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'We Saw Our Sister's Body. It Was Her First Day in School': Survivors Tell of Horrors of Peshawar Massacre

A week after Pakistan's Taliban stormed an army school, killing at least 148 people, including 132 children, survivors and relatives spoke to VICE News about how the tragedy unfolded.

by Mohammad Zubair Khan and Sally Hayden
Dec 23 2014, 2:00pm

Photo via Army Public School & College/Facebook

Mubeen Quereshi was the only boy in his family. An appointed 8th class "peace keeper" — one of the students charged with maintaining discipline in his Peshawar school — he aspired to join the army and be a "commando" officer. He exercised daily in an attempt to prepare for his future career.

After Mubeen's mother died last year, his father, Aslam Qureshi, returned from a job overseas to take care of him and his three sisters. Aslam would try to dissuade Mubeen from his chosen career path. "(The army's) training is tough, they will leave you in the forest," Aslam would tell his son. Then he'd add, plaintively, "How will I live without you?" But Mubeen was resolute, and focused on one day gaining admission to cadet college.

Last Tuesday, Aslam heard rumours that there had been an incident at Mubeen's school. He rushed there immediately, "but I was not allowed to go near," Aslam told VICE News. Beginning to panic, he proceeded to go to the two local hospitals — first the Combined Military Hospital, then the Lady Reading Hospital. "I checked the wards, but he was not present."

Aslam was accompanied by his son-in-law, who eventually began to make his way towards the mortuary. "After a few minutes my son-in-law came back and hugged me; he was crying," Aslam told VICE News. Mubeen, the two men discovered, had been killed by a bullet to the head.

The day Mubeen died his family received an acceptance letter from a cadet college called Kohat. "At the same time his dead body was in hospital," Aslam said, adding that he would keep it always with him as a "souvenir."

Mubeen Quereshi's cadet college entrance exam details. Photo via his father

Mubeen was one of at least 132 children murdered last week during a horrific school attack in Peshawar, northern Pakistan. Seven gunmen entered the Public Army School while lessons were in progress. Despite alleged orders not to kill the "minor children" it would appear that for the most part the assailants shot, lobbed grenades and set off explosives indiscriminately.

'On the ground we saw many dead bodies.'

Sixth-class student Abdual Moaiz told VICE News that he heard the first blast during fourth period. His teacher told the students to hide under the tables, where they remained for at least an hour, until an army officer came into the class. "He was crying and crying and told us now we are all safe and he rescued us," Abdual said. 

The horror was not over for the escaping children. "When we passed, on the ground we saw many dead bodies," he said.

Abdual related that on the way out he saw a young girl, a kindergarten student, who was running directly towards a gunman, apparently asking him for help. The shooter opened fire on her. 

"After I was rescued, my father and mother were in the defense ground(s) and brought me home," he added.

When journalists were allowed to enter the school building, some of the most shocking imagery came from the auditorium, where the floor was crimson with blood, and broken spectacles, books, and discarded shoes were littered across the floor.

Ninth-class student Afaq Ahmed was inside when he heard the blasts, sitting next to the only open door. Speaking to VICE News, he reeled off a list of six of his friends who were killed. He vowed the attack would only harden the survivors' resolve to stand against the Taliban. "Me and my other friends are waiting to reopen the school," he said. "We are not afraid of it and we are ready to fight against terrorism."

Taliban gunmen kill 132 children in attack on Pakistani army school. Read more here.

'Suddenly we saw our sister Khola's dead body. We recognized her by her dress because that day she had not worn school uniform, because it was her first day in school.'

Samar Altaf, 11, told VICE News that he heard the firing while in his English lesson. "The teacher asked the class to hide themselves under the desk and don't talk. We shut our mouths strongly and our teacher started praying."

Samar was one of two survivors who claimed to VICE News that when the army arrived, they immediately opened fire. Samar said he had seen three people dressed in army uniform, holding big guns and firing indiscriminately. "After some time we heard the sound of helicopter and from that helicopter army persons appeared. Then exchange of firing started, and after one hour an army person entered our class and told us we were safe."

