“I attended funerals from 9pm to 5am the following morning,” shares Aakif Azeem. “I could only attend nine funerals of my classmates even though more than 15 boys died from my class alone. I came home around 5.30am, but couldn’t fall asleep. My best friend Zain Iqbal’s funeral was at 11am in the morning. We used to go to school together every day because he lived near my house. Before his funeral, I went to his house following my usual route and stood in the corridor where we used to hang out together all the time. I didn’t have the courage to see his body. I couldn’t see his face for the last time. I didn’t know how to face him.
“Zain’s mother is a teacher in my school and she sees Zain in me now,” shares Aakif. “I can see her in the corridors looking at me. Even in the examination hall she watches me from a hidden place because she sees her son in me. I was invited to Zain’s sister’s wedding to take his place. I was given his clothes and everyone was calling me Zain. Everyone gave me protocol and treated me like Zain in their family. I went to Zain’s grave and promised him that I wouldn’t cry at the wedding,” he says. “But it was really painful.”
I had promised to write this story in Aakif’s words without inserting my own emotions or sermonising, but I can no longer control my feelings at this point. Aakif says everyone tells him the whole country stands behind him, what else do you want? But he argues that the country focused on the physical wounds of the dead and wounded, while the wounds in his day-to-day life remain invisible. Instead of trying to brush their pain under the carpet, we need to find ways to give their stories a voice.
“I lost four friends I had been studying with since grade four on December 16, 2014,” says Aakif, his voice cracking with emotions. “Zain and I had been best friends since childhood. We were two brothers from two different mothers. We were a group of four boys and now I’m the only surviving one. I miss them a lot emotionally. But I know they’ll get pained if they see me cry. I need to be strong and smile for them. They’re at some place better now, that’s what I keep reminding myself. My life now is about their dreams and proving to the world what real friendship is about. I’ll continue to miss them for the rest of my life.
“I sit alone and contemplate about what happened,” shares Aakif. “I have a lot of things and curiosity on my mind. Why me? Why did my life turn upside down and why did I survive? But life continues no matter what happens. Everyone asks me to move on. Our college opened again in January. We had board exams coming up soon but I struggled to concentrate and study again. There was a very moving moment during our chemistry exam. Usually, Zain would always sit behind me while taking exams. So I asked him during my board exam, ‘Zain yaar iss sawal ka jawab kia hai’ and the guy behind me said, Zain isn’t here. Both of us started crying in the examination hall. Only six boys from our class survived the attack. But our grades fell so dramatically after the attack that only two of us have been able to secure admission to a university.
“Somehow through our darkest moments,” he shares, “you find the light within yourself. I look at some boys who get so crazy about a girl that they say they’ll commit suicide if they don’t get her. But after everything I’ve gone through, I’ve realised that I have a higher purpose. I’m determined to use my voice to make sure Pakistan never forgets my friends.”
This is the second in a three-part series on Aakif’s story in his words. The first part appeared yesterday and the third part of his story will appear tomorrow in this space. Extraordinary Pakistanis seeks to find and share inspirational stories about everyday Pakistani heroes (if you know someone who should be profiled, send us a Tweet @Mbilallakhani). If we don’t share these stories about Pakistan, no one else will.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2015.