In His Own Words: Waleed Khan, Taliban School Massacre Survivor
Waleed Khan, now living in Birmingham, was just 12 when his school in Pakistan was attacked.
Editor's note: This story contains details of violence.
When Waleed Khan was 12 years old, six gunmen affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban attacked his school in Peshawar.
At least 126 people were killed in the attack in December 2014, more than 100 of them children. Since that day, Khan’s whole life has changed.
He was seriously injured in the attack — being shot eight times in total, and six times in his head and face. He spent the next two years in hospital in both Pakistan and in the UK, recovering from the physical and mental trauma of the attack.
Now at school in Birmingham, Khan is studying for his GCSEs, hoping to one day train as a doctor and go into politics.
Beyond anything, Khan wants to use his own experiences of an education interrupted by terror to help every child to access a quality education, regardless of whether they grow up in peace or in conflict.
In August, Britain announced a pledge from the UK aid budget to help 600,000 children living in conflict zones, just like Khan, to access a safe, quality education. You can join the movement by taking action here to support UK aid's work in education around the world.
This is Khan’s story.
I’m in year 11 now, and studying for my GCSEs. I really like it at my new school, and Birmingham feels like home to me.
But back in Pakistan I went to an army public school, a bit like grammar schools here in the UK. The education and the school was quite good, and that’s why it was one of the main targets for the terrorists — because it was a really good school and it was a really big school.
When I look back, I remember all of my friends and all of my teachers that are no longer here with me. I remember quite a lot of things from that school. I used to play a lot of cricket, I was the head boy there.
It was an army school so it was about 50% the children of army families who studied there, and 50% civilians. So we were civilians and my dad had to pay a fee for me to go there.
But while it was a good school, the situation at that time in Pakistan and in Peshawar was really, really bad. There used to be bomb blasts on a daily basis. At that time I was only 10 or 12, so when you are a child you don’t really give too much attention to those kinds of things.
Sometimes my parents and my uncles would talk about the situation and what was going on in the city, so I would hear these things. But I didn’t give too much attention to it, because I was living my own life.
But the terrorist attacks were at its peak at that time. People were dying on a daily basis, and it was quite a hard situation.
I remember one day, when me and my little brother were playing outside our house. That was the day I realised that the situation was really critical.
There had been a bomb blast in the city, and a few people from my neighbourhood, their relatives died in the bomb blast. You could see the family members of those people killed crying.
That day I realised that there was something going on that was really wrong, that things kind of struck me and the fear started to begin.
From then on, I wasn’t as relaxed as I was before, and I started to pay attention to things. If there was a bomb blast, I’d go to my parents and ask them about it. Or I would see the news and it would be like “that many people died” or “that many people were injured”, and the fear would grow more and more.
On the day of Dec. 16, 2014, our day started as normal. I remember in the morning — I remember every moment from that day — I wasn’t feeling well so my mum said I should stay at home.
But my little brother used to go with me to the same school, so whenever I would stay home he would want to stay home, too. So because of him I thought I should go, and then he’d go as well.
So we went to school. I left my little brother at his class in the toddlers’ section. Our school was basically a college wing, a school wing, and a toddlers’ section. There were three big buildings and they were in the same area, so it was like a campus.
I walked towards my school wing and there I met my friends, and we just sat together normally, chilling out and gossiping about stuff. Then we had our first lesson and in the second lesson, because I was the head boy, my teacher told me we had to go to the auditorium because we were having a first aid lecture from an army doctor, and I should tell all the students to go there.
I remember the classes I went to, whenever I told them we had to go to the auditorium everyone was so happy that we were going to miss lessons and they were all cheering. So we went to the auditorium and the lecture started.
But when we were about halfway through, there were some loud noises. We all ignored it at first, thinking it might be an army drill or something, as it was a military school. Or thinking it might be firecrackers. Just days before our seniors had tried to prank us by throwing firecrackers in the auditorium, so we thought they were doing it again and we didn’t pay attention.
The noises started getting louder and louder, and then it wasn’t normal. Everyone started looking really worried, and our teachers were whispering to each other and telling the students to relax.
I was on the stage at that point as head boy, with the army major and the head teacher. I could see everyone. Then I saw some men standing outside the auditorium door. Our teachers had locked the doors and, when the men realised the doors were locked, they started trying to break in.
