For Peshawar


Living with Loss

How survivors and families of victims are coping a year after the deadly attack


Father remembers six-year-old’s murder like it was yesterday


Imagine being told your six-year-old child was yanked by her ponytail and shot in the head at point blank by terrorists.

This is the reality Altaf Hussain, an English teacher at Army Public School and a resident of Mansehra, has to live with.

Hussain was critically injured in the brutal APS attack, but his daughter Khaula never made it out alive.

It was her second day back to the APS Toddlers school, where she had enrolled last year.

“She had just finished pre-nursery. The day of the attack was her second day at APS Toddlers Academy (known as the toddlers section). I asked the section head to enroll her and she told me to fill out a form and bring two coloured pictures with it.”

He added, “I was taking Khaula to our colleague Farman Sahab in the computer lab to get her pictures taken when I first heard the firing.”

Hussain said at first he took it lightly. “I told everyone around me not to panic, that it was just another drill by our army. But then the bullets started landing in front of us. That’s when I saw our colleague Madam Farhat rushing towards us, telling us the school had been attacked.” Farhat told Hussain and others that the attackers were killing children inside the auditorium.

Hussain recalled asking Saadia, another English teacher who had recently joined, to protect Khaula. Saadia took Khaula and the children she was teaching inside the computer lab.

That is when Hussain rushed out to see what was happening.

“I saw three men, all armed with AK-47s. They fired at me but missed. Since I heard them speaking in Pashto, I told them to stop but they refused to listen; they fired and I was hit. When I gathered my senses after being shot, I rushed to a room, closed the door and stayed on the ground,” Hussain told The Express Tribune.

“My Khaula had been shot in the head along with Madam Sadia and the other children,” he added. “Later, an injured student told me one of the attackers held Khaula by her ponytail and the other one shot her in the head point blank.”

A family torn 

Khaula was the third of his four children, two boys and two girls. She was also the only female child who was killed in the APS attack, said Hussain. His sons also study at APS but they were in the junior section, from where students were evacuated safely.

“We [APS attack victims] were treated with extraordinary kindness at LRH,” Hussain said. He spent two months at Lady Reading Hospital recovering from the wounds, and another two to get his injured kidneys treated.

Doctors from Combined Military Hospital wanted to shift Hussain to CMH but the LRH doctors insisted their cardiothoracic ward was better equipped than CMH. “I was treated in the elite Boltan block at LRH. The entire treatment, including medicines, was free,” said Hussain.

“One year has passed but every moment of joy brings mourning to our home; be it Eid or a birthday celebration or anything else. Khaula’s and the death of other innocent children continue to haunt us,” he added. But despite the tragedy that hit their home, the Hussains continue to send their children to APS even now.

Khaula. PHOTO: apsstars.com
Khaula. PHOTO: apsstars.com

Hussain was all praises for Madam Tahira Qazi. “We have been told she died trying to save the children. She had a phone in one hand, and with the other she was instructing others to take the students into different rooms,” he said, adding Qazi was a courageous woman.

Refuting the rumours that the attackers burnt female teachers alive, Hussain said no such thing happened. “But the excessive shooting might have caused fire since there were a lot of papers in the classrooms,” he said.

Hussain thought security forces and police did not act soon enough. The delay in response gave the attackers one full hour “to satisfy their blood lust”. He advocated for strict action against the terrorists responsible for the attack as he feared they could cause more damage.

‘To me, my child is still alive’

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On December 16, 2014, Sadia Gul stepped out of her class, packed full of students of the Army Public School in Peshawar, to plead with the gun-wielding terrorists: “Please chacha, don’t do this”.

“My daughter was really kidding herself. She thought those people were human beings who understood words,” says her father, Professor Gul Shahzad, a resident of Takhat Nasrati, Karak, who resides in Peshawar.

Instead of words, what she received in response for a fatal shot to the head. The terrorists stepped over her and into the computer lab where she was teaching and shot all the students.

“We buried her 24 hours after her death in her ancestral graveyard in Karak. Her face was fresh and beautiful as if she was sleeping and would open her eyes any time,” her father recalls.

To him, Sadia, his eldest daughter, is still alive. He counts her as among his seven children; three daughters and four sons.

“She might be dead for others but my child is alive for me and she will always be with us,” he added.

Saadia Gul. PHOTO: apsstars.com
Saadia Gul. PHOTO: apsstars.com

He recalls that after completing an MA in English from the University of Peshawar, Sadia was thrilled to join APS as an English teacher just a few months before the brutal attack.

