In August, the National Counter Terrorism Authority forewarned Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s government and police and the Frontier Corps about imminent terrorist attacks on Army-run schools and colleges in the province. Two months prior, the Peshawar government had picked up similar chatter, but now says that it was at a loss to identify specific at-risk sites given the large pool of potential targets.
It stood to reason that the Army Public School on Peshawar’s Warsak Road, at the edge of the military cantonment and close to an Afghan refugee slum, was a likely target. Its principal, Tahira Qazi, had been receiving death threats. Military and police personnel advised her to keep mixing up her routes to and from work. After the June alert, the Army, which is chiefly responsible for the security of the sprawling campus and its 1,100 students, deputed two soldiers, one at each of the school’s gates. Some four or five months ago, according to some reports, a bomb had also been discovered on one of the school lawns.
On Tuesday, Dec. 16, at least seven heavily-armed terrorists broke in and laid siege to the school. They ended up killing 150 people, including 134 students between the ages of 6 and 17, wounding another 121, and changing Pakistan forever. A country that had somehow remained impervious to tragedy despite losing some 50,000 innocents to terrorism since 9/11 was jolted by the horror of children so young being murdered so brutally. The shock was universal. Turkey and India mourned alongside Pakistan, and vigils lit up world capitals.
“With their sacred blood,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared in his short, post-midnight televised address on Dec. 25, “our children have drawn a line putting these coward terrorists on one side, and the Pakistani nation on the other.” He vowed retribution. “Being a father, I can understand how heavy these small coffins were for the shoulders of the parents to bear. I convey to the terrorists the decision of the nation: your days are numbered.”
Since most of the school’s students come from military families, the attack was the Taliban’s response to Zarb-e-Azb, the North Waziristan military operation launched in June. But if the intention of the terrorists had been to demoralize the Armed Forces by murdering their children and forcing the nation to retreat into fear, it didn’t work. Pakistan’s most shocking and worst terror attack in terms of death toll put the fight in us, ending the divisions and dithering.
Pakistan has sworn to stomp every snake in its backyard—the “good” and “bad” alike—and the military has unleashed its full and awesome might on the terrorists. But no response feels adequate or disproportionate. Sharif’s 11-minute address spelled out some of the extraordinary measures, unanimously agreed by all political parties and the military, to assuage the extraordinariness of the national pain from Peshawar. These include setting up fast-track military-run courts. Pakistan has also ended its six-year-old moratorium on capital punishment, a move hailed by a nation baying for terrorist blood.
Timeline of Terror
The school assembly started as usual at 8 a.m. after which the students went to their classrooms. About two hours later, some 120 high-school students made their way to the auditorium, which stands at the center of the campus behind the admin block, where officers from the Army Medical Corps would lecture on first-aid at 10 a.m.
At least seven terrorists wearing explosive vests and shalwar kameez and armed with AK-47s and hand grenades cut the barbed wire on the school’s high back wall at a point close to the auditorium. They fired two shots as they started toward the packed auditorium. Students who survived the massacre would later recount that some of the gunmen were speaking a foreign tongue and taking instructions on their cellphones.
At 10:12 a.m. more shots rang out. Classrooms with views of the gunmen walking toward the auditorium panicked. Students dropped to the floor hoping not to be seen.
Principal Qazi, who was sitting in the front row of the auditorium for the first-aid lecture, told a teacher to bolt the main entrance to the hall and rushed out to warn and evacuate other students.
Before the teacher could lock the door, he was hit and fell down dead. The gunmen burst in and opened fire. Everyone on stage, including two teachers, was killed. Teacher Hafsa Khush was shot three times in the back of her head. The students raced for the exits—slipping, falling, piling on top of each other. The terrorists began firing indiscriminately. It was a massacre. The venue still smells of death. Congealed, blackened blood covers almost every inch of it; the blood-soaked notebooks and shoes strewn about speak of the panic in those terrible last minutes of the 100 or so students who were killed there.
