Image: Venley Burke
It is more than four years since seven terrorists attacked my school in Peshawar, in the north-west of Pakistan. They killed 149 people, mostly students. Many of my best friends died. I thought I was going to die too. I was 12 years old.
Of all the memories that remain, one sticks out. I was lying near the school library, bleeding and exhausted after being shot eight times. I looked up and saw some birds fly from a tree. I remember thinking how lucky they were. In that moment, I so wanted to be a bird.
But I also knew I had to survive. My worry was that if I lost consciousness, whoever came to rescue the survivors would think I was dead, and ignore me. So I punched the bullet wound on my leg, again and again. Only the pain would stop me drifting off and being placed with the other corpses.
Things didn’t go to plan. I had taken six bullets to my face, swallowed my teeth and lost so much blood that no one realised I was still breathing. And I was so weak that I was unable to show I was alive. But I was conscious of everything around me, and determined not to die. By taking deep breaths, I created bubbles of blood around my mouth. Those bubbles saved my life: a nurse noticed them, and I was taken to hospital, where I stayed in a coma for eight days. On the sixth, the doctors told my family they would turn off the ventilator if I didn’t wake up in the next 48 hours. Just in time, I woke up.
Was it a miracle? I didn’t believe in miracles, but I now think they are more likely to happen if you believe in yourself. And I’ve always had self-belief.
My school was affiliated to the army, who paid for surgery in the UK. Six months later, after an operation at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, I turned up at the Forward Drive Cricket Academy, five minutes from Edgbaston. I was on crutches, and my doctors had told me to take it easy. I could hardly blame them: my jaw had been rebuilt using bone from my left shin, so any physical activity, let alone landing on my left foot to bowl, was not recommended. To everyone’s astonishment, I insisted on having a bowl. I did my best to take a run-up on my crutches, and sent down an over. There was no batsman, but I didn’t care. I had done something I was told I would never do again: I had played cricket.
In the months that followed, cricket would help me recover from that terrible day. It had been my passion for as long as I could remember. I used to drive my mum crazy as a small boy, breaking things in the living room as I practised my favourite shot, the cover-drive. Four days before the terrorists came, I had captained our school – the Army Public School – to victory in a tournament. We were all dancing and shouting. We were happy. In many ways, cricket was my life. Now it became my lifeline. Even holding a bat was a form of therapy. I kept one in my bedroom at my new home in Selly Oak, Birmingham and whenever I felt depressed I would pick it up and practise my strokes. I also watched as much as I could on the telly. But the moments cricket helped me most came when I was on the field.
Because I am so passionate about the game, I can’t think of anything else when I’m batting or bowling. Cricket is the thing I do to forget what happened. Sometimes my dad, Gulzar, who travelled with me to the UK, comes along to matches for my school (the University of Birmingham School) or my club (Weoley Hill) and brings drink, food and my medicines. I get so immersed in the match that I tell him I don’t have time to eat or drink, but he insists. Asian fathers have a reputation for being strict, but my dad has become my best friend. He comforts me when I’m feeling low, and supports me in everything I do. He also helps me when I miss my mum, Rabina, and sister, Hafsa, who are back in Peshawar.
Cricket didn’t just help me forget. It made my recovery easier. The attack happened not long before the 2015 World Cup, and news of my situation reached the Pakistan team. One day in hospital, I was visited by some of the players, including Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, who brought me a shirt signed by New Zealand captain Kane Williamson. It was so strange. These guys were my heroes, and now they were telling me I was their hero.
I was also visited twice by Shahid Afridi, my favourite player because of his aggressive batting – I’ve tried to copy him, which means I don’t play many defensive shots. I should also confess that the best cover-drive in the world belongs to Virat Kohli. He is Indian, and I am Pakistani – but I can’t let the rivalry between our two countries get in the way of the truth.
And that is another thing I love about cricket. Unlike the terrorists, it treats people the same. There is no black or white on the field, no Muslim or Hindu or Christian. We are all the same. Cricket brings us together. I know that, because I was welcomed so warmly by the people in England – especially after they had seen me bowl in the nets at school. I took a wicket first ball, and was immediately made captain of the First XI. My fastest ball has been measured at 82mph, and I recently had trials with Warwickshire.
My injuries still cause me trouble. I take painkillers before every game, and I must still undergo some operations. But the discomfort is worth it. During the attack, I had managed to drag myself 50 or 60 metres out of the auditorium where we had been receiving a lecture about first aid, and where the terrorists killed my friends. A group of terrified students ran past me, and I tried to put my hand on a shoulder for support. But I fell down, and got trampled: my right wrist was broken. When I went for surgery, I was worried I might never play cricket again. It just made me more determined.
The truth was, I was just thankful to be alive. On the day itself, we heard some loud noises, but the teachers said they were nothing to worry about. Then the noises – like thumps – got louder. One of the terrorists was trying to kick down a door. He succeeded. Without saying a word, he started shooting.
I was stunned. Why were these people here? What were they doing? As head boy, I was standing on the stage, and for a moment I couldn’t move. About 20 yards away, across the room, I saw another terrorist. He was aiming a gun at my face. He pulled the trigger, and I fell to the ground in agony. As I lay there, I could see my friends, helpless, covered in blood. There was nothing I, or any of us, could do.
After a while, the auditorium fell silent. The terrorists were walking around, looking for survivors. I knew I had to keep quiet, but I was in so much pain that I was crying out. One walked over, and shot me again – five times in the face, once in the hand, once in the leg. I was praying to God. All I wanted was to see my mum one last time. The terrorists finally left to look for more victims. Those who had played dead got up and ran for their lives.
Moments before the gunmen burst in, the army officer giving the lecture taught us the ABC of first aid: airways, breathing, circulation. At the end, he asked us what “A” stood for. Everyone was in a silly mood, and one of my friends put his hand up and said: “Apple”. We all giggled. It would be the last giggle we shared. But cricket has helped me smile again.
Waleed Khan is a member of the British Youth Parliament, and is a motivational speaker. He was talking to Lawrence Booth.