Grief and Defiance in Pakistan as Survivors of Taliban Massacre Return to School

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The survivors of a massacre at a Pakistani school last month returned to their school on Monday, offering a grief-tinged show of defiance and apprehension.

It was the first time the Army Public School had opened since seven Taliban gunmen went through its classrooms and assembly hall on Dec. 15 in a rampage of bloodshed that traumatized Pakistan. New official figures put the number of dead at 150, with at least 134 of them children.

Army soldiers stood at the gates as children, many clutching a parent’s hand, streamed into a school where the authorities had worked hard to erase traces of the killing. Walls had been washed and bullet holes hidden, parents and teachers said.

But for many, the trauma was vivid and present. Some students traded stories of survival, marveling that they had survived the eight-hour assault. Others shed tears, describing empty classrooms where fellow students had been mowed down by Taliban gunfire.

“I knew it would be difficult for me to fight off the tears,” said Andaleeb Aftab, a teacher whose 15-year-old son, Huzaifa, was killed in the assembly hall along with most of his class.

Ms. Aftab, who escaped the killers by locking herself in a bathroom, said she had quietly slipped into the school early, over the weekend, to start grieving on her own.

“I am a teacher,” she said, “and teachers are supposed to be role models.”

Classes officially resume on Tuesday, and Monday’s ceremony was limited to students, parents, teachers and some military officials. The army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, visited with his wife and led prayers and the national anthem.

Among the crowd were young people still wearing bandages or casts — wounded students, some of them shot several times in the attack. Mothers sobbed as their children recited a poem by Pakistan’s national poet, Muhammad Iqbal, the general said.

Afterward, several students said they were determined to complete their education, regardless of the Taliban threat. “I am going to stay,” said Rizwan Khan, who lost several friends.

Army snipers perched on nearby rooftops, and the school walls were lined with thick bales of barbed wire. Students had been told to leave their school bags at home on Monday.

Though most of the school has been refurbished, the school assembly hall, where most of the deaths occurred, remained closed and was draped in a green cloth, said Ms. Aftab, the teacher.

Army officers told school staff members that they were considering putting the building to another use, but did not specify what that might be, she said.

A national sense of anger and grief has created an unusually strong sense of unity among Pakistan’s normally fractious leadership figures. The army’s popularity has risen sharply, and the country’s parliamentary factions lined up behind a constitutional amendment last week to allow military courts to try suspected militants.

After leaving the school, General Sharif held a meeting in Rawalpindi with the head of the United States Central Command, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. On Tuesday, General Austin was expected to meet with the United States secretary of state, John Kerry, who landed in Pakistan for a two-day visit on Monday.

The Pakistani national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz, told reporters that Mr. Kerry was expected to visit the Army Public School on Tuesday. American officials did not confirm those plans.

Fearing another Taliban attack on a school, the government has imposed onerous security requirements, including barbed wire, security guards and surveillance cameras, on educational institutions in many parts of the country.

Schools that failed the new standards were not allowed to reopen on Monday. In Peshawar district, only 118 of 1,380 private schools met the security guidelines, said Dr. Mian Muhammad Saeed, a senior police officer. In the capital, Islamabad, the police prevented some schools from reopening after the winter break on similar grounds.

Among students, even those who did make it back to class complained of a sense of pervasive vulnerability. “The uncertainty is terrifying,” said Nirmal Zara, 23, a student of psychology at Foundation University in Rawalpindi.