OTTAWA – The burned-out buildings dotted the landscape of Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled Swat Valley as veteran Canadian aid worker David Morley drove the bumpy roads with a local aid worker more than three years ago.
“This used to be a boys’ school, that used to be a girls’ school, that used to be a clinic,” Morley recalled his Pakistani colleague telling him.
“What’s he going to be thinking today?”
Morley, the head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Canada, did not mince words Tuesday as news emerged of the suicide attack that killed at least 141 people — the vast majority of them children — at a school in Peshawar, the Pakistani city abutting the Khyber Pass leading to Afghanistan.
“This is a crime against humanity and it’s against civilized norms because we want to nurture and care for our children,” Morley said in an interview.
“We want them to learn and educate, and this is heinous act against all of those norms.”
The attack sparked similar condemnation in Canada and abroad. Many viewed it as a new low in the behaviour of Taliban terrorists, who took responsibility for the attack.
Students ranging from Grade 1 through Grade 10 accounted for most of the dead. They were killed along with their seven attackers, all of whom were wearing explosive suicide vests. Another 121 students and three staff members were injured.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his condolences to the families of the victims. It’s hard enough to understand the motives that underlie a terrorist attack, he said, but even more so when the targets are innocent children.
“It’s hard for any of us, as rational and compassionate people, to understand terrorism — to understand why people would want, in the name of some political cause, to simply terrorize, hurt kill innocent people, whole sections of society,” Harper told a news conference in Quebec City.
“But I think it is beyond our comprehension why somebody would target children. As a father, your heart just breaks when you see that kind of thing.”
Harper also acknowledged the attack Monday in Australia, where three people — including the lone gunman, a self-styled cleric with jihadist sympathies — died after a 16-hour hostage-taking at a cafe in Sydney.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he was sickened by the news of the Peshawar attack, and urged Pakistanis to draw strength from one of their own, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
The teenager survived being shot in the head by gunmen two years ago while boarding a bust to school in Pakistan’s Swat region, and has become a symbol of defiance to terrorists who try to prevent children from going to school.
“In the moments that follow such harrowing tragedy, we hope that the resolve and the dignity of innocent Pakistani people will see more children like Malala Yousafzai emerge to carry the torch forward for more education, free from violence or intimidation,” Baird said in a statement.
“There is no more cowardly act than attacking innocent children, and nothing more sinister than brutally murdering them while at school.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Tuesday’s attack makes Yousafzai’s work “more vital than ever.”
For long-time Canadian aid workers who have witnessed decades of suffering first-hand, Tuesday’s attack marked a new low.
“What we all have to do is refrain from immediately responding in anger and violence because that just feeds into it, that makes it a spiral,” said Morley, of UNICEF, whose career started 35 years ago working with street children in Central America.
“But right now is time for mourning, for those poor children and their families.”
Dave Toycen, the head of World Vision Canada, said violence against children leaves a lasting impact on survivors, causing mental health problems that prevent them from learning and leading productive lives.
“Children should be safe in places where they live and learn. Schools should not be battlegrounds.”
As he was about to open a session of the United Nations Security Council, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the “rank cowardice” of the attack, and said schools should be safe places for learning.
“Getting an education is every child’s right,” said Ban. “Going to school should not have to be an act of bravery.”
Yousafzai, who came to embody that bravery, expressed heartbreak and defiance on Tuesday in a statement she issued on social media.
“I condemn these atrocious and cowardly acts and stand united with the government and armed forces of Pakistan whose efforts so far to address this horrific event are commendable,” she said.
“I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated.”
Yousafzai has been given honorary Canadian citizenship, which Harper was to have bestowed on her in October during a ceremony in Toronto.
It was cancelled, however, because that was the day another lone gunman shot and killed a soldier standing guard at the National War Memorial before storming Parliament Hill, where he was shot to death by security guards.