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Meet the Young Survivors of the Peshawar School Attack

Portraits of survivors after the Dec. 16 terror attack in Pakistan

Note: All student accounts were told to AP photographer Muhammed Muheisen while on assignment for TIME.

The third Tuesday in December appeared to begin like any other for students of the Army Public School in Peshawar. After offering early morning prayers, dressing in their uniforms and eating breakfast with family members, they went to school. Many pupils at the military-run institution in northwestern Pakistan are the offspring of army personnel. Some 1,100 were there that morning. At nightfall, about a tenth of them would be dead.

The siege began at around 10 a.m., after a group of militants in suicide vests entered the guarded compound from the back. They unleashed a fury of bullets as they surged through the campus. Some went to the auditorium, where a first aid lecture was being given. (About eight hours later, following a heavy response by security forces, the insurgents were dead but had taken more than 140 innocents with them. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.)

Mohammad, 14, was seated on the left side of the hall, listening to the instructor discuss bandaging, when he heard shooting outside a door in the back. A gunman with a long beard and scarf covering half his face entered seconds later. “Anyone in the room whose parents are in the Army?” he shouted three times.

The hall erupted in panic. Mohammad recalled being pushed from behind and falling to the ground, in between chairs, as other students piled on top of him. “I closed my eyes, I stopped my breathing and I lost track of time,” he said. A few minutes later, after the auditorium had grown silent, he started shifting the bodies off of him to get a better look at the scene.

He began moving when he didn’t see any gunmen, but was soon spotted. He jumped through a mess of chairs to a small dressing room off the stage, where a group of students was cowering in silence. There, he found his best friend, who had been shot in both legs and was missing a finger on his right hand. “I sat next to him and leaned my head on his shoulder,” said Mohammad.

Shortly afterward, one of the gunmen opened fire from the doorway, killing those who faced him. Mohammad stayed put after the militant left and until help arrived. “I could only hear soldiers asking if there is anybody alive but I couldn’t respond and suddenly my friend started crying, so the soldiers heard us and came to us.” Mohammad was escorted from the building and into an ambulance as his friend was carried out. “It’s a miracle I’m alive,” he would later say. “It’s a miracle I’m alive.”

His account, told to Associated Press photographer Muhammed Muheisen in the days after the assault, was similar to two students who were in the auditorium and echoed others that would grip the world in the wake of one of Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist attacks. Muheisen, the AP’s chief photographer in Pakistan, gained access to the school on Dec. 18. He passed through two checkpoints on opposite sides of a gate before entering in the same stairwell the militants had used two days earlier. He retraced their’ path into the back of the auditorium, where rows of overturned wooden chairs were the least of it.

“It smells like blood, death everywhere. As you go down, between the chairs there is blood, bullet shells, body parts,” he tells TIME. “It’s just when you enter this room, you feel this auditorium is kind of a death trap,” he adds. “You could feel what happened in this place.”

He moved through different portions of the main building, including classrooms and a corridor where first-responders traded firepower with the militants. At one point, Muheisen couldn’t hold back tears any longer. “School is supposed to be a peaceful place for children to study, to be educated, but this is a battlefield,” he says. “I’ve never seen such a horrific scene in my life.”

Beginning two days later in the school’s yard, Muheisen met students or the families of victims where a vigil had formed. They were at the school to retrieve their bags and other items that had been left behind. He sensitively approached survivors — “it was obvious in their faces” — to hear their accounts and ask for a portrait. Many were not ready to talk.

One girl, Mesbah, “really broke my heart.” Muheisen sat down next to the seven-year-old and asked if she wanted to say anything. “I remember nothing of that day,” she politely replied. “I have no memory of it.”

Afaq, 16, closed his eyes as he described where he was in the auditorium when the shots rang out. Seated in the front on the left side of the room, he recalled turning his head to see a gunman and, just as fast, rushing out a door nearby and running home. Batur, 14, did similarly, fleeing the auditorium as the chaos unraveled. He told Muheisen that he asked a rickshaw driver for a ride home, where he sat with his mother and watched it all unfold on television.

