I am in Kinshasa. I am in a college hall talking to a thousand young people about education. I am handed a note of what has happened just minutes before in Peshawar, Pakistan. The children stand as one. Silence. Faces fall. We are exactly 3,960 miles from London, 4,507 miles from Peshawar, but the vast distances mean little. An event – a terrorist attack, as almost always – has united the world in outrage again: 132 children dead, murdered by the Taliban in classrooms and corridors. This horrific attack, the worst school atrocity ever, was on boys and girls everywhere.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where violence has been common and often brutal, these students understood the enormity of what had just occurred a continent away. Why boys and girls? Why a school?
Mass murders in classrooms shock us because historically they have been so rare. When children were shot and killed in Columbine, Dunblane and Sandy Hook, parents and pupils across the globe mourned because no one expects, when children go to school in the morning, that they will not come home.
But in the past few years in my role as UN special envoy on global education, I have seen how schools are increasingly used as theatres of war. Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria have each experienced a thousand or more attacks on their schools and universities since 2009. In total 9,600 have come under assault. Since the Taliban’s school bus shooting of Malala Yousafzai in Swat Valley in 2012 I have had to send too many messages of condolence to families of girls and boys murdered in classrooms: most recently to Nigeria, where Boko Haram has wreaked havoc, shooting nearly 200 teachers and hundreds more pupils. The list is heartbreaking. Only yesterday, as children died in Peshawar, 15 boys and girls were blown up on a school bus in Yemen.
Schools, which should be safe havens never to be violated, even in times of war, are now terrorist targets because of the shockwaves sent out by murdering innocent children.
But nothing can surpass the horror of Tuesday’s indiscriminate killings by seven members of the Pakistan Taliban and their cowardly justification for it. Their suicidal spree of bombs and bullets was explained away, in one of the most dishonest and disgusting statements, as retaliation against army killings of Taliban fighters.
Perversely claiming they had exempted the younger pupils and targeted only the older boys because of their closer association with the army, they cynically tried to legitimise killing a 15-year-old as if it was in any way less morally abhorrent than killing a 12-year-old.
In fact, children who escaped say the militants went from one classroom to another shooting indiscriminately. One boy told reporters he had been with a group of 10 friends who tried to run away and hide. He was the only one to survive. Others told of a teacher set on fire.
Abdullah Jamal, who was shot in the leg during a first-aid class, said: “All the children had bullet wounds. All the children were bleeding.”
The Taliban want this one cowardly assault to strike so much fear into schoolchildren that no Pakistani child who sits in front of a teacher in a classroom anywhere will ever again feel safe. But it is their terrifying message that anything now goes – and that using classrooms as killing fields is not off limits – that forces us to act.
The world cannot hide from this. We must try to do something to prevent boys and girls feeling terror when doing something as basic – and as fundamental to human rights – as going to school.
This year in Nigeria I helped President Goodluck Jonathan launch a safe schools initiative designed to increase the security of pupils and teachers in their school grounds. Now it has to be expanded as quickly as possible to every country where terrorists have to be contained.
Starting with a 500-school pilot programme in its northern states, Nigeria’s initiative aims to build better school fortifications, deploy security guards and link schools to police stations by mobile telecommunications. And it will create community security groups promoting safe zones for education consisting of teachers, parents, police, community leaders and young people themselves.
We should be defining attacks on schools as crimes against humanity. Schools that already have the same legal rights under international law as hospitals should also be the subject of agreements that they never become instruments of war. We should make them as safe as the hospitals with Red Crosses on them, and the buildings and vehicles that bear the blue UN symbol.
The perpetrators of terrorist crimes against children should be made aware that murdering or abducting schoolchildren is a crime international authorities will punish. Even in the world’s most dangerous places we must establish the right of all children to schooling and make a new idea of “education without borders” a reality.
More than 20 million out-of-school children are growing up in conflict zones, whether it be on the Afghan-Pakistan border, on the fringes of Burma, or in South Sudan, and all of them are vulnerable to extremist influences and attacks.
And while we cannot end terrorism overnight, we can show our collective determination to stand up to it by making schools safe, and to never stop defending every girl and boy’s right to education – and to life.
Gordon Brown, a former British prime minister and chancellor, is member of parliament for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. He is UN special envoy for global education, and a patron of the Burma Campaign UK