Pakistani schoolboy who survived a Taliban massacre is going to Oxford

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As the Taliban death squad stalked through the school assembly hall, shooting boy after green-uniformed boy with chilling dispassion, Ahmad Nawaz slid to the floor and cowered under his chair.

Lying face down with his hands clasped over his head, he held his breath as the clatter of gunfire drew ever closer.

Then he could see the black boots through his fingers. One of the bearded assassins had reached Ahmad’s row. His bucket-seat had tipped up, leaving him horribly exposed, and the muzzle of an automatic rifle was trained on the back of his head. If 14-year-old Ahmad hadn’t shifted instinctively, a few inches to his right, as the trigger was pulled, he would have met the same fate as his younger brother, Haris, who was among the 132 children massacred that morning at the Army Public School in Peshawar, North-West Pakistan.

Ahmad Nawaz, pictured, was a student at the Army Public School in Peshawar, North West Pakistan when the facility was attacked by the Taliban, some 132 children were massacred, including Ahmad's younger brother Haris

Ahmad Nawaz, pictured, was a student at the Army Public School in Peshawar, North West Pakistan when the facility was attacked by the Taliban, some 132 children were massacred, including Ahmad’s younger brother Haris 

After six years, the teenager, who came to the UK for emergency surgery on his wounds, has won a place at Oxford University

After six years, the teenager, who came to the UK for emergency surgery on his wounds, has won a place at Oxford University

Ahmad Nawaz, left, is a near neighbour of Malala Yousafzai, pictured right, who was shot in the head by the Taliban. They both travelled no Birmingham for life-saving surgery. Muhammad Ibrahim, seated, was also wounded in a Taliban attack

Ahmad Nawaz, left, is a near neighbour of Malala Yousafzai, pictured right, who was shot in the head by the Taliban. They both travelled no Birmingham for life-saving surgery. Muhammad Ibrahim, seated, was also wounded in a Taliban attack

Instead, the bullet pierced his upper left arm, shattering bone and biceps. As blood spurted from his wound, the jihadi — in a hurry to dispatch more pupils — left him for dead.

But somehow Ahmad survived the most murderous terrorist attack on children the world has ever witnessed. After emergency surgery in Peshawar, he was airlifted 6,000 miles to Britain, where a surgeon at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital — renowned for treating complex gunshot wounds — managed to save his arm.

That was almost six years ago. And this summer Ahmad’s extraordinary journey was made truly complete. Having arrived here barely able to speak English, he has won a coveted place at Oxford University, to study philosophy and theology.

When I met this remarkable young man and his family — who now live on the outskirts of Birmingham — his mother Samina, 41, declared his achievement ‘a miracle’.

‘Where we come from, everybody knows Oxford because the name is stamped in all the dictionaries,’ she told me, her face shining with pride.

‘But no one would ever dream of seeing their son go to study there.’

With our education system in disarray following the exams fiasco, the story of Ahmad’s ascent — from the hell of that corpse-strewn Pakistani school to the fabled Dreaming Spires — is enormously uplifting.

It’s a reminder that even the most disadvantaged pupils can challenge for the glittering prizes at Britain’s top universities if they are bright, resourceful and determined.

Now 19, Ahmad possesses those qualities in abundance. Admirably, though, he isn’t using them just for his own advancement.

When he was told, 15 days after being shot, that his brother and many of his friends had been slain, his first instinct was to join the Pakistani Army to wreak vengeance on the Taliban.

His burning sense of fury was compounded by guilt, for Haris, 13, had been unwell and had wanted to stay at home that grim day, in December 2014. Yet Ahmad, for whom attending school was sacrosanct, had insisted he catch the bus with him.

After the attack, Ahmad's arm was so badly injured that doctors considered amputation

After the attack, Ahmad’s arm was so badly injured that doctors considered amputation

But as he recovered, Ahmad began to think more rationally. He realises he and the extremists who brought carnage to his school probably shared similarly ordinary backgrounds, ‘at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum’, as he puts it.

All that separated them, and set them on divergent paths, he believes, was good schooling.