I was just looking at them, and when they entered the auditorium they started firing, shooting. I couldn’t move. I was just looking at them, staring at them in shock. I didn’t know what was happening.
Who are these people? What are they here for? All of these things were going through my mind. And why are they shooting? I was just standing on the stage, and all the children went down under their chairs and I was just standing there.
Then one of them aimed his gun towards me and he shot me. He shot me in the face and I fell down on the floor, and I thought I was going to die now. At first I didn’t believe he’d shot me, I was thinking it was a dream, it wasn’t true.
I was thinking about how I can’t die so early. What about all those things I have planned? What about my future plans, my friends, and my parents and their dreams for me? All these things were going through my mind, and I was crying and I wasn’t accepting it.
I was telling myself, “It’s a dream, please wake up, please wake up.” But it wasn’t a dream. They shot my friends one after the other in front of my eyes.
I saw them falling down under their chairs, and I wasn’t believing my eyes. Everything had changed so suddenly. A few moments ago we were all laughing, joking, and then the smiles and laughter changed into calls for help and tears.
When I was lying down on the floor, one of the terrorists saw me and realised I was still alive, so they shot me again. I didn’t count at the time how many times they shot me, but afterwards the doctors told me I was shot eight times in total: six times in my face, and in my leg and my hand.
When they shot me the second time, I didn’t think there was any way I could survive now. I was just thinking about my mum and thinking about my friends. I just wanted to see my mum for the last time. I still remember those prayers, just wanting to see her again.
The terrorists were checking other students in the room, kicking them. I was still conscious, I could still see things, and hear things. I was covered in blood, and I didn’t realise that I’d been shot in my leg and hand, because the pain of my face was so much.
My whole focus was on my face and I was lying down there and all these things were going on in my mind. One of the terrorists came and he kicked me in the chest, to check whether I was still alive or not.
I don’t know what was in their mind, maybe they thought I was already dead, but they just left me lying there. After, I heard a few voices saying the terrorists had gone to the college wing, the voices of students who had survived. I could hear the survivors running out of the auditorium.
When I tried to stand up, I couldn’t because I was badly injured. So I tried to ask from help from the students who were running in front of me, I was just raising my hand and asking “someone please help me.”
It wasn’t their fault, because everyone was in a traumatic situation and they couldn’t do much, and everyone was running. When I realised that there was no one to help me … I don’t know. I was really lucky though that my senses were working, and I was conscious. That was the main thing.
I started crawling and somehow I managed to get out of the auditorium. I wasn’t really thinking about my leg or my hand, I was just concentrating on my face. I kept falling down because I’d lost so much blood and I was really, really weak. My eyes were closing and everything was starting to get blurry, but I was like, “no, I’m going to give it my best, because if I close my eyes right now then anyone who would come to rescue us would think I was dead.”
So I had to stay awake, I had to keep myself conscious.
I was trying to do some hand movements, because I couldn’t talk. I was swallowing blood every time I tried, and my jaw was broken, and my teeth were broken, and the base of my nose was broken. So everything was just broken.
I tried to do some movements with my hand to show “I’m still alive”, but as I said, everyone was in a traumatic situation so they didn’t look at me. I was left alone there in front of the library.
I remember there was firing and bombs going off in the school. I could see the birds flying from the tree, and I made a wish. I wished I could be one of those birds and I could fly away from here like them.
Lying there, I was trying to digest everything that happened. But I can’t even digest it now.
I had lost so much blood I couldn’t move any more. I just lay down and my eyes were closing and I tried to keep myself conscious. I realised then that I’d also been shot in my leg, right next to my knee. So I started hitting myself, on my injured leg, to feel more pain to keep myself conscious.
After about 10 minutes the army came in and they rescued me and they took me to hospital.
When I reached the hospital I was still conscious, and I could hear things, and see things. But my body was paralysed because I’d lost so much blood, and I couldn’t even move my fingers or my hands anymore.
The doctors thought I was dead, so they put my body with the other dead bodies.
I was trying to tell them, to do some movement or something, to tell them I was still alive. Suddenly, I took a long breath and, as my face was totally covered with blood, the blood bubbles started coming out of my mouth.
One of the nurses saw me, and she quickly called the doctor. Then they took me to the operation theatre, and after that I was in a coma for about 10 days and I don’t remember anything.