Muheisen also met two brothers who survived. The younger one, Muzammil, 12, was “a better talker” than his older brother and vividly recalled how his teacher asked him and his peers to stop crying and “be quiet or we all are going to be killed.” He was escorted out and found his father among the sea of parents awaiting word about their children. As did Muddathir, 14, who was in a classroom when he heard shooting. After being led out of the school and reuniting with his father and brother, he said, “I felt as if I [was] just born into this world.” Muheisen says Muddathir was still “terrified,” like “he’s not out of the school yet.”

Having spoken with 11 students, Muheisen could put together a bleak picture of how they were managing. “They’re lost,” he says, bluntly. “They’re talking but it’s like they’re not aware of what happened.” Most had gaps in the middle of their stories. “From one student to another, the impact is different. But you can see through the body language of the students what they [went] through.”

For his part, Muheisen recognizes his role. “This is the power of what we do and this is the power of photojournalism,” he says. “Those stories would otherwise only remain with the survivors, but this way we give them a voice.” He calls the children he met “heroes,” as they not only had to survive the attack, but now must live with it. While some highlighted how dangerous it is to study there, they told Muheisen of their intent to return to class.

“Education is so valuable and essential but there is a price to be paid to be a student in Peshawar,” Mohammad told him. “I will go back to my school again.” Afaq admitted he is afraid to return to the same school but that the attack had shifted his ambitions: “I always wanted to become a doctor, but now I want to join the army and fight terrorism and save lives,” he said. “I don’t want to just cure my people, I want to make sure that they never get harmed.” Bilal, 16, doesn’t think he’ll return to the school but understands the importance of education: “I have to go back to a school. If we don’t study, we will remain blind, and I don’t want to spend my life being blind.”

Muzammil, not yet in his teens, put it like this: “I will protect my country with a pen, not a gun.”

Muhammed Muheisen is the Associated Press’ chief photographer for Pakistan, based in Islamabad. He joined the AP in 2001, covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and major events in the region. In 2003, he started traveling on international assignments and was part of the team awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in 2005 for their work in Iraq, and again in 2013 for their coverage of the civil war in Syria. He was named TIME‘s Wire Photographer of 2013.

Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is the Deputy Photo Editor at TIME.

Andrew Katz is a homepage editor and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz

TIME On Our Radar

William Daniels Wins 2014 Tim Hetherington Grant

The photographer has spent the last year documenting the impact of strife in Central African Republic

French photographer William Daniels, a frequent contributor to TIME, was named the 2014 recipient of the Tim Hetherington Grant by World Press Photo and Human Rights Watch on Thursday for his ongoing work in Central African Republic.

His project, titled “Roots of Africa’s Unholy War,” was chosen from 198 applicants. The annual honor, established after Hetherington, a British photojournalist and filmmaker died in April 2011 while covering the conflict in Libya, comes with a €20,000 prize that allows the recipient to continue a project focused on human rights issues.

Daniels has made several trips over more than a year to Central African Republic to document the effects of unprecedented violence after the Séléka coalition of mainly Muslim rebels seized power in March 2013. The move bred political chaos and ignited a vicious revenge from armed groups of predominantly Christian and animist fighters called anti-balaka. Last December, two days of street violence left hundreds dead around the capital, Bangui, and forced the global community to respond.

MORE: Bloodshed in Bangui: A Day That Will Define Central African Republic

Throughout the next year, deadly tension pushed much of the country’s Muslim minority into the eastern region or beyond the borders. Rights groups warned of ethnic cleansing as French and African peacekeepers have struggled to contain the violence.

Daniels has balanced keeping up with the news while also investigating the roots of the conflict. The commitment he and other photographers have made to bearing witness — amid huge news draws like the war in eastern Ukraine, ISIS and wrath of Ebola in West Africa — was a main factor in keeping Central African Republic on the radar.

In September, Daniels received the Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography for the same work. Based in Paris, he has devoted his career to documenting humanitarian and social issues, from disease in Africa and Asia, to the unrest in Libya, to the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

TIME Middle East

Video Depicts ISIS Execution of British Aid Worker, Threatens American

Alan Henning was thought to have been abducted in Syria last December

Updated Saturday, Oct. 4

A video released Friday by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) appears to show the execution of British aid worker Alan Henning. A man identified as Peter Edward Kassig, an American, is then threatened with a similar fate.

U.S. intelligence officials had not yet authenticated the video Friday evening, but it follows the pattern of other execution videos released by ISIS. “The brutal murder of Alan Henning by [ISIS] shows just how barbaric these terrorists are,” British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote on Twitter. “My thoughts are with his wife and their children.”

The White House also released a statement:

“The United States strongly condemns the brutal murder of United Kingdom citizen Alan Henning by the terrorist group ISIL. Mr. Henning worked to help improve the lives of the Syrian people and his death is a great loss for them, for his family and the people of the United Kingdom. Standing together with our UK friends and allies, we will work to bring the perpetrators of Alan’s murder – as well as the murders of Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines – to justice. Standing together with a broad coalition of allies and partners, we will continue taking decisive action to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

Henning, 47, was thought to have been abducted in Syria last December, shortly after crossing the border from Turkey in an aid convoy. Henning’s wife and family released the following statement Saturday morning:

Alan, my husband, and father of Lucy and Adam, was kidnapped in Syria in December last year. Last night we received news of his murder by ISIL. It is the news we hoped we would never hear. As a family we are devastated by the news of his death. There are few words to describe how we feel at this moment. Myself, Lucy and Adam, and all of Alan’s family and friends are numb with grief.

During this ordeal we have relied heavily on the support of many people. That support from the Government, FCO and GMP has been there from the start and has meant that we were able to get through the most awful of times. We always knew that Alan was in the most dangerous of situations but we hoped that he would return home to us. That is not to be.

On behalf of the entire family, I want to thank everyone who campaigned for Alan’s release, who held vigils to pray for his safe return, and who condemned those who took him. Your efforts were a great support to us, and we take comfort in knowing how many people stood beside us in hoping for the best.

Alan was a decent, caring human being. His interest was in the welfare of others. He will be remembered for this and we as a family are extremely proud of him and what he achieved and the people he helped.

We now need time to come to terms with our loss. We would therefore be grateful if our privacy could be respected at this time.

The video is similar to three earlier execution videos released by ISIS since Aug. 19, which showed the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and most recently of British aid worker David Haines.

Kassig, a former Army Ranger who deployed to Iraq in 2007, spoke with TIME in January 2013 about his humanitarian work and beginning an aid group called Special Emergency Response and Assistance.

“I started SERA because I felt that we could fill a niche as an organization that had not been filled. There are a lot of other wonderful organizations out there but we feel that by working directly with the people who are in need at a grassroots level allows for us to establish an invaluable personal relationship that not only allows us to effectively distribute material goods but also allows for an opportunity for an increased level of cooperation and an exchange of ideas between people from diverse backgrounds and experiences and that this enhances our ability to accurately meet needs. The personal connection is key.”

Kassig’s family released this video statement Saturday morning:

TIME In Progress

See the Real Impact of War in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Phil Moore, a British photojournalist based in Nairobi, has spent much of the last three years covering the periods of battle and quiet in Democratic Republic of Congo. This is his story.

The slow burn of war has long ravaged the heart of Africa. Millions of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest member in a neighborhood wracked by upheaval, have died from prolonged insecurity, disease and hunger. Regional strife and internal power grabs between the government and armed groups have kept tensions high, control in some areas fluid and many people poor despite its mineral-rich east.

Most news coverage in recent years has revolved around M23, a group that formed in 2012 after rebels accused the government of failing to honor a peace treaty in March 2009. The mutiny in 2012 was followed by the signing of a long-awaited peace deal last December.

British photojournalist Phil Moore has spent much of the last three years covering the causes and effects of the unrest, often making powerful images while chasing daily stories that would briefly highlight Congo’s plight in such an overcrowded news cycle. That, in part, motivated his return.

Going through his work last year, he felt his focus had been too narrow, Moore tells TIME during a call from Goma, his voice often cutting in and out due to a poor mobile connection. It goes deep in regards to the immediate effects of the day’s fighting and displacement but stopped short of anything long-term: “There is very little of what people’s lives were like in these areas.”

Now, he is beginning to move his lens from active fighting to the larger theme of the impact of war on society. Through indicators such as the shifting of front lines, dispersal or lack of aid, state corruption, sexual violence and insufficient services, he aims to capture what the innocents endure and how they cope — and survive.