While he had been encouraged to study hard, and gained entry to Peshawar’s finest academy, they — and thousands like them — had been educated poorly, if at all. Their fertile, unquestioning minds were thus wide open to indoctrination by fanatics with evil intent.

Rather than take up arms in anger, Ahmad began giving talks in schools — first in Birmingham, then throughout Britain and overseas — drawing on his harrowing experience to confront young people with the consequences of radicalisation.

His work has already brought him an array of humanitarian awards — plaques, shields, statuettes, silver salvers — all displayed in a tall glass cabinet in the living room. They include the Diana Award, presented to him by Prince William last November for ‘selflessly transforming the lives of others and going above and beyond to create and sustain positive change’.

He is also an honorary ambassador for the Anne Frank Trust, sharing a stage with Holocaust survivors; a winner of the Home Office’s Young Upstander award for work against hatred; and has been made an honorary British citizen.

Though he is, in many ways, mature beyond his years, Ahmad becomes endearingly boyish when discussing these achievements.

‘When I spoke at an international conference in Portugal, all these world leaders seemed to know who I was,’ he says incredulously.

‘The Portuguese president came up to me and said: “Ah, you’re that boy [who survived the massacre].”’

Not wishing to sound boastful, he points to some football trophies on the mantelpiece. They were won by his 13-year-old brother Umar, he enthuses — a ‘brilliant player’.

Ahmad is also at pains to praise his murdered brother who, he insists, was not only his intellectual superior, but was also cooler, more handsome and better at cricket, too.

His mother fetches a photograph of Haris. ‘He had beautiful eyes, nice thick hair,’ she tells me.

‘He would wear tight jeans, unlike the other boys who wore traditional clothes. I still miss him so much that I forget he isn’t here and call out his name.’

When giving his emotive talks, Ahmad stops short of uncovering his scarred and wasted left arm, which is attached to his shoulder by a metal plate.

‘That would be too much,’ he says. But before telling his story he rolls up his shirt-sleeve and shows the damage to me.

It is a reminder of the horrors that unfolded on ‘a dark day for humanity’ as then Prime Minister David Cameron described it, adding that the scale of the barbarity ‘simply defies belief’.

Ahmad Nawaz, 19, almost lost an arm when the Taliban launched a murderous attack at his school in Peshawar in December 2014

Ahmad Nawaz, 19, almost lost an arm when the Taliban launched a murderous attack at his school in Peshawar in December 2014

For Ahmad, however, it had started so normally. Arriving early, as usual, he played basketball on the school field with his friends before heading to the huge auditorium for assembly, which he usually enjoyed because someone would give an interesting talk.

Ironically, the speaker that Tuesday was a military medical officer who instructed the boys on emergency first aid techniques.

As he listened to the address, Ahmad sat with his senior-school classmates on one side of hall, while his brother — a junior — sat on the other. Then, the doors burst open and, with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar!’[God is great], the half a dozen insurgents went about their murderous work.

Cynically attempting to justify the slaughter of innocent children — few of whom came from military families, though the school was on an army base — the Taliban later claimed the pupils were legitimate targets because their own families had been targeted by Pakistan’s missile attacks.

The sound of gunfire sent many children stampeding in panic for the exits. They were cut down instantly, and their bodies lay in bloody piles beside the front and back doors.

Ahmad and his friends chose to hide beneath their seats. At first, they didn’t realise the terrorists were intent on mass murder. Since Peshawar stands just 30 miles from the border with Afghanistan, they were familiar with Taliban tactics, and thought they would be held ransom while demands were made on their government.

It was only when they heard an eerily repeated sound — that of a solitary gunshot, sometimes followed by a whimper — that the truth dawned. ‘Some boys were shot just once in the head, but if they made any noise the attackers finished them off,’ he remembers.

The attackers left the hall to continue killing in the classrooms. One brave teacher, who stood between them and her pupils, was doused with petrol and set ablaze. The school head was also sought out and shot.

Meanwhile, Ahmad picked up his arm, which ‘hung by a thread’, and crawled to a small wooden shelter at the back of the stage, where he hid with 15 others, including another female teacher.

But after an hour, the assassins returned to find them and set the cabin on fire.

