A spring Sunday afternoon in Birmingham. The Forward Drive cricket academy, housed in a converted garage not far from the Edgbaston ground, is teeming with local children from different communities. One group of younger children is playing catch with a thin teenager wearing glasses. They are totally absorbed in the activity and clearly delighted when he gives them any praise.
Later the teenager shows off his own all-round skills in one of the nets, as a distinctly quick right-arm bowler and aggressive left-handed batsman.
It is a commonplace scene but this is no commonplace cricketer. He is Muhammad Waleed Khan. Aged twelve, he survived the terrorist attack in December 2014 on the Peshawar Army School (commonly called the Army Public School) which killed 135 of his school mates and 20 teachers. Waleed took eight bullets, six in the face and head. He was frequently given up for dead. He has undergone years of reconstructive surgery, first in Pakistan and then in Birmingham, England where he is living with his father. Some of the procedures are agonizing and he must endure three or four more years of them. Not surprisingly, he still suffers flashbacks and nightmares, and bouts of insomnia.
Waleed was eager to tell me his story. Sometimes it caused him evident pain but never bitterness. In his own words, he has set himself “to gain revenge not with guns but the pen” and to use his story as an example of how education can break the cycle of terrorism.
He went to school happily on the morning of 16 December 2014, with his eight-year-old brother Aizaz. Waleed was looking forward to a victory celebration for the junior cricket team which he captained, after it had won a local tournament in style. His father had bought him a special sports shirt to wear – which would soon have great significance.
He met his school friends, chatted and “had a fun time as usual” and attended his first lesson (in English). There was an extra reason to celebrate. The normal (boring) second lesson was cancelled for three of the school years, who instead were having a lecture from a local army doctor on first aid. In view of what would soon happen, this subject carries a terrible irony.
As a proctor (prefect), Waleed escorted other children to the auditorium and stayed on stage to present the lecturer. The doctor asked his young audience if they knew what the ABC of first aid stood for and Waleed’s cheeky friend Humayun replied “Apple”. That would be his last joke.
About halfway through the lecture, they heard a loud bang. Because it was an Army school they thought it might be some Army exercise or else some seniors throwing firecrackers as a prank. But there were more bangs, each louder, and Waleed saw teachers locking the doors and whispering to each other. The children, around 600 in number, grew anxious and one child near Waleed started to cry. He tried to reassure him that there was nothing wrong, but suddenly armed men appeared at the back door and broke it down with two kicks.
“Others hid under chairs,” said Waleed, “but I stayed standing. I had no idea what was going on. No one knew.” The men started shouting and shot children and teachers in front of him. “I didn’t believe it. I thought I was dreaming and willed myself to wake up. I thought: who are they, why are they shooting at us, what have we done to them?”
Viciously, the terrorists concentrated on the children and teachers, actually ignoring the lecturer who might have been a more obvious target. Elsewhere in the school children managed to escape, including Waleed’s brother Aizaz. His father, Gulzar, was proud to tell me that Aizaz was the first to alert the army to the scale of the attack.
But the massacre in the auditorium continued and one terrorist took aim at Waleed. He shot him in the face. “I fell down. I thought I would die soon. I saw my friends lying down in front of me, full of blood, and I could not help them. They were going somewhere in the sky. I brought back my memories of them, and of my mum and dad and family.”
The terrorist saw him trying to get up and shot him five more times in the face and then in the arm and the leg. They were heavy-calibre Kalashnikov bullets. “I didn’t notice the arm and the leg, my face hurt so much. I thought I had lost any chance of surviving, and waited for my eyes to close. Suddenly I thought, I won’t give up that easily, I’ll do my best to live for my family and friends.”
By now the terrorists had left the auditorium and were seeking other targets. They headed for the college wing, aiming to kill the older students before they could escape. (Gulzar said that they had prepared for a long operation and planned killings in each part of the school, stage by stage. It was a big school, with 2000 pupils aged from six to eighteen. “They wanted to kill them all.”)
The survivors in the auditorium headed for the school wing away from the terrorists. Waleed tried to join them and called for help to stand up, but in the panic and trauma no one heard him. He tried to pull himself up with chairs but his right leg kept collapsing. He started to crawl away, made it to the exit, but then fell down some steps in front of the library. Other escapers trampled him and broke his wrist.
“I lay down. I heard more blasts and firing. I could see birds outside, flying from the trees and I prayed to God that I could be like the birds and fly away.” He tried to move again, but lost a lot of blood and passed out.
He was discovered by Pakistan Army rescuers and taken to the Combined Military Hospital, where doctors thought he was dead because his face was so full of blood. His body was put in the mortuary, with dead bodies. He could not speak and tried to move his hand, but was too weak even to move a finger. “I tried to breathe more quickly. A nurse noticed bubbles in my blood and told doctors I was still breathing.” They rushed him to the operating theatre for emergency surgery. He was in a coma for eight days and no one knew who he was.
