It’s the smell that hits you first — a mixture of blood and metal, burnt flesh and gunpowder.
Something I’ve never experienced before as a journalist mostly working in the UK, and something I will never forget. A fellow reporter described it as “almost like it is not quite of us”.
And, he was right.
The morning after the terrorist attack at the Army Public School in Peshawar, local and international media teams were allowed to film the devastation inside.
Even before we got to the auditorium, where around 100 children were murdered, we could see drops of blood on the steps leading up to the hall. I started to take my camera out when a soldier remarked that this was nothing compared to what was inside.
And, he was right.
The pictures of glasses, books and shoes strewn around on blood-soaked floors were beamed live around the world.
The irony of the pitiful remnants of the First Aid lesson that was so fatally interrupted was not lost on some. Even war-hardened international correspondents, who had just flown into the country, looked pale and visibly shocked.
Some of the blood was still fresh and squelched under our feet. We were told to be careful where we trod – body parts still visible.
And as much as you think it’s the gory aftermath that would be most upsetting, it was actually the lines of bags, mobile phones and watches of those who perished that hit me the hardest.
A sense of normality in a most horrendous setting.
When I finally got back to our hotel that night, my boots left a bloody trail in my room. I washed them over and over again and sat on the bathroom floor for hours, trying to process what we had just witnessed.
Now, I’m back in Peshawar to report on the survivors in the run-up to the first anniversary of the attack. Walking up to the school gates again made me feel queasy as the memory of that awful smell came back.
The complex was a hive of activity with labourers working around the clock to prepare for a grand ceremony on 16th December. The auditorium has been totally made-over and is now a Library and Sports Hall.
The administrative block that was pock marked with bullet holes and huge craters from where the suicide bombers detonated their jackets is almost unrecognisable now.
Shiny walls and glossy paint make it hard to believe it is the same place that was targeted 12 months ago.
We later went to interview a student survivor who was in the auditorium during the attack and was shot in both arms. Ubaid Sajid missed the school bus that morning but was later dropped off by his uncle. His cousin and best friend sat behind him but didn’t make it out alive.
When I filmed Ubaid, I was struck by how stoical this 16-year-old was. Unfortunately for TV news, you often have to ask people to repeat an action a number of times to get different camera angles.
I was acutely aware that I didn’t want Ubaid to point out his scars again and again but he was extremely patient and keen to show how the attack affected him both physically and mentally.
Then, as the only female member of our crew, I was taken into another room to pay my respects to his cousin’s mother. We hugged, my words “I’m sorry for your loss” felt hollow.
So we both sat there, not saying anything, the silence punctuated only by her gentle sobbing.
“Has the passing of time helped ease your grief at all?” I finally asked.
“No” she replied shaking her head.
“I will never get over this. There’s not a single hour that passes when I don’t think about my beautiful boy. I just pray that I learn to live with this pain somehow. I think that’s the same for all parents who lost their children that day.”
And, she is right.
Also read: PTSD in Peshawar — The long road back
But in the midst of this almost suffocating sadness, there are always signs of hope.
And these signs come from our youngest. When I asked Ubaid at the end of the interview how he felt about the attackers, this teenager’s reply was quite profound.
“The terrorists wanted to stop us studying and not go to school, but we won’t let them achieve that goal. We will get our revenge by completing our education instead,” he said.
And, he is absolutely right.