Shahzad himself teaches Pakistan Studies at the Peshawar Public School and College.

“No one had any idea that this job was going to cost her her own life,” he said, adding after her death, the family discovered she was secretly helping several security guards and other financially weak employees. They had no inkling about this.

When asked about the hanging of four terrorists involved in the APS attack Shahzad said, “If the terrorists were really those who were involved in the APS attack, then we are really happy.”


December 16 left Sheheryar with two classmates and 34 funerals

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As he crossed the threshold into the school auditorium, Sheheryar Zafar didn’t know but he was leaving behind the life he was comfortably familiar with, the friends he laughed with, days of waking happy. He didn’t know that when the day would end, he would be one of three boys who survived one of the deadliest assaults in the city’s history – 34 of his classmates from class 9F would have been shot dead among a 100 others.

When the day started, Sheheryar, 15, and his friends were stoked at the thought of using their friend’s digital camera which he had brought to Army Public School on December 16. “We just couldn’t wait for the bell to ring for recess,” said Sheheryar. They just wanted to take selfies. “All of us had just joined Facebook,” and like most teenagers, they couldn’t get enough of posting photographs and tagging each other. That was the only thing on their minds in first and second period.

“In the third period, our Urdu teacher Madam Saira asked us to open to the chapter on ‘Qurbani’ and we had just started reading the book when the section head knocked on the classroom door and asked us all to move to the auditorium where there was a first-aid training by CMH doctors.”

He said all the boys were very excited to leave the class, thinking they could have fun in the auditorium and take more photographs. They made a beeline for the back of the auditorium and sat there, as the training started with some teachers and proctors standing near them and others at the front of the hall.

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Sheheryar Zafar and his friends

Thump thump thump. Sheheryar said the next few moments were filled with the muffled sound of bullets which the boys initially thought was part of a drill. “The teachers locked the doors and then I saw armed men trying to break them – my heart skipped a beat.”

Seven armed men broke into the auditorium and as Sheheryar hit the ground to hide, he started reciting the kalma. “Three of them had beards and four were clean-shaven; the men just started firing in every direction.” From his vantage point, he could see his friends and proctors fall to the ground, one by one.

“It was so loud, the firing. I could see blood on my clothes, on my hands and I started to lose consciousness. I thought everyone was dead but then I saw two of my friends signalling towards the door.” The three of them managed to escape unnoticed.

“I ran outside and hid behind a shrub. Then we helped each other to somehow climb over the wall.” Sheheryar said that’s when Pakistan Army soldiers saw the three boys and rescued them.

The day ended but, “the day changed my life in every way; I cannot forget what happened to my friends. One second, things were good and the next second it all vanished – my friends are gone.”

He said, “The first day back to school I just cried all day, missing my friends. I could see them in every corner, giggling and laughing.”

Eventually, the three students of class9F were shifted to other sections. “We used to have six sections, now we have only four,” said Sheheryar.

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Sheheryar Zafar

“My son is too young to handle the loss of his friends; how can he forget what happened?” his mother, Mrs Zafar, told The Express Tribune. “Can you understand what he is going through?” she added.

“He wakes up at night, screaming in terror, ‘Mama, he is here, he will kill me,” said Mrs Zafar. The screams of his friends continue to haunt him. Sheheryar would not sleep at night, she said. He says he cannot forget “the leather boots poking out of a white shalwar and the black jacket” worn by the attackers, added the worried mother.

“He spent months in therapy; we keep taking him to Lahore where we have relatives to distract him,” Mrs Zafar added but it was all in vain. “Because after we would return to Peshawar, all he saw were the same roads leading to Warsak Road to the school where his friends were killed and the neighbourhoods where his friends lived,” she said.

“I had to change my son’s school; he is so young, and still so traumatised, mein neh yeh ghalti nahi karni thi keh usko uss he school mein chor dun (I didn’t want to make the mistake of letting him stay in APS.”

But, Mrs Zafar said, her little boy says he will join the army and avenge his friends’ death.

Without his son to take to school, father wakes to greet neighbourhood children


After his wife’s death, Aslam Qureshi’s life revolved around his 14-year-old son Mobeen Aslam, a student of class eight at Army Public School in Peshawar.

“After my wife died, I was Mobeen’s father, mother, his cook, everything,” he tells The Express Tribune.

It was routine for him to wake early and go drop his son to school. On the way, he would ask what Mobeen wanted to eat for lunch. “That was our life but December 16 changed that all forever.”