His family had been searching for him frantically in every possible place. Finally, Gulzar was shown the unknown boy in the Intensive Care Unit. He could not recognized the heavily bandaged face, of which half had been shot away. But he lifted the blanket – and identified his son from the special sports shirt he had bought for him.
Family members kept vigil in the ICU, although his mother found this generally too stressful and she had Aizaz to care for at home. Doctors gave his chances of survival at half a per cent. On his sixth day, they warned the family that if Waleed did not revive within 48 hours they would have to give up on him. On the eighth day, his mother visited and held his hand. Waleed recovered consciousness and squeezed back. The doctors were as amazed and happy as the family.
He was in and out of consciousness for the next month. When awake, he had repeated flashbacks to the terrorist attacks and tried to tear off his bandages and tubes to flee. The doctors had to restrain and sedate him. In a calmer period, his mother tried to persuade him that he had had a bicycle accident. He said “No, Mum, I was shot by terrorists.” He showed a flash of teenage pride at winning an argument with a parent.
He spent four months in the hospital in Peshawar on repairs to his jaw and nose but then the family was told that further surgery would be needed in England. The costs were met by the Pakistan Army. Gulzar travelled with him to Birmingham, leaving behind the rest of his family and his tyre-import business.
After further treatments in England, they returned to Peshawar. Waleed, still in a wheelchair, told his father he wanted to go back to the Army School. “I wanted to encourage the other students and tell them the terrorists had not succeeded in stopping the school.” Classmates and teachers were delighted to see him, but it was still a heartbreaking experience. “I could not go back to the auditorium without crying. I missed my friends. I kept hoping I would meet them and we would chat about wrestling, football and cricket as we did that morning.”
Waleed is the only survivor of his winning cricket team.
In February 2017 he returned with his father to Birmingham for further treatment, at the world-famous Queen Elizabeth hospital, and has been in the city ever since. He enrolled in a good Birmingham school. It was a tough start after missing almost two years of education in Pakistan. But he was strongly supported by the school itself, and by “Uncle Kazi”, director of the cricket academy, by Muniba Mazari (Pakistan’s wheelchair-using ambassador for women) and the family of Malala Yousufzai, the young Nobel prizewinner whom he matches in his passion for education. The Pakistan Army continues to pay for his further treatment.
“I’ve been amazed by the support I get from all over the world from people I meet – including India.” He has met the Pakistan cricket team, and Younus Khan passed him a shirt from the New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, Pakistan’s then Test opponents. He and other survivors had a holiday in Dubai and played beach cricket with Shahid Afridi and the other stars of the Peshawar Zalmi T20 team. (He was wearing their strip when we met.) Another celebrity visitor was the boxer Amir Khan. He was thrilled at his recent comeback, a first-round knockout victory.
He has achieved much in a short time at his new school despite the demands of repeated surgery: captain of cricket, on the handball and hockey teams, a swimming champion, a member of the Student Guild. He won election to the UK’s Youth Parliament. He is in demand locally as a motivational speaker, particularly for young people being targeted by Islamic fanatics. “They are not showing the true image of Islam. Show me anywhere in the Holy Qu’ran anything written in hatred of humanity. I learnt my Islam from my family: above all things respect humanity, be fair, do justice to all.” To Waleed, education is only lasting solution to terrorism. “Once I wanted to avenge my friends with guns, now I want to do it with books and pens and teachers.”
He will take English GSCEs next year in Religious Studies, Geography, History, PE and Sports Studies and then aims to take A Level Psychology.
Apart from the continued reconstructive surgery he must undergo, the terrorist attack has left two other physical legacies. It affected his eyesight. “I used to wear glasses for style, in different colours, because I thought intellectuals wore them. I wanted a nerdy look.” Now he has to wear them for real.
He is also very thin. He cannot eat any food easily and in England he misses his mother’s cooking. “My dad’s become a good cook,” he added hastily “but Mum is Mum…” he said poignantly.
I watched his little rehearsal as a cricketer with amazement. I told him afterwards that I could understand him wanting to be a fast bowler, as a kind of revenge on the attackers, but that I was astonished that after taking bullets in the face he was ready to face cricket balls as a batsman. Did he have any problems with bouncers? No: he enjoys hooking them.
Whatever happens to him as a player, cricket will always represent victory for him. The terrorists could kill his friends and his teachers and leave him on the edge of death. They could take away years of his childhood and education. They could force him to leave his home and most of his family. But they cannot rob a young cricketer of his dreams.
Richard Heller is the author with Peter Oborne of White On Green celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket.