mummified in bandages, they told stories of little heroes whose names the nation knows not — a nameless boy coming out of school alive and safe, only to go running back to rescue his kid brother trapped inside. The brothers’ bullet-riddled bodies were found later.

Unprepared, these were kids to whom death came unannounced. To Aitzaz, the boy who stopped a suicide bomber from attacking the morning assembly on this day a year ago, death was a real possibility, however.

He and other boys in Ibrahimzai village contemplated it — much like the grown-ups — as it lurked grim-faced and determined, waiting for a chance to strike. In the villages along the Kohat-Hangu road where sectarian violence and militancy is a fact of life, tragedies like the Sunday bombing of football ground are a fact of life; have been happening for decades now. They burn short and bright, like the young lives they extinguish, on our TV screens as breaking news, to be forgotten all too soon.

In these parts, youths are asked to volunteer to protect their villages. In these parts, they don’t look up to the state anymore to protect them. There were threats to school, his and others. There still are.

Perhaps, the large-scale murder of a people hardened Aitzaz, a teenager, to the greatest sacrifice life can ask of a man.

The boy was too big for a bomb, so went the joke among his friends. “There is little that a bomb can do to hurt you,” they would tease him. They talked about suicide bombers all the time, given that it was a clear and present danger: how they would respond if they ever found themselves confronting one?

The last time they talked about it was two days before Aitzaz died, sitting up there on the hill where the school is, the one he died protecting, the one now named after him. Given his girth, they told him, he wouldn’t be able to run away to save his life.

But life wasn’t all dark humour to come to terms with a grim reality. There were frequent trips to mountains for hunting and picnics. Unable to play games — he loved cricket and football, watching inter-village tournaments from the periphery — Aitzaz applied his youthful energies to social work.

“Academically poor, socially rich,” is how Tahir Ali, the school principal, describes Aitzaz. He has a picture of the boy next to Jinnah’s on the wall of his office. “Like Malala revolutionised the youth’s outlook on female education, Aitzaz has instilled in them a spirit of sacrifice.”

He was an average student who wanted to join the army. When he would go to the mountains for hunting, he would wear military fatigues. He thought people were in awe of the army and, like all teenagers, he wanted to impress his peers with his uniform and his gun.

“You can’t explain why he did what he did but there were signs,” says his teacher Mustaghees-ul-Hassan, who still worries about the safety of the children and the school. “For a kid of class nine, he was six feet tall and built like a tank. But most of all, it was the timing: he just happened to be there when the suicide bomber came along.”

Other kids were there too. And they chose to run when they saw the bomber — not so much to save themselves as to warn the school administration that a suicide bomber was heading towards the school.

Aitzaz, he chose to stand his ground.

Perhaps he was a teenager who, living with violence in the region, grew up too soon — a boy who felt responsible for the security of his village, his school and community. Maybe he was brave in the way all children are, a little reckless. Or maybe he was just a little afraid but mindful of the fact that his friends teased him about running away in the face of threat and it was his chance to prove them wrong.

Who knows why Aitzaz did what he did that winter morning when he told the boys running away from the bomber to let him deal with him. What we do know is that he saved nearly 700 boys in the morning assembly that day.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2015

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