Making mass murder personal: The Pakistani newspaper Dawn finds a way with '144 Stories'

In the midst of humdrum life here and entranced as we were by Lady Gaga’s stirring rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the opening of the Super Bowl, we often forget how the other half lives many time zones away.

A recent piece in the Los Angeles Times reminded us of a place where schools are a death trap and the martyrs tend to be in their teens.

What Malala Yousafzai went through in 2012 is something other kids are still living through. Every now and then, this madness makes headlines.

On Jan. 20, the Taliban did a raid at a university in Charsadda, northwest Pakistan, that left 21 people, mostly students, dead. It’s hard to imagine the depth of insanity that propels grown men to mow down defenseless girls and boys, but that’s life today in that tense, often splintered, Islamic republic.

The Times reminded us that the security crisis in Pakistan is not going away and how schools and universities are “soft targets” for the Taliban, which strikes at will.

So, how do you keep reporting on a place where massacre follows massacre?

The killings in Charsadda were not the worst of it. On Dec. 16, 2014, the Taliban killed 144 students at an army-run school in Peshawar. We’re talking about gunning down 6-year-olds. The English-language Pakistani paper Dawn found a way to bring home the horrors and to make mass murder personal.

How do you make readers care? Writing for IJNet, the International Journalists Network, Sherry Ricchiardi tells how they did it:

In December,, the online version of the Pakistani newspaper, launched a groundbreaking project that addresses that very concern.
The project, titled 144 Stories, serves as a virtual memorial to the lives lost on Dec. 16, 2014, when Taliban gunmen attacked a public school in Peshawar. When the rampage ended, 144 were dead -- most of them schoolchildren. News reports called it the deadliest Taliban attack in Pakistan’s history.
I clicked on the link and was immediately transfixed. The sweet, innocent faces of children filled the computer screen. 144 Stories provides vignettes capturing some aspect of each child’s life —what made them happy? What did they aspire to be? What dreams did they hold?
“We wanted to look past the death toll and put faces to the story,” wrote Atika Rehman, lead editor for the six-month initiative. “Our reporters worked tirelessly to reach out to the relatives and teachers of the 144 students and staff members who were killed. They collected photos and anecdotes to document lives cut mercilessly short.”
During the reporting process, “We wept and prayed,” Rehman wrote. “And we vowed never to forget.”

The article goes on to describe how a team of reporters and graphic artists put "144 Stories" together with the help of interviews, photographs and Google Slides. The piece continues:

The reporting for 144 Stories is stellar and, at times, heartbreaking. Readers learn about eighth-grader Uzair Ali, who saw the attackers and leapt to shield his friends by lying on top of them. He was shot 13 times and killed, but he managed to save his companions.
14-year-old Fahad Hussain opened a door so his friends could run out. He stayed behind to make sure everyone was evacuated. The killers gunned him down.
First-grader Khaula Bibi was the youngest victim and the only female. The 6-year-old was killed on her very first day of school. Relatives noted that even at her young age, Khaula championed the right of girls to be educated.

I have read Dawn before and it's an immensely helpful way to get the news about a part of the world that's too dangerous for most Americans to visit. This is a country for which Kashmir is very much an issue even though less than one in a million Americans would recall why Pakistan and India are still fighting over the place.

The "144 Stories" project is beautifully done, reminiscent of "Portraits of Grief," the New York Times' gargantuan task to chronicle all those who died on Sept. 11 in New York.

In "144 Stories," the faces and bios of the dead are divided by age. The youngest group is in the "under 13" category. Khaula, whose photo appears with this article, is the lone person in that category. The project also shows a map of the school grounds and vignettes of the survivors.

If you want to see a compelling portrayal of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, this is it. Dawn hasn't let things rest with their massive project. They are continuing to editorialize on the need of the country's government to do something effective to stop more school killings.

Keep an eye on Its journalists have the unenviable task of reporting on one of the world's powder kegs and their homeland was named the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2014.

Pakistan slid down in the listings in 2015 because worse stuff happened in India, Bangladesh and France. But it's not a place of First Amendment rights and sunshine laws. And any publication that calls attention to the individual dead, whose bodies were left on their school grounds like so many cut flowers, deserves a read.

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