PESHAWAR, Pakistan – One of the gravediggers at Peshawar’s largest graveyard has a rule. He says he never cries when he buries the dead. He’s a professional, he says.
But as the dead bodies – mostly children – started coming in from a school massacre this week that killed 148 people, he began to weep.
“I have buried bodies of the deceased of different ages, sizes, and weights,” Taj Muhammad told The Associated Press. “Those small bodies I’ve been burying since yesterday felt much heavier than any of the big ones I’ve buried before.”
Muhammad spoke during a break from the digging, as he drank green tea with one of his colleagues and his two sons who work with him in the Rahman Baba graveyard, named after a beloved Sufi poet, in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Wearing a faded shalwar kameez, a traditional dress of baggy pants and a long tunic, the 43-year-old Muhammad was covered in dust from a freshly dug grave.
The school massacre on Tuesday horrified Pakistanis across the country. The militants, wearing suicide vests, climbed over the fence into a military-run school, burst into an auditorium filled with students and opened fire. The bloodshed went on for several hours until security forces finally were able to kill the attackers. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
For hours after, the dead, wrapped in white sheets, were brought to the cemetery. In Islam, the dead are generally buried quickly, so most funerals were held Tuesday and Wednesday.
This was the worst terrorist attack in years but it was hardly the first in Peshawar, a city near the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan where militants have their strongholds.
Muhammad has buried some of the dead from those past attacks as well, like the Mina Bazaar bombing in 2009 that killed 105 people, and the Khyber Bazaar bombing, also in 2009, that killed nearly 50.
But Tuesday’s bodies were hard to take.
For the first time “I couldn’t control my tears. I cannot explain but I wept. I know it was against the rules of our profession but it was the moment to break the rules,” the father of eight children said.
Muhammed said he usually charges 2,000 to 5,000 rupees – about $20 to $50 – to dig a grave. And it is money he needs. In the past six or seven months, his income has dropped with fewer bodies to bury, a sign of the lull in violence in the city until this week.
But he didn’t charge anyone to bury the victims of Tuesday’s attack.
It was like burying his own children, he said. “How could I ask or receive money for making the grave of my own child?”
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.