PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Mehran Khan, a mild-mannered 14-year-old survivor of this week’s massacre at a Pakistani school, says he will not rest until the meaningless deaths of his classmates have been avenged.
Shot with three bullets - in the hand, leg and back - Khan said from his bed at Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital that cricket used to be his main passion before the attack. His life has changed forever.
“I am angry,” he said, his voice weak from pain. “I‘m a physics student but now I don’t want to be an engineer. I want to get out and take revenge for all the deaths. The ones who killed, my friends. I will not rest until I finish them.”
The dark day of Dec. 16, when Taliban militants slaughtered more than 130 pupils, methodically gunning down children, ended the childhood innocence of the traumatized survivors.
The elite, military-run Army Public School, known for its British-style green uniforms, mainly serves the offspring of Pakistan’s powerful military class.
After the attack, the hardline Islamist Taliban declared that all of those children deserved to die because they were part of the military establishment.
Reuters interviews with young survivors revealed the lives of children deeply scarred by their near-death experience.
Ahmed Tahir, 14, is head prefect at his school. Speaking after the funeral of one of his friends, he said he and his mates managed to hide and slip outdoors into a nearby cemetery as soon as the shooting began.
“I finally glanced back and behind me there was a line of dead bodies,” he said.
“Only when we stopped at the graveyard to catch our breath did we realize that we were covered in blood. Not our own blood but the blood of our friends left behind.”
Wearing a perfectly ironed shalwar khameez - a long cotton tunic worn over a pair of baggy trousers, Tahir said his best friend had rushed back to try to rescue his trapped brother. Once inside, the friend was shot dead by the Taliban.
“I went to the CHM (hospital) yesterday and saw my principal’s dead body,” Tahir went on. “She was shot dead but the terrorists also slit her throat. They wanted to send a message to working women, I guess.”
Before the massacre, Tahir and his friends gathered every morning before classes to play basketball. Afternoons were reserved for cricket and soccer. Now, returning to the school will be an ordeal.
“School is where we go everyday. It’s like home, where we feel safe. Now it is littered with the memories of all those who died. They were all my brothers. It will be hard to go back.”
He started sobbing when asked about his friend Azaan Khan.
“What hurts is that he had escaped too but he went back. How could I let him? You know, that day he died he was going to give us all a treat at the canteen during break because he won the local badminton championship,” Tahir said.
“We had planned to go to Islamabad to watch (the film) Fast and the Furious 7 at the cinema. But now he’s not here.”
Peshawar is a chaotic, teeming city - one of Pakistan’s biggest. It lies not far from the Afghan border and a lawless mountainous area from where al Qaeda-linked militants plot their attacks.
But for many at Army Public School, a neat pink brick-and-stone campus that is a local landmark, life had long been insulated from the world of Islamist-inspired violence.
Daniyal Khan, a bookish, bespectacled 11-year-old, was lucky to escape the massacre unscathed. He crawled to safety through the playground outside the building.
”I left behind my blue lunchbox and my school bag,” Khan said. “I don’t think I will get them back.”
He brightened when asked about his hobbies: computer games and equations. Khan also likes to read - his favorite book is Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“I want to be an eye doctor,” he said with a smile. “I will fix my brother’s eyes and mine. Jibran wants to be a pilot and, you see, you need perfect eyesight to be a pilot. So I have to fix his eyes.”
Khan’s smile disappeared when he is asked if he would go back to the school.
“Not that school,” he said quickly. “Everyday when we go to school the army guards check our bags and use body scanners to check us. If a boy has keys in his pockets, the machine beeps and they ask him to empty his pockets. Everyday this happens. So how did the terrorists come in with guns and grenades?”
Many in Pakistan, where army-related buildings tend to be heavily fortified, asked the same question. Witnesses said the militants, some wearing army uniforms to trick the guards, broke in using a less guarded back entrance.
Aamir Ameen, 18, was at a chemistry exam when the attack started. He fainted after taking a bullet in his hip but avoided being shot again. The assailants left him for dead.
“When I woke up, everyone around me was bleeding and dead. I stayed silent and lay there quietly for hours. When I saw army officers run past I started screaming and they rescued me.”
Ameen, whose father owns a fish shop in London, is an aspiring fashion designer. Unlike some boys who yearn for revenge, he said he wanted to focus on helping others.
“I want to get better and get out and help people. All the people who helped save my life, I want to do something for them,” Ameen said. “But I don’t know what I will do without the friends who have died. I will miss them.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Paul Taylor