This article contains scenes that readers might find disturbing
Waleed Khan, 16
When I started school in Birmingham, the other kids had a lot of questions for me.
"Where are you from?"
"What happened to you?"
"How did your face end up like that?"
Thanks to my scars, what happened in Pakistan was something I couldn’t hide. And it wasn’t something I wanted to.
The scars stretch across the right side of my face and across the top of my mouth. At first I was really affected by them – when I looked in the mirror there was a daily reminder of what happened. At school I found it hard having to tell people again and again what they were from, so I decided to tell everyone my story all at once. The school called a special assembly for me.
Before I started speaking, my hands were clammy and my legs were shaking behind the podium. I remember being really happy that it was hiding me so the whole school couldn’t see me tremble. It was my first time standing on a stage again in over three years, since the event.
I didn’t write down my speech because I knew what I was going to say. When I started speaking, everyone in the hall was silent, listening carefully. At first I wasn’t able to look at anyone, but when I did, I saw that many of the students had tears in their eyes. My teachers told me afterwards that they had never witnessed their students as quiet as they were when I spoke.
Even though I was terrified and it hurt to relive what happened, I forced myself to get onto the stage and share my story because my past, and the friends that I have lost, motivated me to.
When I woke up on the morning of 16 December 2014, it was just like any weekday; I put on my school uniform and met my friends in the car park. Every morning before school we would sit in the cafeteria and share breakfast together, usually arguing over the cricket match from the night before. Then we would make our way to class.
Our school in Peshawar, Pakistan, is what we call an army school. This meant the army managed the school, and we were used to soldiers being around. So it was no big deal to us when a major came in to deliver a first aid talk to us in the auditorium.
The whole of our school was made up of wings: the school wing, a college wing and a toddler wing. For this lecture, the school and the college wing both got to attend, so that meant the room was full of students aged from 11 to 18.
I was 12 years old and one of the youngest head boys that the school wing had ever had – something that made my parents very proud. One of my privileges was to sit on the stage with the principal, and on this day, the major too. From here I could overlook all the other students’ faces. Some days my friends would try to catch my eyes or pull a face to get me to laugh.
It was about halfway through the talk when I remember hearing a deafening bang. It was loud, but not particularly out of the ordinary. Just the week before, the college wing had played a prank on us and thrown a firecracker into the auditorium. Our teachers didn’t find it as funny as we all did.
It sounded different this time though, not like a firecracker. Still, it could easily have been an army drill, so that’s what we all told ourselves. Laughter and chatter rippled around the room at the disturbance to the talk. It wasn’t until the noise got closer and closer that things started to change.
I asked my teacher, who was on the stage with me, if everything was all right. “Don’t worry, don’t worry, everything is fine,” he told me. Some students were concerned, others were joking around. When the noise reached its loudest, complete silence fell over the auditorium.
That’s when I knew something was wrong. The teachers’ smiles began to crack as they quickly locked all of the doors in and out of the auditorium. One teacher told everyone to get down and hide under our chairs. Some of the younger students started to cry. I stayed sat where I was on the stage, too confused to move. None of us had ever heard gunshots from that close before. And just like that, the door was kicked in and our auditorium became a war zone.
There was no pause before the firing started. They came in shooting. One of the men shouted, “Hit the elder ones in the head”, so loud that everyone could hear. That’s when I realised that I was still on my chair – I was so shocked, I couldn’t move my body to hide. I was just staring at them. Even as one of them aimed his gun directly at me, I still physically couldn’t move.
He was about 10 metres away from me when his first shot hit my face. When it made contact with my skin all I could feel was the searing pain, my face was open and bleeding but I still wasn’t sure that what was happening was real. Shots were being fired relentlessly in every direction. They shot my friends in the head, hands, legs, and chests, right in front of my eyes. From the stage I could see everything. I could see my classmates dying. Some instantly. Others slowly.
Even with their bodies in front of me, I couldn’t accept that my friends were dead, when a few minutes before we were laughing and gossiping with each other. It was the extreme mental pain that I remember the most. I was completely helpless and I think that broke me on the inside.
I was lying on the stage now, desperately trying to roll onto the floor and under the chairs to some sort of shelter. That’s when one of the terrorists saw me move. They shot me in the face, over and over again. I lost count of how many times.
I thought that was it – I was going to die there on the floor of that stage. Death didn’t feel very far away.
I couldn’t stop myself thinking about my parents and the promises I had made them to become a doctor and give our family a better life. I knew I would never see them again. The room was silent now, as the bodies started to disappear into a mist of gunpowder.
The terrorists now focused their attention on checking to see if we were alive – hitting people with guns to see whether they needed to shoot them again. When they reached me, I was kicked in the chest and a scream gave me away. Looking at my face that was barely there anymore, I can only assume that they decided to leave me to die painfully.
After what felt like hours, I heard them leave through the exit – in the direction of the toddler wing.
I put my hand in front of my mouth, to feel for warmth to check if I was still breathing. I was. I knew I was losing a lot of blood and the outside of my face now felt like the inside of my face. But somehow I could still see. I could hear. My mind was still working. I wasn’t scared anymore. After all, what else could happen to me?
When I tried to get up, I couldn’t. My legs weren’t doing what I told them to. So I started to crawl, to drag myself to safety. Every few centimetres, I thought I was going to pass out from the pain, then I would bring my hand to my mouth again, to check one more time that I was still alive. I said to myself, "I’m still breathing. Until I stop breathing, I will try my best to keep breathing."
My senses saved my life that day; they also destroyed any chance I had of forgetting every detail of what happened.
When someone from the army emergency response found me, I was barely conscious after crawling 30 metres. Half of my face was gone, and I hadn’t even realised that I had been shot in the leg.
The only thing I don’t remember from that day is how I got to the hospital. The terrorists had destroyed my face so much that, when I arrived in the emergency room, I was left with the dead bodies and not the patients. I had lost so much blood that my body was paralysed. I tried to speak, to make any kind of noise that would tell them that I was alive, but nothing would come out. I did everything I could to breathe deeply, hoping that someone would see and help me. The blood in my mouth started to make bubbles.
Later, I would be told that a nurse found me among the bodies. I had been shot in the face six times, once in the leg and once in the hand.
I had survived the second-worst terror attack in Pakistan to date – the shooters who attacked my school were from the Pakistan Taliban. Most victims were children. My classmates who should have gone on to become the country’s next politicians, engineers and doctors were wiped out in minutes.
For the first two years after the shooting I was tied to a hospital bed, and barely present. I went from a coma to surgery after surgery. My parents were told that I had a 1% chance of survival.
In the fleeting moments that I emerged from the haze, I asked after my best friend. Was he alive? Was he okay? When could I see him?
First the doctors had to take all the bullets and shells out of my body. Then they had to start to stitch my face back together, in many different operations. My front teeth were knocked out and my jaw was completely shattered, so they took a bone from my leg and made me a new jaw with it. They put metal plates inside my mouth, and created a joint – that was one of the biggest operations I had.
If I was ever alone with a phone or tablet, I desperately tried to look up the names of the dead, but I was always stopped by the nurses or my parents before I could find them. Everyone just wanted to protect me from more pain – and I don’t blame them for that.
In the months after the attack, I was crippled by the depression and trauma of what happened, as well as the huge physical blows to my body. I felt almost on the verge of suicide. I prayed it wasn't real, and that my friends were still alive, and I cried every day remembering the attack.
After many weeks of this, my mum turned to me and said, "What will happen if you cry now? Will your friends come back? It’s better to get healthy and to get back into life again, and do something for them so that everyone can remember them forever." That stuck with me – I had to get a purpose back in my life.
When the doctors in Pakistan could do no more for me, the complicated nature of my injuries brought me to the UK for specialist medical care. The Pakistan army facilitated me getting the treatment. Sadly, it meant leaving my mum and sister behind in Pakistan. When I arrived for my first operation, two years after the attack, my dad and I knew no one in the UK.
At first England and Birmingham were completely alien to me. I marvelled at the smallest of things. The community welcomed us quickly, and now Birmingham feels like a home away from home.
As soon as I was well enough to, all I really wanted to do was to go back to school. Some people find this difficult to understand; I know that logically I should feel the most unsafe or sad in a school. But for me it’s the opposite: education is where I see my future.
School in Birmingham felt more relaxed. I sometimes still can’t believe that every child here has access to a good education, peace and human rights – things that none of us in Pakistan would have dreamed of. Sometimes, before the attack, I'd drift off at school and the classes would merge into one. But I'll never take education for granted again.
The terrorists that entered my school that day chose to pick up bombs and guns, but to fight terrorism in my country I choose to pick up books and pens, because I believe it’s not weapons terrorists are scared of, it’s education.
While I await my next surgery, I go to school. I’m studying for my GCSEs. I’m also a member of the UK Youth Parliament, which I was elected to by all the schools in Birmingham. We listen to issues raised by the young people in our area, then once a year we get to take them to the House of Commons.
When I forced my trembling legs onto the stage at my new school in Birmingham, I never dreamed that talking about what happened would allow me to feel like I was making a difference. I was worried people would laugh and I thought, "Why would anyone listen to me?" After the incident, I kind of lost faith in humanity. But when I finished that talk, my classmates were hugging me and showing me so much respect – a tiny bit of that faith came back to me that day.
Since then, I’ve done countless motivational talks in schools, universities and companies all over the UK. My last talk was to students at SOAS University of London.
I want to live life, not just for myself but for all the children that were killed that day and in other attacks. I want people to never forget my friends and classmates; they went there to study for their futures, not to be killed. It’s nice to have friends again, but the ones I lost are never far from my thoughts.
As told to Hannah Price
For information and support relating to emotional distress, these organisations can help.