I think more than those injuries, the thing that haunted me — and still haunts me — was seeing my best friends, my childhood friends and my teachers, dying in front of my eyes. I can never in my life get over that.
When I regained consciousness, the first person I saw was my mum. And I started crying, because I never imagined that I would see her again. So that was kind of a happy ending, an emotional moment for me.
The next two months were the hardest time of my life, because I was in both physical and mental pain. The physical pain was obviously due to my injuries, but the most unbearable pain was remembering and having nightmares, and getting to know about the friends who had died.
I was stopped from using social media or laptops by the doctors, so I couldn’t go online and learn what had happened to my friends. But after two months, there were no nurses or any of my family around and I had the chance to search it online. I had to do it.
So I searched and got to know about most of my friends that died in the attack. I started crying and my mum walked in and she realised that I knew. She was crying with me, but I could see she was trying not to show it to me.
Then she asked me, “what will happen if you cry now? Will it make your friends come back?” She said it was better for me to do something for them, so that people could remember them forever.
That got stuck in my mind, and I decided that, yes, that was what I was going to do.
It was okay for me to cry, to be upset about it, but I wouldn’t give up and just sit there in the hospital and be a victim. I wasn’t going to do that, I was going to do something for my friends. That’s what I told my mum.
It’s still hard for me, and sometimes I still have nightmares. You can’t get over these things quickly, it takes time. And I have recovered. If I’m able to tell this story, if I’m able to say these things, I think I have recovered. But there’s still a lot to heal and I’m really working on that.
It’s why I’ve started doing public speaking, because I never want another person to be affected the way I was affected, the way my friends were affected, the way my family was affected. I would never, ever want that to happen to someone else.
After I’d been in hospital for about four months, in 2015, I was able to go to the UK for further treatment.
And the UK, it wasn’t like I’d expected. It was a new environment for me and the doctors, the nurses, and everyone here supported me so much.
I was in hospital for most of the next two years, so I didn’t get to know about the outside world. But then I was discharged and, while I still need regular check-ups as well as operations, I was really happy to get out of hospital.
The first thing I decided to do was join a school, because I had missed two years of schooling. And school was my first experience really of interacting with people without having people around me.
When I went to school again for the first time, I was really excited looking at all the new people, and I was really nervous as well. Because I was like, how do I make new friends? They were all new people for me, this was a new school for me, this was a new country for me.
Everyone asked me about my scars, all in a nice way, everyone was so nice. But I told my head teacher I couldn’t tell everyone separately, I had to tell everyone together how it happened. So I decided it would be better to do an assembly.
I was so nervous at the start, I was thinking “how do I say it, and how will they accept me?” They were so silent, they were all listening so carefully.
I got kind of emotional in my speech and my voice was breaking, but they were really supportive and after that everyone was coming up to me and hugging me. Everyone was friends with me after that, every person. That moment I realised, if someone is a human being they can really feel your pain.
The support I got from it and the way the school and the students responded was amazing, and that gave me so much confidence. Honestly, the way they accepted me and welcomed me, it was really heart-warming and I’m really grateful to them for that. After that, I’ve never stopped public speaking.
My family isn’t here with me, only my dad is here [in the UK], so the friends around me at school, the teachers, I see it as a big family and I feel happy to learn. I never thought that I would like school so much.
In today’s world, education is the most important thing. For me, it’s like providing water for someone, it goes to that level. Young people have to have education around the world, especially in countries that are in conflict and affected by terrorism.
More than bombs and guns, they [terrorists] are scared of education. That’s why they attacked my school, that’s why they’re attacking other schools, because it’s one of the key things that can uproot them.
I say this whenever I go to schools, I tell students that they are really lucky to have a quality education, and in peace. Because millions of children around the world are dreaming for a life like this.
It’s not just about getting a degree, an education is socialising with people, with your community, being friendly with people from other communities; it’s building your character.
What I want, for right now, is to focus on my GCSEs. But for the future, I have a lot of things to do. It’s my aim to help children around the world, no matter which country they’re from.
There was a change in me after the incident. Before it, I wanted to live for myself. But after it, now, I want now to live for others.
As told to Imogen Calderwood.
“In My Own Words” is a content series that promotes and amplifies the voices of activists leading the fight against extreme poverty and its root causes — both in their own communities and around the world. We want to give people the opportunity to tell their own stories, unfiltered and in their own words, because everyone needs to be heard to achieve a world that’s equal and fair for all.