On the morning of 20 January 2016, four militants well equipped with arms and ammunition aimed to enter Bacha Khan University Charsadda (BKUC) around 8:45 AM, just as the student buses would reach the premises. They succeeded in penetrating the premises due to the near zero visibility fog.

“The first brunt was faced by the guest house in BKUC. They broke the gate lights and damaged the gate. Fakhar-e-Alam, the first to be shot dead by the militants, was the caretaker of the guesthouse,” said Saad Tauheeda, a staff member in Directorate of Admission and Academics, who had later guided the army to the boys’ hostel so minimum time was lost. He relived the horrors of that day once again as he showed us around.

After the guesthouse the militants went to the sheds where the busses were parked. Five busses riddled with bullets, some windows shattered, bear testimony of the attack. One bus was burnt from the back due to a grenade attack, soot could still be seen the ground. The tin roofs of the sheds had uncountable holes, caused by grenade explosions.

Right next to the bus stand are family quarters of staff members. Speaking to The Nation Saad said, “We are thankful to God that none of the families were outside their homes nor anyone heard the attack and come out to investigate. Otherwise the damage would have been unimaginable. The attackers’ aim was to cause as much damage as possible due to which they shot the fuel tank of a van thinking it had petrol, but it had diesel.”

As the militants inched towards the boys’ hostel the word spread like wild fire that the university was under attack. Two of the militants headed for the Arts and Social Science Department. Shehzad, a security guard of BKU, took up the challenge to fight the miscreant with his service weapon. When his bullets ran out he called the security in-charge to send more bullets; but no one came. By then the militants had gone to the administration section of the university.

Shehzad said, “They took advantage of the fog and entered the premises. As soon as the two militants saw me in this block, they opened fire on me and threw hand grenades but I was miraculously saved. I fired intermittently while my bullets lasted.” When asked about the description of the attackers he said, “They wore FC uniform and were well equipped with grenades and bullets. I still remember the face of one who was clean shaved.”

A group of female students from BKU also spoke to us, and expressed their concerns. Shazia Khan said, “We were in the common room when the attack was launched. We hid there for some time and then were asked by the staff to vacate the place as the security forces took charge. But till the security came Shehzad Kaka (brother), the security man of BKU, engaged the terrorists.”

Another student Fauzia Shah said, “Some girls were in the girls’ hostel. We escaped only due to the fog. It acted as cover for us, otherwise there was no way to get away from the hostel. The police came late, the students in boys hostel tried to engage the terrorists as long as they could. Kamran (a student) was killed trying to save students and Deputy Librarian Khalid who had two kids was killed by terrorists too, Haider a topper was deprived of life by them.”

Kishwar Asad said, “Why are Pakhtuns being killed always? I don’t want others to die but how come Punjabis are not killed? Look at our Dean, even he ran away when the attack took place despite the fact that he had a gun. Our VC came at 11:30am when everything was cleared up. Why do they take so much money from us if they can’t provide us security? We come to study not fight with terrorists. The Dean has so many bodyguards but is our life so cheap that no one could stop those terrorists?”

Kamran Khan, son of Mubarak Zeb Khan was from Waziristan. He was a good student and was working on his thesis on completion of his B.S. On that fateful day he was in the university to study. Haider another student had got a scholarship and was aiming for a PhD.

The militants then entered the boys’ hostel where the students were preparing to go for classes. They targeted everyone in their way even the boys in the washroom were fired at and bullet marks could be seen on the walls.

The scenes at the boys’ hostel were still fresh and smelled of blood. All doors were locked, only a few rooms were open and were being washed or cleaned up after the attack. There were blood stains on walls, ceilings, furniture and even on the beds. The furniture was scattered; pens, paper and clothes were everywhere, loose sheets with assignments lay on tables and floors. Beds were empty with just the blankets and pillows piled up. The places where the terrorists were killed revealed the tales of how they were cornered by the Army and killed.

Nasir Ahmed a student of 4th semester Chemistry Department roommate of Sajad Anjum said,“Sajad came from Buner. He was a very quiet but wonderful person at heart. He was hard up and needed money, so he asked us to buy his laptop few days ago. Sadiq Ullah (Hafiz), son of Mir Afzal was a good friend of mine. They both were my seniors. Sadly I only have memories left.”

Dr Sajjad Deputy Registrar and teacher of Bio Technology giving details of attack said, “The terrorists attacked around 8:30 and I was in the lab. Suddenly the students started leaving the building as the alarms went off. I initially thought it’s an earthquake or a car alarm but then I realized that we were under attack. Students and I tried going downstairs but the cleaners told us to stay upstairs as the militants were in the area. We returned to our class till I got the news that it was safe to take cover of the fog and run towards the gate. I told all the students to dash towards the university gate and not look back. That was a very difficult situation as the kids were scared and preferred to hide in the classroom.”

He told us how the girls vacated the university and what he saw in the hospital. “I was just leaving for the gate when I saw a security guard who told me what had happened and asked me that the terrorists had attacked from the backside, the front is clear so everyone should immediately leave. I then got a call from the girls’ hostel asking for help. The girls’ warden was briefed of the situation and guided about steps she should take and soon they vacated the place.”

Then Dr. Sajjad got in touch with the boys’ hostel and spoke to Sadaqat about the situation. “He told me that they tried vacating the building once attacked and were hiding in the canteen. There were about 15 to 20 people there including the kitchen staff. After knowing the situation I called the police and asked them to reach the boy’s hostel.”

He spoke to us about Dr Hamid’s death. “I got a call informing me that Dr Hamid had been killed in the attack. He fought bravely against them. Instead of hiding or running away he confronted them with his own pistol, but the terrorists overpowered him. I then rushed to the hospital to attend to the casualties. By that time the Army had taken over and were taking the attackers head-on.”

“When we reached the hospital only three injured persons were there. The first dead body received was of Kamran the student who fought the terrorists and killed one of them. Second dead body that came in was of Ilyas. Shehzad’s dead body lay in the emergency room; after that 17 dead bodies were received and put in boxes to be sent to their families. The last body to come in was of the care taker Fakhar-e Alam. Then I left the hospital as I was not feeling well after seeing so many of my own kids dead,”said Dr Sajjad.

He said that he had heard that two whole classes were killed but was relieved to learn it was a rumor. “When I reached the hostel I came to know that there were about four casualties in the hostel at that moment. Some were injured while others had vacated the building. We got the injured to the hospital.”

Dr Sajjad told The Nation how the attackers were killed by the Pakistan Army. “There were four terrorists and one was killed by our student Kamran. The other three were roaming about freely in the hostel till the police and army reached the scene. Two terrorists went up on the roof to take over the building, and by then the Army helicopters arrived and fired from above while the other terrorist was targeted by the Army in the stairs. They tried to blow themselves up but did not succeed and all three were killed there.”

When asked about the rumors of girls being slaughtered by the terrorists he said, “No such incident took place. I have confirmed it with a number of people; the girl’s hostel was cleared by the local security. The terrorists did not even know that the girls were hiding in the common room or the Dean’s office even though they crossed those rooms.”

Raheem Ullah was a driver in BKUC and was killed in the attack. He got the job in December, The Nation talked to his wife and mother she said, “I came to know about the attack as soon as it happened. When my nephew got in touch with Raheem Ullah he told him that he can’t escape till there are students. Around 2 pm we received his dead body. How am I to raise his four kids and the fifth to come? Who will look after the wife and children? He was my only son.”

Fahad Khan the District Nazim, from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, spoke to The Nation. “As soon as I came to know of the attack I reached BKU with my team. Upon our arrival we heard firing inside the university. I took out my weapon and tried going inside, but the police stopped us as we were in civilian clothes and it would have been a problem to identify us. The operation lasted for about 3 hours the Pakistan Army and Police fought well and gave a timely response. There were 18 injured students while 18 persons were killed including staff members.”

When asked about the security lapse Fahad Khan said, “The DCO had paid a visit to BKU a day earlier to appraise the Vice Chancellor about an attack. But the VC did not take any necessary measures. At the time of the attack the security guards were not at their designated locations. The university has 55 guards but if half of them are not on duty that day. The camera room and the watch tower were empty due to which the attackers found a way into the university. We can’t blame the security for everything, there are 66,000 schools in KPK how does one expect to give them fool proof security? The institutions should make sure of doing the needful too.”

 “There are 1300 schools in the district, and we plan to make a force comprising of ex-police and army personnel who will be deployed exclusively for educational institutions security, who will be connected to LEA’s for rapid response to any threat.”

Khan continued: “A committee has been formed, comprising of DC Tahir Zafar Abbasi, DIG Saeed Nazir and Commissioner Peshawar and an inquiry has been launched to identify lapses and place responsibility for these, even if it is VC of the university. KPK government had given BKU Rs 10 million to improve their security arrangements, but the guards were given poor quality weapons, due to which they could not fight with the better equipped terrorists.”

About the reaction of opposition parties’ he said, “Everyone should unite against terrorists, point scoring should end. We are working at every level to enhance the security of all institutions, however I do not believe in the speculations that this can be an attempt to topple the PTI government as no one would do something like this to end a government. This is purely an act of terrorism and we should stand with our armed forces to counter them.”

Nazir Mian Abdus Samad, Tehsil Councilor MC 1 Charsadda said, “We are giving the sacrifices of our children and our government still has a soft corner for the terrorists. They have taken no concrete steps to curb terrorism. Our kids go to school to gain education not to get killed.”

As with all terror attacks in which the Army is called in to fight the attackers, people comment on the delay of arrival and clearance of the target complex; similar questions were raised after the BKUC attack. The Nation talked to a retired Army officer on this issue with particular reference to Charsadda.

“One important factor to consider is time and space calculation. This means calculate time needed from receiving information and getting ready, embarking the vehicles, to travel time from location to target area. After this the actual action starts, which is ground appraisal, a quick plan, and then execution.

“There are two cantonments near Charsadda. One is Mardan with a training centre where recruits are trained to be soldiers in the Army. The very nature of the establishment excludes its use in a fighting role. Even if troops were deployed from there, apart from preparation time, given the traffic and road conditions the travel time could be 30-40 minutes.

“The other is Peshawar. The travel time to Charsaddah is close to 40 minutes via the M1 Motorway. In a counter terrorism situation, highly trained troops are required which are usually centrally located and airlifted by helicopter to the site of attack.

“Moreover, the roads leading to BKU are under construction and are single roads passing through congested population centers. The local police located just 10 minutes from the BKUC took 20-25 minutes to reach the site. So the deployment of the Army in round 50 minutes is not to be decried but appreciated.

“Once deployed on site, the force goes through a quick appraisal, deploys to fight and flush, does fatality and debris clearance, and hands over the site to the owners or the civil government. In both cases, that is Peshawar or Commando airlift, the time given by the witnesses on ground of around fifty minutes from a military point of view speaks of a well-coordinated and executed operation.”

This was a second major attack targeting education institutions after the December 16, 2014 Army Public School Peshawar attack, although lesser in magnitude. According to the evidence available it is evident that these terrorists were taking orders from Afghanistan. The attack has also raised questions on the implementation of the National Action Plan.