The gunmen now split up. One stayed behind in the auditorium, searching for and shooting anyone he thought had survived. Of the remaining six, some grouped off for the adjoining admin block, the others went to the classrooms upstairs. This latter group would go from classroom to classroom shooting and beheading students and setting their teachers on fire.
The Quick Response Force arrived at 10:29 a.m. Half-hour later, commandos from the military’s Special Services Group had confined the militants to the admin block. Other Army personnel cordoned off the primary-school block and began evacuating some 970 students and teachers found hiding under desks and in cupboards and bathrooms. Some of the dead and injured were taken to Lady Reading Hospital and the Combined Military Hospital in ambulances that had to rush past the dozens of paled parents gathered at the school’s main gate not knowing whether their children were dead or alive.
By noon the Pakistani Taliban had owned the Mullah Fazlullah-ordered attack. The clash between the commandos and the suicide-bombers started in the admin block around the same time. People gathered outside the school say they heard about 10 explosions in near succession. Principal Qazi was killed thereabouts, in her office in the same block.
At 4 p.m., the military announced it had killed all seven terrorists—one in the auditorium, six in the admin block. But the search and clearance operation didn’t end until four hours later. The military also said that two of its officers had been critically injured in the 10-hour episode, and that the terrorists had brought with them food rations that would have lasted several days, suggesting that their original plan may have been hostage-taking.
The Evil that Men Do
Splintered by Zarb-e-Azb, some factions of the Pakistani Taliban quickly denounced the Peshawar school attack. So did Al Qaeda. “We stand equally with the citizens of Pakistan and condole with the grieving parents of the martyred children,” said Usama Mehmood, its South Asia chapter spokesman. The attack was “against Islam,” he said, and the killing of innocent women and children only ended up “strengthening the system of cruelty in this world.” The Afghan Taliban also expressed their disapproval.
Shock and grief make it harder to get at the facts. The Taliban say they sent six men to the school. The military says it killed seven terrorists there. Authorities say the attack—planned on Afghan soil close to Pakistan—may have involved as many as 16 terrorists, and that the seven who actually entered the school were trained in evil in Khyber agency. All signs point to Fazlullah as the mastermind, but some officials tell Newsweek that both Mangal Bagh and Hafiz Gul Bahadur may also have been complicit.
Mohammad Khorasani, spokesman for the Fazlullah-led Pakistani Taliban, crowed that the attack had proven wrong all claims about his group’s hobbling following the North Waziristan military operation: “We are still able to carry out major attacks.” He claimed no “underage” children were killed in Peshawar, and said Pakistan’s post-Peshawar resumption of executing terror convicts had further endangered the children of politicians and military personnel. He warned that more terror is on the way unless the Army backs down.
Pakistan’s determined Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, wasted no time in flying to Kabul, where he met President Ashraf Ghani and the International Security Assistance Force commander, U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell. Pakistani officials let it be known that General Sharif had asked Afghanistan to “do more” and hand over or eliminate Fazlullah, believed to be hiding in Kunar. The Afghan Army chief subsequently denied that Fazlullah was even brought up; and the Pakistani Taliban claimed that their genocidal leader remained very much in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s craven courts continued to embarrass themselves. They put paid to Pakistan’s avowal to make no distinction between terrorists by releasing Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the Lashkar-e-Taiba lynchpin accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, on bail. This time, Pakistanis stood with India in its revulsion.
Until the prime minister’s Dec. 25 address, the federal government also appeared to fall ruefully short. It failed to take action against people, like Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, who defended the Peshawar school attack to cable news viewers; and it failed to support citizens who protested outside Aziz’s state-supported mosque. All that is changing now; and stringent new media laws are in the works.
The Army Public School attack would have been far worse had it not been for the teachers.
Principal Tahira Qazi began her day at 5 a.m. She said her morning prayers and read from the Quran before preparing breakfast for her husband, a retired Army colonel, and their two sons. For months, she had managed to keep secret from her family, and especially her husband who has heart trouble, the dire threats that had been coming her way. The family would only learn about these after the attack.
After the first few shots rang out that morning, Qazi left the auditorium to warn everyone she could about the attack. Survivors saw her running around, begging everyone to run. A teacher who had hid and locked himself in a bathroom says he heard her politely pleading with the gunmen not to kill the children. At the Combined Military Hospital that night, Qazi’s daughter and brother went from ward to ward in her search. “‘Mrs. Qazi is okay, she’s fine. She’s just been shot in the shoulder, but she’s fine,’” they were told by several of the wounded. They finally found her. She had a bullet in her head and blast burns on her back from the suicide-bombing in her office, her favorite black winter coat and dark green shalwar kameez in tatters. She was 53.
“She was always the first to arrive at school and the last to leave,” Qazi’s daughter, who asked not to be named, told Newsweek. “She tried to retire earlier, but they didn’t let her. She would keep telling us to make time for ourselves, but she herself was always on the go.” Qazi’s widower is putting on a brave face but is also shattered. “The fact that she embraced martyrdom makes it a little easier, it keeps us calm,” says the daughter, “But the selfish child in me just wants her mother back.” She says the outpouring of support for the family has been a balm. “I go to the graveyard everyday and each time there are more flowers on her grave than there were the day before.”
Two of the gunmen also stormed into 15-year-old Irfan Ullah’s classroom that morning. He says he owes his life to his teacher, 24-year-old Sahar Afshan Ahmed.
“She stood up to the Taliban and warned them; she was so brave,” he says. “‘You will kill my students over my dead body,’” Irfan recalls Sahar as saying. The terrorists had no intention of sparing her. They doused her with kerosene and set her on fire. In her final moments, Sahar screamed for the children to run. “We were selfish,” says Irfan, “we ran instead of trying to save our teacher.” Irfan himself was shot in the chest and abdomen trying to escape; most of his classmates were killed. “She is my hero,” he says of the slain teacher. “She jumped and stood between us and the terrorists before they could target us. She sacrificed her life for us.”
Saima Zareen had been teaching in the Army-run school system some 16 years and joined Peshawar’s Army Public School faculty on Nov. 5 over the initial objections of her husband, Brig. Tariq Saeed.
Saima was also immolated by the terrorists. “My beloved wife embraced martyrdom with courage,” Saeed said in a written statement. “For every reason, I am proud of my wife’s sacrifice and courage … She has not only made her family but the whole nation proud.”
Saeed’s statement also speaks of his colleague Maj. Jamshed Khan, who lost his wife and two sons in the Peshawar school attack, and it defends the Army against claims that it didn’t do enough to protect the school: “While criticizing our Armed Forces we forget the fact that there were about 1,100 kids in the school and over 950 have walked out safe and alive.” The attack, Saeed’s statement says, has renewed his commitment to Pakistan’s war on terror. “I am not scared and my resolve to fight them has multiplied.”
Zulfiqar Ahmed was teaching Grade 2 math in an upstairs classroom when it became clear that the school was under attack. “I immediately bolted both doors on opposite sides of the room,” he says. “They broke down both and just started firing. They fired at all of us. All my students fell down.” Every one of his 18 students was killed. Zulfiqar was shot three times—in the arm, chest and thigh. An hour and a half later, Army personnel picked him from the bloodied classroom floor and took him to hospital. “All the children who were with me couldn’t run; they couldn’t save themselves.”
The 45-year-old says the gunmen “didn’t look like us, they looked foreign. They spoke in a different language. It wasn’t Pashto or Urdu.” He says the terrorists, who have benefited from Pakistan long making specious distinctions between them, targeted everyone: “It wasn’t just the older children, they were firing at first graders, fourth graders, teachers, everyone. They were butchering little children.”
The national fury over the Peshawar school attack will abate, and the terrorists may or may not be forever vanquished. But for the families coping with the greatest trauma—surviving a child’s sudden, violent death—Peshawar will always remain a hole in their heart.
“He was so happy going to school that day…” says Shahana Khalil of her firstborn, Asfan—one of the 100 students killed in the auditorium that day. “If only I had known. If only they had taken my life instead of his.”
