First the Pakistani Taliban bombed or burned over 1,000 schools. Then they shot Malala Yousafzai, the teenage advocate for girls’ rights. But on Tuesday, the Taliban took their war on education to a ruthless new low with an assault on a crowded school in Peshawar that killed 145 people — 132 of them uniformed schoolchildren — in the deadliest single attack in the group’s history.
During an eight-hour rampage at the Army Public School and Degree College, a team of nine Taliban gunmen stormed through the corridors and assembly hall, firing at random and throwing grenades. Some of the 1,100 students at the school were lined up and slaughtered with shots to the head. Others were gunned down as they cowered under their desks, or forced to watch as their teachers were riddled with bullets.
Their parents crowded around the school gates, praying their children would survive while listening to the explosions and gunfire as Pakistani commandos stormed the building.
With its chilling echoes of a school in Beslan, Russia, where 186 children were massacred in 2004, the terrorist attack in Peshawar traumatized a scarred city that has suffered intense Taliban violence since the insurgency erupted seven years ago. By evening, mosques were filled with mourners carrying small wooden coffins, and residents cried openly in the streets.
A Taliban spokesman said the attack had been retaliation for the continuing military operation against the group in the North Waziristan tribal region. But the image of children’s bodies on the floor of their school auditorium, some of them not yet in their teens, again demonstrated how the Pakistani Taliban’s war has often been taken out on the country’s most vulnerable citizens.
A wave of outrage crossed national boundaries, with statements of support and sympathy coming from around the world.
Witnesses in Peshawar said the assault started around 10 a.m., when nine heavily armed militants, disguised in paramilitary uniforms, slipped through a military graveyard and leapt over the back wall of the Army Public School. They rushed through the main building, shooting and flinging grenades before reaching the auditorium. There, according to one Pakistani official, a senior army official was giving a first aid course.
First they sprayed the students with bullets; then they singled out the survivors. “Our instructor asked us to duck and lie down,” a student named Zeeshan said in an interview at the hospital. “Then I saw militants walking past rows of students, shooting them in the head.”
Elsewhere in the school, teachers, realizing what was going on, abruptly canceled classes and exams and tried to protect their charges, who ranged in age from roughly 5 to 17. A 7-year-old named Afaq broke down as he described how the militants sprayed bullets as they rushed into his classroom. “They killed our teacher,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.
Although early assessments suggested that the gunmen had been intent on mounting a long siege — some were carrying stores of food, it was later discovered — a senior security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, insisted that they had shown no intention of taking hostages. “They were there to kill, and this is what they did,” he said.