Asia

Pakistan school massacre: Survivors tell of chaos and terror

Wounded Pakistani student Ans in hospital in Peshawar. 16 Dec 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption The hospital in Peshawar was inundated with wounded students

The scene outside the Army Public School is deathly quiet, like the Cantonment graveyard opposite the school.

Outside the main gate, a solitary light shines on a TV correspondent doing a live broadcast. Nearby, a weary TV crew waits in a couple of cars parked at the roadside.

It's dark and quiet all along the boundary wall that brings up the eastern face of the sprawling campus. There are no neighbours visible.

There are no shouting and grieving parents - by now they have discovered their fate, and those who lost their children are preparing the funerals.

The scene at the city's Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) is also an understatement of what happened.

Some people still hang around outside the emergency unit and inside one emergency room where the comparatively more serious patients from the school are still being kept, the rest having been moved to regular wards, or sent home after first aid.

There are more media people on the premises than relatives of the dead and injured.

"It was chaos when I arrived here at about 1:30pm," says Hafeez Ahmad.

"People were searching for their relatives in half madness, running from door to door, making frantic inquiries at information desks.

"It took me another hour to track down my brother. I thought he would be dead but he had survived, and they had taken him into the operating theatre for surgery."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Hundreds of frantic parents flocked to Lady Reading Hospital looking for their children

His brother, Zulfiqar Ahmad, 45, is the head of the mathematics department at the Army Public School (APS).

Hafeez Ahmad says he received a phone call from another of his brothers who works in Kabul in neighbouring Afghanistan, telling him that there had been an attack on the APS and he had just seen a video clip of a victim on TV who looked like Zulfiqar.

Zulfiqar Ahmad is still groggy from anaesthesia, but makes an effort to speak to me.

He says he was conducting his mathematics class on the second floor of the school's central wing when he first heard the gun shots.

"There was panic in the classroom and some students rushed out to see what was going on, but they soon came rushing back in. One of them closed the door and put on the latch."

Heavily armed

But the gunmen broke down the door and started shooting indiscriminately.

"I was hit in the left arm, in the left side of my chest, and twice on my left thigh. I fell to the ground. I must have been lying there for an hour before the army soldiers came in and moved me to the hospital. I tried to turn on my right side to prevent bleeding from my arm, but I couldn't move."

He says there were 18 students in the class and he believes that none of them survived.

He says the gunmen looked like Uzbeks and were heavily armed.

But the highest death toll was from the auditorium where a team from the army's Combined Military Hospital (CMH) was conducting a workshop on first aid for the students of eighth, ninth and 10th grades, all between 14 and 16 years of age.

Four of them share LRH's emergency room with Zulfiqar Ahmad.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Troops and police quickly sealed off the school after the attack

One of them, Mohammad Hilal, a 10th grader, took three bullets in his arm and legs.

"I didn't notice the gunmen rushing in, and was hit when they fired the first shots," he says.

He was sitting in the middle of the hall. After being hit, he fell to the floor.

"I think I passed out for a while. I thought I was dreaming. I wanted to move but felt paralysed. Then I came to and realised that actually two other boys had fallen on me. Both of them were dead."

'Hit in neck'

He said he wanted to move, but just then one of the boys in the front row who had earlier ducked under his desk tried to run away. Gunfire rang out, and the boy fell in the aisle between the rows of desks, not far from him.

"He had been hit in the neck. He shuddered for a while... before going cold. I sank my head to the floor and lay still."

Anas Khan, 14, an eighth grader, remembers seeing the men coming in through the door. He says the workshop had just started when the attack took place.

"When firing started, we all ducked under our desks. I got hit because I didn't notice that my elbow was outside the line of the desk."

Though almost 140 people - most of them children - died in the attack, the army says it was able to evacuate more than 900 children to safety.

Among them were two children of Mushtaq Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based newspaper correspondent.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some children fled to a nearby park where they were collected by their parents

But from what his 11-year-old son told him later, they were rescued by their female teacher and the school's female principal.

"My son says when they heard the first shots, their teacher consoled them and said it must be firing in the air, like in weddings. But then she went out, and came rushing back in, and told the children to fall in the queue and get out."

The junior section, where Mr Yusufzai's children were studying, is located away from the middle and secondary sections. The teacher herded the children towards a back entrance, shouting all the time "Run, run".

Then the children saw the principal. She was also running, and shouting to the children, "run, run". She disappeared in another direction while the class teacher got the children out through the back door and into a nearby house.

After a while she herded them to another house further away. Then finally she got them out and told them to run across the fields to an amusement park and wait there.

"We collected the children from the park several hours later," he says.

Officials say the principal of the school was among those who died. But Mr Yusufzai was among the more fortunate parents on that dreadful day.

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