Shahana says she asked two of Asfan’s friends, Omar and Ali, who survived the attack why they couldn’t save her son too. They told her Asfan would probably also have lived had he not slipped while rushing toward the exit. Some of the others who survived the auditorium executions did so by playing dead.
“I pray my tears doom them,” she says of the terrorists. “What have they achieved by killing my beautiful, innocent son? He had no tussle with them. I can’t imagine the pain he went through. How can I forgive those animals? My Allah, my God, teach them a lesson they will never forget.”
Asfan’s father, Ajoon, is faring no better. “Every dream I had has been buried with my child,” he says. “I will take my family abroad, there’s nothing left for us here except painful memories.” Asfan, says the 45-year-old lawyer, liked volleyball and spicy food “more than anything.” The last request Asfan ever got to put to his mother was that she make spicy food for that day’s lunch. “I am sure he is enjoying volleyball and spicy dishes in Heaven now,” says Ajoon. “I wish I could tell him how hard it is to live without him.”
Maharusha says her brother Afsan was gregarious and loving, the life of the family. She knows their lives will never be the same again. “There won’t ever be any smiles or jokes in this home,” she says. The 14-year-old is worried about their mother, “She has been crying since Tuesday afternoon. She was not even able to visit the graveyard to pray for my brother because she said she couldn’t stand to watch him under tons of soil.”
It could have been worse. Shahana and Ajoon’s youngest, 10-year-old Wadaan, skipped school that morning because he had been running a temperature. Otherwise, he could easily have been among the wounded or dead. Wadaan had asked and Afsan had promised to bring him his favorite chocolate from school as a get-well gift.
“Children may forget their parents, but parents can never forget their children. It is impossible for me to forget. I feel he’s still here… I can’t make myself believe what has happened. I am dead inside,” says Shahana. Afsan had wanted to one day join the Pakistan Army and serve his nation. “He was not in the Army yet, but he still sacrificed his life for his nation. My young soldier,” she says. “It took us 16 years to raise him, and only 16 minutes for them to kill him.”
Some weeks ago, Sehbaan Durrani, the 16-year-old son of a small-shop owner and one of 12 siblings, broke the news to his family over dinner that his school had received another terror alert. The family was concerned, but Sehbaan sat there unfazed. “‘I will die in combat,’” his uncle Javed Cheema remembers Sehbaan saying at the time. Like Afsan, Sehbaan too wanted someday to serve in the Army.
On the morning of Dec. 16, Sehbaan woke up on his own and slightly late, at 7 a.m. For days, he had been counting down to the first-aid workshop scheduled in the school auditorium. Such was his excitement that he didn’t want to be slowed down by breakfast. “I’ll be back in a few hours, promise,” he told his mother rushing out, “I’ll have breakfast when I come back. Can you keep it for me, please?” She set aside two eggs and toasted bread. In his haste, Sehbaan also forgot his school blazer.
The call came at 10:30 a.m. Something had happened at Sehbaan’s school. By the time Cheema and Sehbaan’s father got there, the gunmen were still on the rampage inside the school. Outside, there was commotion and fear, the unnerving sounds of sirens and gunfire. Several hours later, the two brothers, Cheema and Sehbaan’s father, found him at last, at the CMH. Sehbaan had been shot in the head. He was one of 30 students found dead slumped in their auditorium seats, the hospital told them. “He did die in combat. He is my martyr,” says Cheema.
Sehbaan’s full house now feels empty. Late that terrible Tuesday night, Cheema saw a light in Sehbaan’s room. The laptop Sehbaan never allowed anyone to touch was still running. Cheema went in to turn it off. The screen’s dying light fell on the young boy’s forgotten blazer, inscribed with the school motto, “I Shall Rise and Shine.” That, Cheema says, must now be Pakistan’s vow and prayer.
Reporting by Benazir Shah, Adnan Siddiqi, Rimmel Mohydin, Nazar Ul Islam, and Aamir Iqbal. From our Jan. 10, 2015, issue.