But by the time the men opened up with automatic weapons fire, the kids were back in the relative safety of the classroom. Teachers rushed around locking doors while students cowered under their desks or tried to hide in the library or in toilet stalls. Outside, five security guards returned fire, gradually driving the assailants to the far end of the campus. Finally, the gunmen fled over a rear wall. The attack barely lasted 15 minutes but felt like an eternity for those in the line of fire. Two school guards died. Also slain were the school receptionist and a cook, carpenter, and bystander who heard the ruckus, came to investigate, and paid for this effrontery with their lives. For the missionary community it was nothing less than a miracle that the children and teachers escaped unharmed.
The attack came on Aug. 5, 2002. When I heard the news, my first thought was: “How could such a thing happen in Murree?” From my years in Pakistan I knew that riots, bombings, and bloodshed were commonplace. But in Murree? The Himalaya hill stations always seemed immune from the mayhem that regularly struck other parts of Pakistan.
Sure, in winter, a heavy snowfall might collapse a roof or block the main road for days at a time, and in summer, a cinder block house might slip down the mountain during torrential monsoon rains. Apart from heavy weather, the main risk in the Murree Hills was a head-on collision on the narrow winding roads. Today, the five deadly sins of the Pakistani road remain bald tires, slick surfaces, ancient cars, hashish, and the fatalism of men who drive too fast, believing their lives are in God’s hands.
Murree is 40 miles to the northeast of Islamabad and about 4,000 feet higher in altitude than the capital. First you cross the Potwar Plateau—an arid expanse stretching from the Indus river to the Jhelum. Then the climb begins, at first gradual. At the village of Tret the first pine trees appear. The last 15 miles are straight up, except for switchbacks. As you climb, the lowland heat evaporates and the air becomes fresh with the fragrance of Himalayan honeysuckle and wild rose. Alpine meadow gives way to stands of spruce and pine.
Founded by the British in 1851, Murree was the Punjab summer capital for a quarter century before Shimla. Today, with its parks, churches, schools, and clubs, Murree retains a bit of its colonial heritage. Day-tripping Pakistani families from Rawalpindi and Islamabad promenade on the Mall, fill the teahouses, and admire the spectacular views across the Jhelum into the Vale of Kashmir.
Murree may be the most popular hill station, but Nathiagali is the most picturesque. There are stunning views into Kashmir, Kaghan, Kohistan, and the 26,000-ft high Nanga Parbat (“Naked Mountain”) with one wall so steep that snow refuses to stick. The British tried to create a little England in Nathiagali with timbered St. Mathew’s Church, Government House, and many rest houses. Nearby is the alpine chairlift at Ayubia, part of a tourist complex at Changlagali that never quite got off the ground.
Abbottabad is not as high as Nathiagali, but is a pleasant tourist town with its bungalows, club, church, cemetery, gardens, and playing fields for polo, football, and hockey. Abbottabad is the home of Pakistan’s military academy that offers the cadet, in the words of British historian Arnold Toynbee, “an unconscious education in the appreciation of beauty, as well as a deliberate one in the art of war.”
I sometimes stayed at a rustic hotel with a nine-hole golf course a little outside Murree and on a walk one day I chanced upon the Murree Christian School. Of course, in the ’70s there were no locked gates or security guards to contend with. I just walked onto the campus and looked around.
Compared with the posh International School of Islamabad that catered to diplomats and well-connected Pakistanis in the capital, the Murree school was decidedly low key, almost like a camp, except for an imposing stone church with stained-glass windows which dominates the campus. Students lived in a boarding hostel next to the school. Besides missionaries, the school’s value-based education appealed to some frustrated parents fed up with the permissiveness of other schools. At the time of the attack, 20 nationalities (including 30 Americans) were represented in the K-12 school.
Thanks to the efforts of Osama bin Laden, countries like Pakistan have disappeared from the travel pages of the world’s newspapers. Pakistan’s northern areas of Swat, Chitral, and Gilgit, once pristine playgrounds for trekkers, climbers, and adventurers, are now shunned by foreign tourists, not surprisingly, given the travel warnings that appear in bold print in the guide books. The hill stations are less affected by the tourism meltdown because they appeal more to local residents seeking a weekend escape or a short break from the grind. Their forte is the hike or trail ride, not overnight trekking. Once we met an expatriate couple from Karachi who spent two months in the Murree Hills because they couldn’t afford to return to England for their “long leave,” but that’s the exception.
One calamity or another always seemed to strike lowland Pakistan when we were up in the Murree Hills. On our first trip to Murree, bombs ripped through an Islamabad movie theater and restaurant complex after hours. Then a bomb struck the American Center in Peshawar. One pleasant weekend at Nathiagali we heard a PIA Boeing 707 had been bombed in a hangar at the Islamabad airport. Another time, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq toppled Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup that turned Pakistan into an Islamic Republic. Flogging of thieves and stoning of adulterers replaced horseracing and dancing as public entertainment. Booze was banned.
These episodes of the 1970s almost seem quaint compared with the lethal terrorism of our own age. Since 9/11 and the U.S. strikes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, militant groups have launched a series of vicious attacks against Christian targets in Pakistan. The first was the murder of 16 worshippers in St. Dominic’s church in the southern Punjab city of Bahawalpur (October 28, 2001). Then a grenade attack at the Protestant International Church in Islamabad killed five and injured 41 (March 17, 2002). A Church of Pakistan official in Karachi was tied to his chair and injected with poison (May 22, 2002). Four days after the attack in Murree, terrorists killed four Pakistani nurses at the eye hospital at Taxila as they were leaving a morning prayer service (Aug. 9, 2002). An attack on the Institute for Peace and Justice, a Christian charity in Karachi, killed seven (Sept. 25, 2002). A popular Roman Catholic priest was gunned down in eastern Pakistan (July 5, 2003).
But Muslims have suffered as well. On July 4, 2003, a suicide bombing of a packed Muslim Shia mosque in Quetta near the Afghan border killed 53 during Friday prayers. And at Murree, all six slain were Pakistani, including four Muslims. It’s not hard to imagine what would have happened to the missionary kids if the Muslim security guard hadn’t protected them.
The terrorists don’t care that these kids’ parents are working in hospitals, refugee camps, and literacy programs to help some of the poorest and neediest people of Pakistan. Their children are still fair game for murder. A cache of grenades, daggers, rifles, and ammunition clips stashed over the rear fence at the school show that the attackers had a much bigger bloodbath in mind. With this in mind, school management closed the Murree campus and relocated to Thailand.
eHow long the relocation will last is still anybody’s guess. In the year since the Murree attack, radical Islam’s hatred of the West hasn’t abated. If anything, the occupation of Iraq and continued instability next door in Afghanistan have added fuel to the fire. Some missionary families have left Pakistan but most remain, determined to fulfill their mission.
So, for the Murree Christian School community, the uncertainty continues. Many of the school’s younger kids are being home-schooled in Pakistan, while high schoolers will make the trek to Thailand for one more year.
It’s not clear when, if ever, children’s voices will again echo throughout the hillside campus. One fact though does seem clear: the Murree Hills—once an oasis of beauty and tranquility—can be as deadly as any other part of Pakistan.
Gerald Zarr is a consultant on international development and a freelance writer.