Aitizaz Hassan Bangash has taught the world the intensity of love – love that is ready to sacrifice a life little lived to ensure friends, peers and teachers keep living. He gave his life for hundreds of children and his family has vowed to help hundreds more. Aitizaz’s father Mujahid Ali has decided to set [...]


Sunday Times 2

The boy who won a million hearts

17-year-old Aitizaz Hassan Bangash died preventing a suicide bomber from entering his school

Aitizaz Hassan Bangash has taught the world the intensity of love – love that is ready to sacrifice a life little lived to ensure friends, peers and teachers keep living. He gave his life for hundreds of children and his family has vowed to help hundreds more.

Aitizaz’s father Mujahid Ali has decided to set up a welfare trust in memory of his 17-year-old son, who prevented an attack on his school in Pakistan’s Hangu district.

It was on January 6 that this ordinary boy decided he was meant to do extraordinary things. That Monday morning Aitizaz prevented a suicide bomber, who was dressed in a school uniform, from approaching his school. Another student had spotted the man’s detonator and suicide vest and yelled out a warning to Aitizaz. But instead of stepping back or running away, this teenage boy held the bomber who then detonated his vest killing them both, according to the incident narrated by two other students and the principal, who were outside the school premises at the time.

A vigil in Pakistan honours Aitzaz Hassan (photo on right), who was killed Jan. 6 after tackling a suicide bomber who was about to enter his school. The other photo shows Pakistani policeman Superintendent Chaudhry Aslam, who was killed in a separate bomb attack in January (REUTERS)

Police said the target of the suicide bomber was the morning assembly. “There were nearly 350 students in Government High School Ibrahimzai at that time,” said Principal Lal Baz. The school, which is the only one in the village, has been named after Aitizaz.

Mujahid and his family are now determined to improve the conditions of the village and their boy’s school, which to date lacks basic furniture and sufficient teaching staff. The trust in Aitizaz’s name will be dedicated to educating children from the low-income, little developed area that borders Pakistan’s tribal region.

The provincial government has also announced that they would give Government High School Ibrahimzai the status of a college, which will also be the first one in the area.

Aitizaz’s school has been as brave as the boy who gave his life for it. The school did not close for a day following the attack. Instead, students and teachers would gather in the school’s courtyard for prayers and recitation of the Quran for the fallen hero.

“He has given Ibrahimzai a new standing. No one knew where Ibrahimzai was, now it’s known as the village of the hero. Aitizaz has shown the world that we are not terrorists; that we fight terrorism,” said his cousin Mudassir Ali Bangash. “It still amazes me what he did. It’s human instinct to run away, but he gave up his life to save other people.”

In recognition of his services, the International Human Rights Commission presented the family with the International Bravery Award. It is also expected that January 6 may be marked as the Global Day against Terrorism.

So who was this boy who millions have learned to love? He wasn’t a star student, he would pass every class with average grades and was a fan of WWE and action movies. His time after school was usually divided between friends, his pet pheasants and partridges, and playing football in the neighbourhood.

“Every time I would be travelling to Ibrahimzai I would call Aitizaz. He would be waiting for me at the bus stand hours before I had to arrive. He was a people person, a carefree, cheerful child,” Mudassir added. Aitizaz’s father, a migrant worker who is employed as a driver in the UAE, returned to the village after hearing about his son’s death. Mujahid says he has not returned home to mourn the death of his son but to celebrate his life. “I never thought my son would die such a great death,” he said. “My son made his mother cry, but saved hundreds of mothers from crying,” he told Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune.

On February 9, more than 5,000 people visited Aitizaz’s house for his ‘chehlum’, a day meant to mark nearly 40 days to a person’s death. Teachers, schoolmates, neighbours and residents across the district showed up to share their grief and express their love and gratitude. Mujahid recalled with pride how the walls of almost every house and shop in Ibrahimzai had posters paying homage to his son. “Pamphlets were distributed in the streets to inform people about his chehlum.”

It’s been nearly seven weeks since he died, but the family still has visitors coming in every day to offer their condolences. His mother deals with the loss of her youngest child by focusing not on what she has lost but on how many children her son saved, Mujahid said, adding “She tells people to congratulate her on her son’s martyrdom.” Aitizaz’s brother and two sisters share the same spirit of pride.
January 6 was the first time a school was targeted in a suicide bombing in Pakistan, opening another barbaric and more ruthless front in the ongoing sectarian conflict. The attack was claimed by banned extremist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, responsible for multiple attacks and killings of Shia Muslims in the country. Ibrahimzai is a predominantly Shia area, while Hangu district has a history of sectarian violence that dates back to over three decades.

The family is very cautious to ensure the incident does not add to sectarian differences. His father, almost proudly, says “There were more Sunni mourners at our house than Shias.”

Students in Government High School Ibrahimzai say no one can snatch their right to education, but they may just be losing this battle. As friends and teachers gathered for Aitizaz’s chehlum, in another part of Hangu three teachers were killed in a targeted attack. Two of these teachers were Shia and one was their Sunni friend, who had been warned not to socialize with the Shia teachers. Within a week of this attack, another Shia primary school teacher was shot and injured in the district. And a day after this incident, a school was blown up.

The first suicide attack targeting a school was hoped to be a turning point in Pakistan’s public and political narrative on the war in the country, but it wasn’t. So should have been October 9, 2012 when Malala Yousafzai was attacked, in the first and only targeted terrorist assault on a child. But the discourse did not change. In fact, days after the Hangu attack, a committee was set up to “negotiate” with the Taliban on the more than decade-long war.

“People compare the sacrifices of Aitizaz and Malala, but what kind of competition is this where our children keep dying?” said Malala’s father Ziaduddin Yousafzai. The words sacrifice, martyrdom and resilience are some of the most exploited terms in Pakistan today. While they may be consoling for many, the loss remains irreparable.

The present war and its glamorization of sacrifice have perhaps snatched away a nation’s right to grieve. And so instead of allowing itself the space to mourn, the country tells itself comfortable lies about death, which begin and end with the word ‘hero’. As Pakistan becomes a country where children’s sacrifices are celebrated, some pertinent questions remain unanswered: Why must its children be martyrs? When is it time to collectively say enough?

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