Mobeen was shot in the head with a single bullet by the terrorists in the school’s auditorium. He was the only boy in the family and was the apple of everyone’s eyes, especially his father’s.

Qureshi still wakes up early every morning. Instead of dropping Mobeen to school, he goes outside and greets all the children in the streets of his neighbourhood.

His morning now includes writing an Islamic tradition on a blackboard he erected on one of his walls after the death of his son.

Aslam Qureshi with family. PHOTO: RIAZ AHMAD


Setting up a new routine was difficult for Qureshi, he told The Express Tribune. Years ago, Qureshi lost his wife to illnesses and then he lost Mobeen. After Mobeen’s death, Qureshi became so depressed that he had stopped eating. He barely survived on a diet of dried fruits.

“But life is slowly getting back to normal,” he says, solemnly. Qureshi remarried, on insistence of his relatives, to fill the void.

Mobeen Aslam. PHOTO: apsstars.com
Mobeen Aslam. PHOTO: apsstars.com

On December 12, Qureshi organised an event at a local school, which has been named after Mobeen by the provincial government, called Shaheed Mobeen Aslam Qureshi School Sheikhabad. The event was held in memory of his slain son.

Looking back

“When Mobeen was a year old, I left for the US to build a better life for my wife and him. But I wanted Mobeen to be educated in Pakistan before moving to the US with me.” But Qureshi had to return to Pakistan after a year in the states as his wife had fallen ill. He told The Express Tribune his wife just died suddenly.

“After my wife’s death, I started renovating the house and constructed a room for Mobeen and his future bride on the second floor. I was just waiting till he completed matric exams. Of course, I understand he was too young to wed. But I had hopes and plans for him that all vanished,” he said.

“In August, he appeared in the entry exam of Cadet College Kohat and cleared it. However, he chose to stay at APS as he always wanted to join the Pakistan Army,” recalled Qureshi.

Aslam appreciated Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif for his bold stance against terrorists. “I think the sacrifices given by our children have united this nation and I hope this unity will bring peace to this country,” he said.

Abdullah’s father waited for him till told ‘no one left inside, dead or alive’

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A year has passed since Abdullah Ghani Awan last enjoyed breakfast with his family. A year has passed but Abdullah’s father remembers every moment of the day he heard APS had been attacked.

“Both my sons studied there. Abdullah’s elder brother, a college student, had already come home after taking an exam,” Tanveer Ahmad told The Express Tribune. “Abdullah was in eighth grade. He was a very smart child, very athletic; I thought he could keep himself safe.” Ahmad added, “I kept telling everyone Abdullah would be back, safe and sound, in an hour.” But he did not make it.

Abdullah was sitting in one of the last rows in the auditorium, which the terrorists entered through breaking the back door.

“We were unable to find him till late in the night,” said the father. “When the last Rescue 1122 worker left the school, we rushed towards them and asked if they found Abdullah; they assured us there was no one “dead or alive” left in the building. Ahmad recalled he rushed to Combined Military Hospital once again where he went in the family section and saw seven bodies lying on the floor. One of the bodies was Abdullah’s.

“He was there all this time while we were searching for him inside the school.” Ahmad added, “It was late in the night when Abdullah was handed over to us.”

Abdullah Ghani Awan. PHOTO: apsstars.com
Abdullah Ghani Awan. PHOTO: apsstars.com

Abdullah was second of four children. “He was talented, smart and a sportsman,” said the father, fondly.

When asked what he thought about various leaders’ response to the calamity, Ahmad said he had no choice but to believe that action was being taken against the terrorists who killed his son.

“When your country head, army chief and others tell you they are taking action against terrorists, you simply have to believe it. Do you have any other option?”

Ahmad has met General Raheel Sharif thrice. In each meeting, he was assured some of the terrorists had been arrested, others had been killed and some were in hiding in Afghanistan from where they were trying to get them.

“I have refused to accept the money the government offered to me as compensation. It was Rs2 million,” shared Ahmad. “No amount of money can bring my son back, it can’t heal my pain,” he added.

Playing truant saved Wadan Khan’s life


A decision made on a whim is what saved Wadan Khan’s life.

Like on most week days, the tenth grader woke for school on December 16, but decided it was too cold to shower and went back to bed. He managed to get some more shuteye before he woke up to the sound of rapid firing and blasts.

Wadan with a friend
Wadan with a friend

It sounded like it was happening right next door, Wadan told The Express Tribune. And it was. Wadan lives behind Army Public School, where he was a student of class 10E at the time.

