PESHAWAR -- Pakistanis across the country remembered those who lost their lives in the massacre at the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar two years after it shocked the country.
As thousands nationwide on December 16 marked the second anniversary of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) atrocity, bereaved APS parents asked the government to make their children's sacrifice a foundation for peace and education in Pakistan.
Attendees at candlelight vigils and other memorials in Peshawar, Islamabad and other cities remembered the almost 150 dead, including more than 130 children.
Parents and other relatives of the martyrs visited their graves and recited passages from the holy Koran.
Members of civil society staged a sit-in outside the Peshawar Press Club to call for universal education and secure schools.
Large portraits of the martyrs were displayed all over Peshawar.
An ever-present tragedy
December 16, 2014, remains a horror that never goes away.
"We did not forget Sher Shah for a single moment in the last two years," Tufail Khattak, father of the slain 10th-grader, told Pakistan Forward.
Another son was injured in the attack and suffered shock.
The grieving family has begun a drive to promote education and a peaceful environment for schoolchildren nationwide.
"The best way for the federal and provincial governments to honour our martyred children ... is to eliminate terrorist attacks and to make sure every child can get an education without the threat of an APS-like attack," Khattak said.
The slain children's parents want no personal profit out of the tragedy, because nothing could replace their children, he said. Instead, they want the Pakistani government to remember the martyrs as national heroes.
Khattak and other relatives of martyred children already have made the government-run high school in their native Nowshera District a platform for promoting education.
The martyrs' families are urging children presently not in school to enroll. At the same time, they are urging all parents to have their children receive higher education.
"When I see life returning to normal and people busy in markets and public places, I feel proud that it is because of the sacrifices of our martyred heroes," Ahmad Shah, younger brother of the late 10th-grader Sher, told Pakistan Forward.
After the APS attack, the Pakistani government launched the counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP), which continues to this day. NAP, along with an offensive that the army has been carrying out in North Waziristan for two and a half years, has killed or dislodged thousands of militants from their bases.
Ahmad misses, besides his brother, his friends who died. Ahmad was one of only a few survivors in the APS auditorium where most of the children were killed.
"I don't want to recall the scenes," he said of the carnage that day.
Various APS parents remain marked by their grief in different ways.
For example, Aurang Zeb, father of a boy who perished, has worn black ever since.
Ghayas Uddin, whose son was killed too, has been bedridden for several months.
Even the fortunate parents whose children lived are traumatised.
"I can't forget that day when I had to rush to Warsak Road," Waqar Ahmad told Pakistan Forward. "Both of my sons remained unharmed, but the pain of losing a large number of other children is too great to forget."
"Nobody can imagine the pain of a mother who has lost a child whom she sent to school, not to a battlefield," Aamna Khan of Peshawar, a mother of two, old Pakistan Forward.
"Eliminate all who threaten our future generations," she said, addressing the government. "We, all the mothers, stand with you."
'Total elimination' of terrorism
High-ranking officials marked the solemn anniversary too.
December 16 is a painful day for the whole nation, Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif said in a statement on the anniversary.
"The government is committed to an all-out effort to eliminate terrorism from the country," Sharif said, adding that the entire nation stands with the parents of the APS victims.
Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa journeyed to Peshawar on December 16 to meet a number of survivors and bereaved parents. He laid floral wreaths at the local monument to the APS martyrs and honoured the fallen children in remarks at APS.
"The terrorists tried to demoralise the nation and armed forces by attacking soft targets," he said according to Inter-Services Public Relations. "But my message to enemies of the country is that our resolve is unflinching."
The army will chase terrorists to their last stronghold, he said. "We will not rest until their total elimination from our motherland," he concluded.
Officials from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government also participated in the commemoration.
KP Assembly Speaker Asad Qaisar and a number of lawmakers from various parties lit candles and offered prayers for the departed souls and their families.
"The entire nation acknowledges the supreme sacrifices of the children of the APS," Qaisar said at the ceremony in the KP Assembly.
Measures taken by the Pakistani government, including NAP and Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, have helped restore peace to the nation and province, he added.
"The impact of the attack was so great that it helped unite all the powers of the country to fight for peace," KP Senior Minister Inayatullah Khan said at the event.