“He shot at me seven times,” shares Aakif Azeem, as he revealed a play-by-play account of the school day which changed his life forever. “I was in the toilet at around 10.30am when I first heard gun fire. There’s a marriage hall near our school, so I thought the firing might be coming from there. But within a minute or two, the firing got really louder. When I stepped out of the toilet, I saw him for the first time. He was wearing a blue shalwar kameez, a brown sweater and a cap. He had an AK-47 in one hand and a pistol in another. I tried to run for cover behind a pillar and he shouted in Pashto asking me to stop. I knew that was the end of it. I froze with fear.
“Three bullets hit the pillar,” shared Aakif. “That’s when another attacker asked the one shooting in my direction to follow him to the auditorium nearby, as there were more children there. The attacker shot four more times, missing the pillar and hitting the wall across. Then, he left for the auditorium. I re-grouped myself and went to a nearby class room, 7-B. The class had over 20 children and a female teacher. We barricaded the door and huddled in the centre of the room, away from the door and mirrors. Around 11am, the firing became extremely loud before it tapered off. The doors of the auditorium were opening and I could see eight to 10 bodies in the corridor. It was a scene from a horror movie with zombies walking around. Some of the guys were shot on their mouth. Some had their jaws open. Someone was holding their arm. Three boys died in front of me. That’s when I realised my brother was in the auditorium too. But it wasn’t clear to me what I should do next.”
With the attackers appearing to move on from a particular area of the school, Aakif went towards his own classroom. “I saw our chemistry lab assistant dead on the floor,” he shares. “The next person I saw dead was Mehr, one of my closest friends. I pulled his body into the washroom. Next, I saw my Urdu teacher, who asked if I was okay. I said yes, but this was the last I saw of her. When I reached my class, all I could see was blood but no bodies. I thanked God because I thought all my friends had escaped. It was much later in the evening when I would find out what actually happened to my best friends.
“I moved back into class 7B and all of us huddled together, waiting to be rescued,” he shared. “We heard gunshots again, lots of voices and a thud. Then there was silence, except for a young boy’s voice asking for help near the door of the class. When we opened the door, we realised that he had been hung by his own sweater. I still remember his words: “Kash mujhey bhi koi bacha leta.” He had been shot three times already and was bleeding profusely. One of the bullets had gone through his chin. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to survive but I tried to stop his bleeding with my shirt as I was a pre-med student.”
Soon after, Aakif and others huddled in the classroom were rescued by the Pakistan Army and he found out that his brother was safe too. But this was only the beginning of the terror that he faced that fateful day on December 16, 2014. As reports came in of over a hundred dead, Aakif rushed to the hospital to check on his friends and classmates. “When I first saw the list of casualties,” he shares, “I recognised that my classmates dominated the list from number 13 to number 40. When I saw that my four best friends were dead, I fell to the floor and finally lost control of my emotions. That’s when everything hit me. I would never be the same man again.”
“I attended funerals from 9pm to 5am the following morning,” shares Aakif Azeem. “I could only attend nine funerals of my classmates even though more than 15 boys died from my class alone. I came home around 5.30am, but couldn’t fall asleep. My best friend Zain Iqbal’s funeral was at 11am in the morning. We used to go to school together every day because he lived near my house. Before his funeral, I went to his house following my usual route and stood in the corridor where we used to hang out together all the time. I didn’t have the courage to see his body. I couldn’t see his face for the last time. I didn’t know how to face him.
“Zain’s mother is a teacher in my school and she sees Zain in me now,” shares Aakif. “I can see her in the corridors looking at me. Even in the examination hall she watches me from a hidden place because she sees her son in me. I was invited to Zain’s sister’s wedding to take his place. I was given his clothes and everyone was calling me Zain. Everyone gave me protocol and treated me like Zain in their family. I went to Zain’s grave and promised him that I wouldn’t cry at the wedding,” he says. “But it was really painful.”
I had promised to write this story in Aakif’s words without inserting my own emotions or sermonising, but I can no longer control my feelings at this point. Aakif says everyone tells him the whole country stands behind him, what else do you want? But he argues that the country focused on the physical wounds of the dead and wounded, while the wounds in his day-to-day life remain invisible. Instead of trying to brush their pain under the carpet, we need to find ways to give their stories a voice.
“I lost four friends I had been studying with since grade four on December 16, 2014,” says Aakif, his voice cracking with emotions. “Zain and I had been best friends since childhood. We were two brothers from two different mothers. We were a group of four boys and now I’m the only surviving one. I miss them a lot emotionally. But I know they’ll get pained if they see me cry. I need to be strong and smile for them. They’re at some place better now, that’s what I keep reminding myself. My life now is about their dreams and proving to the world what real friendship is about. I’ll continue to miss them for the rest of my life.
“I sit alone and contemplate about what happened,” shares Aakif. “I have a lot of things and curiosity on my mind. Why me? Why did my life turn upside down and why did I survive? But life continues no matter what happens. Everyone asks me to move on. Our college opened again in January. We had board exams coming up soon but I struggled to concentrate and study again. There was a very moving moment during our chemistry exam. Usually, Zain would always sit behind me while taking exams. So I asked him during my board exam, ‘Zain yaar iss sawal ka jawab kia hai’ and the guy behind me said, Zain isn’t here. Both of us started crying in the examination hall. Only six boys from our class survived the attack. But our grades fell so dramatically after the attack that only two of us have been able to secure admission to a university.
“Somehow through our darkest moments,” he shares, “you find the light within yourself. I look at some boys who get so crazy about a girl that they say they’ll commit suicide if they don’t get her. But after everything I’ve gone through, I’ve realised that I have a higher purpose. I’m determined to use my voice to make sure Pakistan never forgets my friends.”