It was 10:30am when Wadan jumped out of bed and rushed upstairs to his terrace to see what exactly was going on. It was chaos, he said. “I could see children running in panic”. From his vantage point, he could see Pakistan Army soldiers take positions inside the school.

His father called shortly after, expecting the worst as Wadan should have been in school. When the shocked tenth grader replied that he never made it to school, Wadan’s father could only say, “Thank God you are home”.

Sixteen boys in his class were not as lucky; they died that fateful day. Only five students of 10E survived. Some of them were injured in the attack.

Wadan Khan and his friends
Wadan Khan and his friends

Wadan’s split second decision saved his life but the day’s events, even witnessed from far, stole from him not only his friends but his ability to be a regular teenager whose most pressing burden should be choosing a college major.

Only Wadan knows the extent of what he witnessed; his family said he was so disturbed by what unfolded below in his school, he did not speak to anyone for two months.

He went back to APS in January 2015 when it reopened. “I could see my friends who had been killed; I could see their faces in the auditorium where they died.”

The tenth grader added, “The first day back when all the families were invited, assembly was called at 8am and lines of classes were just empty.” He recalled, “Our morning song ‘labh peh aati hai dua ban keh tamanna meri’ was played and we all just started crying. Every single student had tears in his eyes.”

But Wadan found school was no longer the same. “It was like the flowers in the school ground had turned to dust, the school ground was no longer green; in those moments, there was nothing left.” He said, “I was sitting for an exam and I could only stare at the empty chairs where my friends used to sit. I couldn’t stop myself from crying.”

He told The Express Tribune his teachers and other friends at school tried to make him feel better but he soon left.

Now Wadan is in Edwardes College in the city. He expressed intention to take revenge on the terrorists who were behind the rampage and asked Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif to reserve spots for APS survivors in the army.

Wadan is not the only boy who came out of the December 16 carnage with a desire to exact revenge. However, whether this is a productive frame of mind and whether this desire will change is something the boys’future will unveil.

APS Stars: Developer launches website to connect victims to donors

Sibtain Wahid. PHOTO: RIAZ AHMAD

Sibtain Wahid, a Peshawar-based web developer and computer programmer, has designed many websites in his career but www.apsstars.com is one project he holds close to his heart.

Wahid built the website for the families of APS attack victims who are in need. He saw up close how parents and families dealt with hardship and depression as they mourned their loved ones. Wahid was not untouched by the massacre; he lost two of his nephews; Huzaifa, his sister’s son, and Osama, his cousin’s son.

Sibtain Wahid. PHOTO: RIAZ AHMAD
Sibtain Wahid. PHOTO: RIAZ AHMAD

Wahid also witnessed how the widow of an APS teacher struggled after she was disowned by her family soon after her husband was killed in the attack. Since his death, the school gave her his salary for 16 days. Not only did she have to bear the pain of losing her husband and her family, she was also struggling with financial constraints.

These stories of adversity prompted Wahid to build www.apsstarts.com. With his website, he wishes to connect donors and philanthropists to the families directly, without having to go through any intermediary like the government or a non-profit.

“I asked the school to provide me a list of names and contact information of those who were killed or injured in the attack. I told them the cause for building the website, which the school administration really appreciated,” Wahid told The Express Tribune. The website contains complete contact information of the families who were hit by the tragedy. At least 10,000 people have visited it ever since it was launched, added Wahid.

“I am a professional web developer and computer programmer. I am not part of the Shuhada Forum,” he said, adding many people had approached his nephews’ families with money and asked them to disperse it among families who were hit by the tragedy and needed some assistance. “It was a great responsibility; a burden I could not bear, so I launched a website to bridge the gap between those who wanted to give and those who needed help,” he said. Wahid said one main purpose of the website was to refute rumours about the real number of the martyrs and injured.

Reflecting on his portfolio, Wahid said, “In my career, I have developed at least a thousand websites but this one’s special, it stands out from the rest of my work.”


  • Khurram

    Aye Rah-e-Haq ke Shaheedo wafa ke tasweero, tumhe watan ki hawaien Salaam kehti hain… May Allah Bless your sacred souls and raise you to the highest levels in Jannat-ul-Firdaus

  • Someone

    My blood boils when I read this. Death to the TTP, death to Mullah Radio.

  • mehdireza

    اے خدا ان شہیدوں کے خون سے ہمارے ملک کے عوام کے شعور کو بیدار کر اور ان کا خون کبھی رائیگاں نہ جائے۔