PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN – Tuesday began like any other morning in Pakistan’s Army Public School in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Students pored over their books. Teachers ruffled through their notes and gave lectures.
In an instant, the peace was shattered by gunfire, with bodies strewn across the school’s corridors and crazed militants rushing from room to room shooting randomly at pupils and adults.
At least 141 Pakistanis, most of them children, were killed in the attack on the military-run school on Tuesday, an assault lauded by Taliban insurgents as revenge for the killings of their relatives by the Pakistani Army.
On Wednesday, as the world united in revulsion, the country began three days of mourning for the children and staffers killed in the massacre.
Japan condemned the attack, describing it as “unforgivable” and pledging full support for the Pakistani government’s fight against terrorism.
“Our country strongly condemns any form of terrorism, and this one is especially unforgivable, as it targeted students who hold the future in their hands,” top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said at a daily press briefing.
“We are in deep shock and sorrow,” the chief Cabinet secretary said, offering condolences to the victims and their families. “Japan will cooperate with the international community and fully support the Pakistani government, which is fighting terrorism.”
Interviews with witnesses showed most victims were shot in the first hours of the assault when gunmen sprayed the premises with bullets in an indiscriminate massacre.
It was possible that some were also killed in the ensuing gunfight with Pakistani armed forces who stormed the building.
The school in Peshawar, a city on the edge of Pakistan’s turbulent tribal belt, is operated by the army. Although it enrolls some civilian students, many of its pupils are children of army officials, the Taliban’s intended target.
The assault began at around 10 a.m. as a group of nine militants, suicide vests tightly strapped to their bodies, burst into the building, according to witnesses, some of whom said the men were wearing army uniforms.
They bypassed the heavily guarded main entrance and slipped in through a less frequently used back entrance, the witnesses added.
Shahrukh Khan, 15, was shot in both legs but survived after hiding under a bench.
“One of my teachers was crying; she was shot in the hand and she was crying in pain,” he said as he lay on a bed in Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital. “One terrorist then walked up to her and started shooting her until she stopped making any sound. All around me my friends were lying injured and dead.”
At least 500 pupils between ages 10 and 20 were inside the building when the attack started.
As the gunfight between the Taliban and Pakistani forces intensified, at least three of the militants blew themselves up, resulting in several charred bodies of bombers and victims.
The corridors of the city’s Combined Military Hospital were lined with dead students, their green-and-yellow school uniform ties peeping out of white body bags.
One distraught family member was given the wrong body because the faces of many children were badly burned as a result of the suicide bombs.
Khalid Khan, 13, said he and his classmates were in a first-aid lesson in the main hall when two clean-shaven armed men wearing white clothes and black jackets entered the room.
“They opened fire at the students and then went out. The army doctor and soldiers managed to escape, and we locked the doors from inside,” he said. “But very soon they came, broke the doors and entered and again started firing.”
He said many tried to hide under their the desks but were shot anyway, adding that there were around 150 students in the hall around the time of the attack.
“They killed most of my classmates and then I didn’t know what happened, as I was brought to the hospital,” said Khan, breaking down in sobs.
Others said the gunmen addressed each other in a language they thought was either Arabic or Farsi — a possible testament to the Taliban’s network of hundreds of foreign fighters holed up with them in the remote mountains on the Pakistani-Afghan border.
Another student, Jalal Ahmed, 15, could hardly speak, choking with tears at one of the hospitals.
“I am a biochemistry student, and I was attending a lecture in our main hall. There are five doors in the hall. After some time, we heard someone kicking the back doors. There were gunshots, but our teacher told us to be quiet and calmed us down.
“Then the men came with big guns.”
Ahmed started to cry. Standing next to his bed, his father, Mushtaq Ahmed, said, “He keeps screaming, ‘Take me home, take me home, they will come back and kill me.’ ”
One 9-year-old boy, who asked not to be named because he was too afraid to be identified, said teachers shepherded his class out through a back door as soon as the shooting began.
“The teacher asked us to recite from the Quran quietly,” he said. “When we came out from the back door there was a crowd of parents who were crying. When I saw my father, he was also crying.”