The account was echoed by another student, who told VICE News from his hospital bed that gunfire erupted in his classroom when the soldiers entered, suggesting that some of those who died may have been caught in the crossfire. 

Samar said that they fled through the school, passing dozens of dead bodies. "Suddenly we saw our sister Khola's dead body. We recognized her by her dress because that day she had not worn school uniform because it was her first day in school." Samar said that they rushed towards Khola's body, but a rescue worker stopped them, and took them to hospital. They then searched for their father — teacher Altaf Hussain — but were informed that he was seriously injured.

A picture of Khola Altaf taken on the morning of December 16, before her first day of school. Photo via her family

The family buried Khola the same evening. The next day they went back to the hospital to see their father. "Our uncle strictly asked us not to tell him anything about Khola," Samar said, "but just that she is getting treatment in the CM Hospital and will recover soon."

Samar's younger brother, 10-year-old Shabib piped up: "After that we were not allowed to see our father again also."

'She always told me that she was not afraid of any Taliban. "What can they do?," she'd say. Except kill innocent people.'

Teacher Beanish Umar held a masters in computer science and English. "We lived a happy life. Despite her service activities she always gave me time," her husband Umar Zeb Butt told VICE News. "She cared about me, pressed my clothes, and took care of me and her daughters."

Shortly before the attack Beanish visited the doctor, complaining of a cough. The doctor advised her to rest for a few days, but Beanish said that exams were coming up. She felt it was the wrong time for her to desert her students.

Teacher Beanish Umar with her family. Picture via her family.

Butt heard about the attack while at his office. He hurried straight to the school, but was redirected towards the hospital. "That evening I found my wife's dead body."

Butt said that they had discussed terrorism together. "She always told me that she was not afraid of any Taliban. 'What can they do?' (she'd say). Except kill innocent people."

'Me and my other friends are waiting to reopen the school. We are not afraid of it and we are ready to fight against terrorism.'

After the news of the attack broke, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) quickly claimed responsibility.

"We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females," said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani. "We want them to feel the pain."

Seven massacre "facilitator" suspects have so far been arrested — six men and one woman.

On Monday opposition leader Imran Khan visited the school, and spoke to the families of some of the victims.

In a press conference afterwards, Khan said that controlling the border with Afghanistan was vital to ensuring that attacks like this don't happen again. "Waging a war [against militancy] is difficult but not impossible," the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party said, according to local media. "We need to unite to fight the menace of terrorism."

Khan also called for safeguarding systems to be put in place in schools, so that any suspicious activity could be reported "with the hit of just one button."

The government too was quick to respond to the attacks. The day afterwards, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that he was ending the country's moratorium on the death penalty, which had been in place — with one exception — since 2008. Since then six people have been executed — though none of these were convicted in relation to this attack. A senior government official told AFP that 500 more will be put to death in the coming weeks.

The children who have survived know they're the lucky ones, but the trauma is going to be long-lasting and the fear never-ending. Many people in Peshawar who spoke to VICE News mentioned relatives or friends who had "lost their senses" in the days after the attack, rendered completely incapable of speaking or functioning. Meanwhile, the city is filled with mourners who speak of those who died as the "martyred" and the "exalted." Some have begun to call for public executions, seeing this as the only way to achieve retribution against the people who could commit such an incomprehensibly heinous act.

Peshawar Public Army School's Facebook page has posted scores of pictures and tributes to its murdered students. The school's website carries the masthead "Gone but never forgotten," over a link to a document with advice on helping children after a terrorist attack. This document details the symptoms of trauma and the ways parents can support their children. It instructs parents to answer their children's questions "honestly, in an age-appropriate manner but without making any false promises." 

Ominously, in a country mired in an increasingly bloody conflict with the Taliban, it also warns that the children's future is still uncertain. Their parents, it says, should "support (them) by helping prepare for future similar events." 

Pakistan lifts moratorium on the death penalty as funerals continue for 132 murdered children. Read more here.

Photo via Army Public School & College/Facebook

Follow Mohammad Zubair Khan on Twitter: @HazaraZubair

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd