We have killed all of the children in the auditorium.
What do we do now?’:
“We have killed all of the children in the auditorium,” the militant, later identified by the military as Abuzar, told his handler. “What do we do now?”
“Wait for the army to arrive,” came the reply. “Kill them, then blow yourself up.”
That conversation, recounted by a senior security official who said it had been intercepted by Pakistani intelligence, offered sobering proof of the methodical approach and cold resolve of the Taliban militants who, over the course of an eight-hour rampage, killed 148 people in the Peshawar school, at least 132 of whom were children.
On Wednesday, the horror of their actions paralyzed Pakistan, a country with much experience of Taliban atrocities and yet, in this instance, uniquely affected.
With flags at half-staff and businesses shuttered, Pakistanis seemed to be trapped between grief, anger and frustration, for once overcoming their divisions to unite in pain.
Peshawar became a city of small coffins. Through the day, mournful funeral processions wended through the otherwise deserted streets, as the victims of the massacre were escorted to mosques and graveyards.
At the school, army officials led the way to the principal’s destroyed office Wednesday. The room was devastated, streaked with blast marks and blood, torn by a suicide bomber’s blast. Military officials said they believed the principal, Tahira Qazi, had died trying to save her students – the bodies of two boys were also found in the office.
But elsewhere in the school complex – four main buildings clustered around a central administration block – it was the blood of children that dominated. It was everywhere: smeared on the walls, pooled in the corridors and soaked in abandoned clothes. The smell of explosives and charred flesh filled the air.
The greatest carnage occurred inside the assembly hall, where soldiers said they had recovered more than 100 bodies, many piled on one another. Shoes, copybooks and spectacles were scattered amid empty rows of seats where, according to witness accounts, students had cowered in a vain attempt to evade the killers. They were singled out, one by one, and shot in the head.
Some teachers tried to intervene. An army officer was giving first aid lessons on the main stage of the auditorium when the gunmen burst in. A female teacher, officers said, had begged the gunmen to let the children go. She was also executed.
The militant rampage was cut short, officials said, when commandos with the army’s elite Special Service Group entered the school. Retreated gunmen holed up in the central administration block, using it for cover as they opened fire on the advancing soldiers.
The administration block was where the siege ended. Five militants exploded their suicide vests in the lobby; the remaining two charged at the commandos who had taken position outside the building. They also exploded their vests, sending a spray of shrapnel into trees and walls and wounding seven commandos, one of whom received serious injuries to the face.
Those who arrived on the scene afterward said they were traumatized by what they found.
“Piles of bodies, most dead, some alive,” said one officer, struggling to hold back tears. “Blood everywhere. I wish I had not seen this.”
In the Taliban’s cruel calculus, those children’s bodies went toward balancing accounts with the Pakistani military, still pressing its anti-militant offensive in the northwestern tribal region. Most of the students were the children of military personnel, the militants’ spokesman said, seeking to publicly justify the gunmen’s targets. Qazi, the slain principal, was married to a retired army colonel.
On Wednesday, the pupils who had survived the massacre recuperated in the hospital or just counted their luck. Some said they escaped the gunmen by hiding in a nearby graveyard; others played dead for hours, lying among the corpses of their classmates as a gunbattle raged between militants and soldiers.
Many children sobbed as they recounted stories of the classmates they saw killed. Some spoke of their own desire for revenge.
Hidayatullah Khan, a 15-year-old student, said he hid under a table in the auditorium, motionless, as other boys were killed around him. When he rose, finally, “I saw piles of bodies lying everywhere,” he said.
Some mourners expressed frustration at the apparent impotence of their own security forces.
“What is this army for?” shouted one man at the city’s main Lady Reading hospital, where he had come to collect the body of his grandson.
“Where are their atom bombs and airplanes now?” he said. “They were of no use if they cannot protect us from death in our daily lives.”
There were recriminations inside the army, too. One officer noted with regret that the school had reported a Taliban threat in August. Some teachers openly worried that the school’s perimeter walls were vulnerable to attack, he said. But nothing was done.
Others, though, said they were determined not to succumb to the Taliban’s nihilistic vision for Pakistan.
At a candlelit vigil in the upmarket Hayatabad neighborhood, Muhammad Tahir, an architecture student, stressed that the vast majority of young Pakistanis vehemently rejected Taliban ideology.
“These beasts are not human because their actions are barbaric,” he said. “Education is our only weapon against them.”
Before the day was out, mourners gathered in Landi Arbab, a small village on the southwestern edge of the city. Men wrapped in wool shawls wept openly as Qazi was lowered into a grave.
She had always been a positive person, they said, full of life and good humor. Some likened her to their mothers.
“She did a great service to this village,” said one man who was interviewed by a TV report. “It is a great honor to have a school principal come from your village.”
Back at the deserted Army Public School, snipers perched on the rooftops, watching for a potential follow-up attack. In the nearby tribal belt, the Pakistani army mounted fresh airstrikes.
And on the television talk shows, stony-faced analysts clad in black offered lengthy analyses of what the army forced must do next – and whether, united in pain, their country could also unite to stop the Taliban.