‘The teacher was lying against the wall, unable to move because of her injuries, and I saw her burn alive,’ he recalls, lowering his head.

With no choice but to scramble out of the cabin and oblivious to whether he lived or died, he decided to raise his good hand in the air. ‘If it was seen by a terrorist, I would feel a brief pain and be dead; if it was seen by one of the soldiers (by then staging a fightback) I would be saved.’

Fortune had it that he was spotted by a soldier, who carried him outside and threw him in the back of a van. The next thing he recalls is being dazzled by the overhead lights in the operating theatre.

For two years after the attack, Ahmad suffered such disturbing nightmares that he had to sleep in his parents’ room.

‘He would wake up screaming, “the terrorists are coming to shoot me!” And I would hold on to him until it passed,’ says his mother. He also experienced a frightening sensation when he lay down, even for a few minutes. ‘I would feel a sort of electric shock go through my body and it would jolt me upright,’ he says. ‘It would be followed by a terrible pain in the arm where I was shot.’

Psychotherapy helped to ease his mental pain, but Ahmad says it has also been therapeutic to speak publicly about his experiences

In February 2015, Ahmad moved to Birmingham with his father Muhammad, 44, who had run a small fruit-juice distribution business, his mother, and surviving brother (he now has another brother, aged 11 months).

Somewhat reluctantly, the Pakistani government agreed to pay for his flight, medical treatment and the rent of a house after a campaign prompted by one of his doctors, who stated that he would lose his arm without specialist surgery at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

In Pakistan, its reputation was well known because Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai was treated there in 2012. She had been shot in the head by the Taliban for championing the right of girls to attend school in a tribal area where their education was banned.

Indeed, Malala and Ahmad have since become friends and have followed remarkably similar paths. Not only are they near-neighbours in Birmingham, but Ahmad will study at the same Oxford University college — Lady Margaret Hall — from which Malala, now 22, graduated this summer.

Had he set out to emulate her? ‘No, but I admire her greatly,’ he says, before naming his role model as Abdul Sattar Edhi, a humble Pakistani philanthropist who founded the world’s largest volunteer ambulance service.

When, upon leaving hospital, he was placed in his first British school — a local state comprehensive, Harborne Academy, where standards were so low that it had been placed in special measures — he got a rude awakening.

‘Having come from an academic school, I thought that a lot of the pupils were just there to have a good time rather than concentrate on their studies. That annoyed me. Even the teachers had come to a point where they didn’t expect pupils to be interested in lessons.’

He hastens to add that the school — under new headship and now rated as ‘Good’ by Ofsted inspectors — did its utmost to welcome ‘this new kid, who arrived with little English, a weird story and a sling on his arm.’

However, he hankered for the best education on offer, and when someone he met on the speaking circuit gave him an introduction to the former Chief Master of King Edward’s School in Edgbaston, frequently rated among the nation’s finest independent schools, he seized his chance.

Of course, his family couldn’t afford the fees, this year set at £13,692. But Ahmad impressed at an interview, and scored so highly in the entry test that in March 2017 he was awarded a scholarship.

He justified that by achieving six A-stars and two As in his GCSEs, and notching up 39 points of a possible 45 in his International Baccalaureate exam, which has replaced A-levels at King Edward’s.

Ahmad says he is slightly disappointed by this result because the marks were decided by algorithms this year due to the pandemic, and he thinks he’d have been more successful in an exam room where ‘the pressure makes me work better’.

So, next month, he will swap his modest semi for the hallowed halls of Oxford, where he will be among people whose backgrounds are light years removed from his own.

Having ‘met’ some fellow students online, however, he is convinced that the university’s upper-class, privileged stereotype is long outdated. Moreover, it could hardly be more daunting than the experiences he has endured.

After he graduates, he plans a career in humanitarian work, either with a big organisation such as the United Nations or by starting his own foundation.

Before I leave, he expresses gratitude to Britain for providing him with superb medical care and education. ‘We owe this country so much,’ his mother agrees.

Quite so. Though the horrors he witnessed in that infernal school hall will always be with him, I have no doubt that the indomitable Ahmad is destined to repay our generosity. Many times over.

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