Tears stinging her eyes and holding her pregnant tummy, Anila Rizwan, stood just meters from the school, listening to the loud thud of gun fire coming from inside the grounds where her oldest son was meant to be studying.
Anila, 40, had been desperately waiting – like hundreds of other parents – for news of her son 16-year-old Maheer Rizwan Ghazali who had gone to school as normal that day.
But when Anila heard the Taliban had infiltrated the school and was on a killing spree she ran as fast as she could – being five months pregnant – to save her son.
Standing, waiting, wrapped in a warm pashmina, trembling with fear of what could be happening to her teenage boy, her brother eventually told her that he sadly had been killed.
Barely able to walk, Anila finally saw her son’s body alongside 132 other children that had been killed that day.
On the first anniversary of the Taliban’s attack on the Army Public School, in Peshawar, north west Pakistan, which was the deadliest terrorist attack ever to occur in Pakistan, Anilaspeaks exclusively about coming to terms with the loss of her oldest son in such tragic circumstances and giving birth to a new son amid her harrowing grief.
Anila says: ‘This time last year he was with me and then he wasn’t. I sent him to school like I did any other day but I never saw him alive again.
‘It’s been 12 months but it hasn’t got any easier. It breaks my heart every time I think of him. This day is hard, I can’t accept a year has gone without my boy.
‘The memory of his voice echoes in my head every day. I can’t detach from him, and I don’t want to. He had so many dreams, so many things he wanted to do. How can this be?
‘I pray for my country every day, pray that it will heal itself of terror. But governments need to do something about these militants. These people are projecting terror and in the name of Islam. There is no place for such terror in Islam. We have to punish the people responsible for these gruesome acts. If it was up to us we would punish them all, but it’s the government’s job and they should act accordingly.’
It’s been 12 months but it hasn’t got any easier. It breaks my heart every time I think of him
On the morning of December 16th, 2014, Maheer, who was a football and cricket fan, was running late for school – as he always did – and Anila remembers shouting at him to hurry up.
‘He was always late for school,’ she remembers. ‘He was late and then he made his siblings late also. In the morning he had his eggs for breakfast and off he went with his sister and brother following behind him.’
Maheer was the oldest of son of three. His 15-year-old sister, Mehreen, was in a different female school but his younger brother Arham, just ten, attended the same school.
Anila, who was five months pregnant at the time, was completing mature studies in a small college a few kilometers from her son’s school when one of the teachers suddenly announced at 11am that the school had been attacked.
But at first there was confusion which school was actually under attack. As soon as it was clear that it was in fact her son’s school – the Army Public School – Anila ran down a short cut towards the grounds.
She says: ‘When I got there we were stopped by army men, they wouldn’t let us pass or get close to the school. I called my husband and told him to come quickly.
‘I honestly didn’t think he’d be hurt. I just assumed they’d be locked in a classroom as hostages and would need picking up and taken home.’
It was soon reported the attack was by the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP). The militants – one Chechen, three Arabs and two Afghans – had entered the school and opened fire on school staff and children in an act of revenge for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani military’s offensive, in North Waziristan, that had started in summer 2014.
Anila waited all day by the barriers the army men had created on Warsak Road as her husband Rizwan Aslam, 44, searched hospitals.
‘I heard the gunfire,’ she adds. ‘But I was sure my son would be ok. I accepted that he may possibly be injured. I wondered for some time that someone may have taken him to a hospital and that’s why he wasn’t coming out.’
But at 5.30pm Anila’s brother came running towards her, trembling.
Anila says: ‘He touched my arm and said: ‘Come, we have found Maheer’. But he was shaking. I could tell on his face it wasn’t good. I asked him if he was ok. But he repeated the same: ‘Come, you need to come.’ But I didn’t move. I kept asking him if my son was ok. And eventually he told me. He told me my son was dead.’
Anila later found out that Maheer had in fact been one of the first ones killed in the auditorium shooting in the morning.
His body had been taken to the hospital soon after but no one had identified him, until her brother had recognised him.
He touched my arm and said: ‘Come, we have found Maheer
Anila adds: ‘When I saw him lying in the hospital he had a tag on his foot with 19 written on it. Apparently, he was the 19th child to have been killed that day. And all the while I had been waiting and hoping.
‘I cried and sobbed at his feet when I saw him. Nothing can prepare you for losing a child. I waved my son off to school – somewhere you think is safe – but I never saw him alive again. It’s something I still cannot accept. It’s absolutely tragic that my son was killed in the exact place where he was trying to better his future.’
Seven gunmen, disguised in uniforms of the Pakistani paramilitary force, entered the school from the back after having scaled the walls.
The terrorists, bearing automatic weapons, headed straight for the auditorium located in the centre of the school’s complex and opened fire on the children who had gathered there for First aid training, which included Maheer.
Reports said many of the pupils in the auditorium ran towards the two exits on the other side of the hall, but many of them were gunned down in the garden.
A total of 141 people had been killed in the shootings, including 132 schoolchildren aged between eight and eighteen years old.
Maheer’s funeral took place the following day on December 17th but Anila cannot remember the day.
She says: ‘I couldn’t see or do anything for days. I was a wreck. I was pregnant and I had my other children but I couldn’t come over the shock. All I could see was my son in his school uniform.
‘He wanted to be a scientist and experiment with software engineering. He often told me he would take me to meet Bill Gates one day. He had dreams, he had things he wanted to do with his life.’
In May this year, Anila gave birth to a new son, Zuraiz, just five months after her oldest son was killed.
‘We’ve been blessed with another son, I look at him and see Maheer,’ Anila says. ‘But it breaks my heart that they never met. It pains me to think Maheer never met his little brother and Zuraiz will never know his proud big brother.
He often told me he would take me to meet Bill Gates one day. He had dreams, he had things he wanted to do with his life
‘On hard days I look at my baby and try to see the positives in life. But I cannot understand what happened.
‘Thankfully my children are very close to one another. My two eldest have grieved for their brother, and have suffered. But because of that day I am very protective of them now. I am very careful about where they go and what they do. I am not at peace until they are back home with me. Even their school is not safe now.’
Anila and Rizwan have since received 500,000 Pakistan Rupees (£3,200) by the provincial Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as compensation of Maheer’s death. The family has also been presented with a Medal of Honour and a Certificate of Honour by Pakistan Chief of Army Staff.
But Anila cannot come to terms with the pointless way in which her son was killed by terrorists.
Earlier this month, on December 2, the Pakistan Government hung the four militants involved in the Peshawar school massacre.
But terrorist attacks continue.
‘May Allah put these men on the right path,’ she says. ‘I read the Quran and I am a good Muslim. I want those responsible for my son’s death and those still killing punished. This cannot continue and I cannot believe that these people think they’re Muslim. These people are not Muslim if they can attack people, our children. I cannot understand, why? Why do they do this?’