Abdullah — A School-Friend I Lost to ISIS

Muhammad Abdullah Cheema -- a man I hated with all my heart throughout the first year of our acquaintance, which little did I know was to turn into a short, heart-breakingly memorable friendship.

Abdullah was my dorm-commander, a year senior to me his designation made him responsible to keep a disciplinary check on our entry. He was the strictest of them all -- physically punishing us till late at night, even till 2AM, throughout the scorching summer afternoons, my remorse never saw him as more than a dorm-commander (and understandably so). It was only after a year when I myself got promoted and became a dorm commander is when I realised being a strict disciplinarian was the only way to work within that system of a cadet college.


And that's when my reflection allowed me to remember all the small events and bits of his personality that I was blinded to. Abdullah was very fond of Urdu literature, after we all went to bed at lights out, he'd sneak out to read his favorite Urdu mysticism novels -- Ashfaq Ahmed and Mumtaz Mufti were his favorites, always found scattered around his table. After I entered my second year of schooling, an unlikely bond of friendship started to form over our mutual love of literature and mysticism. We'd talk endlessly about Sufism, metaphysics, divinity and so on. After a year of very close brotherly companionship, events unfolded that little did we both know were going to turn our entire lives upside down.


One random day, Abdullah fell sick and was admitted at the school's hospital. I went there with his favorite snacks to cheer him up. Soon after I left, as narrated by him -- a couple of other friends of his walked in and they all thought of watching a movie on the hospital's common room. It was late at night by then and the common room was closed. So being the rowdy kids that we all were, he and his friends ended up picking the lock to the common room and sneaked inside, without alerting the hospital attendant. Once inside, Abdullah carefully pulled out a USB that had an SRK movie downloaded into it and plugged it in. Now, here I must inform you all that keeping an unregistered USB drive was a big illegal offence in our school, and could lead you to get fined for more than 20,000 ruppees. Halfway through the movie, the warden got suspicious and tried to barge into the common room. Upon realising that all of these boys, including Abdullah tried escaping from the room's windows, which they did succeed with. Only at that moment, Abdullah realised that his USB with most of his personal identification data had been left plugged into the TV. He hurriedly came back inside, and tried pulling it out but the drive didn't budge and got stuck. Abdullah came from a lower-middle class family, he couldn't risk slapping his parents with a 20K fine when they were already living hand to mouth and he was on a full merit scholarship. So he did the unthinkable, he took the whole TV and threw it outside the door in the garbage dump and escaped.


Long story short, CCTV cameras caught the whole ordeal and all of those boys, including Abdullah, were expelled overnight.


This event shifted something inside Abdullah. While we still kept in touch after he moved on and left, I could tell that he had a burning resentment against the system that hadn't empathised with his condition and made life hell for him. His parents, since they couldn't afford good schooling, sent him to work a menial job in Dubai. He was so disheartened and depressed that he left after a year and came back to join a madrassah and a masjid as a Qari and Imam. Less than a year later, he was dead.


His resentment for his own actions, for the schooling system that he had given so much to and yet still had failed him, made him remorseful and most importantly, guilty, to no return. In his efforts to disappear and channel that rage, he got recruited into ISIS and was killed during the Western Ninevah offensive in Mosul, Iraq in 2017.


I often think about him -- searching for answers, for why he did what he did. And what could have been done better so that he could have been alive today, still sharing snippets of his favorite Mumtaz Mufti or Bano Qudsia quotes with me.


Most of the people who know him, blame him only for his actions. And perhaps maybe even rightly so. He chose to take the path he did, himself after all. I could come up and talk about how the school, knowing his background could have chosen to act differently and shown some compassion. But bygones are bygones, especially when it's someone's personal life. But if anything, what this reminds me of, at least right now, is how much of a lifeline a form of community in schooling can be. We shape our ambitions, our ideologies, our support-systems, accordingly. Once Abdullah was deprived of that community, he lost direction. In a world where he was already struggling to survive and curate a good future for himself, There's the question of education within conflict, but there's also the very important question of education as orientation to work for non-conflict. Abdullah is the story of many. And there's all the more need that we take actions that it never happens again, be it even looking at the most trivial of triggering incidents.

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