When he first returned with this focus in July, his priority was to start making contacts so he could see the issues first-hand. “I tend to come with vague ideas of what I want to do,” he says. “If I already know the issues when I come here, they’re already covered,” he continues. “I’m trying to tell the parts of the story that haven’t been told.”

That has meant spending more time in one location — four days in a displacement camp, rather than one — as well as talking to more people before he began shooting and taking more pictures without people than he normally would in order to show what’s not there, or what should be there.

Most of his work has focused on two areas. In Masisi territory, northwest of Goma, issues like ethnic identity and land ownership spring up, but his pictures have largely dealt with isolation and its effects, such as a lack of medical care and the role of insecurity in preventing access to what is actually available. In one instance, he recalls, “as the road faded out, so did the presence of the army, and that’s when it drifted into the hands of other armed groups.”

That’s a change from how Moore has covered news, generally sticking to where he could drive or walk a few hours, which proved limiting. “I didn’t feel I could just disappear off for a few days to find out what was going on in these remote places,” he says. “And it is precisely these remote places that are typical of much of the population, and where the greatest challenges exist.”

Moore has also spent time in the Bulengo camp for internally displaced persons, near Goma. His theme there has closely revolved around survival with so little. Some aid trickles in, he says, but not everyone receives assistance. Most people there came from Masisi territory, where they grew their own food but now “have nothing.”

Moore isn’t sure how this work will develop. He stresses these pictures are not meant to be representative of Congo as a whole — rather, just one small part of a giant country — and that his overall aim is to elaborate on what makes the news and then give it context. That’s already a daunting task, given so little attention is spared for news out of Africa, but the possibility of achieving it exemplifies what attracts him to photojournalism: the “giant learning curve.”


Phil Moore is an independent British photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya

Andrew Katz is a homepage editor at TIME and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz and Instagram @katzandrew

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.com.


TIME Out There

Witness the Evolution of Africa's Tallest Residential Skyscraper

The evolution of South Africa’s tallest residential skyscraper over the last three decades mirrors the country's troubled history and its search for a new identity, find artists Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse in their new book, Ponte City

The unparalleled rise and spectacular fall of Ponte City Apartments is epic.

Africa’s tallest residential skyscraper was completed in 1976, the same year as the Soweto student uprising, as a cylindrical palace for Johannesburg’s wealthy whites. But less than two decades later, after the end of apartheid in 1994, it had become a hub for the city’s gangs and a hotspot of crime. The core of the 54-storey complex, once thought to be prime for a ski slope, was instead filled with debris.

The property was bought in 2007 by developers who envisioned a big comeback — a second attempt at first ambitions for what had virtually become a sky-high eyesore. That’s around the time South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky and British artist Patrick Waterhouse began what the former called a “before and after” project, a bid to document its transition from trash to flash.

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse courtesy Goodman Gallery

That never happened, though, as the new brains behind the tower fell into bankruptcy the following year. “We soon realized that the history and mythology of the building was even more interesting than the structure itself,” Subotzky tells TIME.

And thus began a years-long project that, in the end, dives deep into the life of a tower that has seen its deathbed. Amassing together elements like large portraits in elevator lifts, grids of similar photographs and found materials, as well as three main series of images that most literally explore the ins and outs of the structure, Subotzky and Waterhouse deliver a comprehensive recapturing of Ponte City’s identity — and humanity — from the ground up.

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Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse courtesy Goodman Gallery

As the project progressed, both men showed their pictures and, later, book dummies to people in and around Ponte. “We probably made about 25 different physical book dummies in trying to figure out how to support the many overlapping narratives around the building that interested us.” They recently launched the book with a pop-up exhibit and picture studio in the actual complex, Subotzky says. “It was really great to celebrate the project in this context. Sadly a lot of the people who we photographed have now moved on out of the building.”

In one series, Subotzky and Waterhouse looked out of each window of the complex, providing the perspective of what residents see from the behemoth — “it took some time to keep going back to some apartments but every resident was amazingly helpful after we had explained to them what we were doing.” In another, they turned inward, photographing each apartment’s door. The third series focused on residents’ television sets and came about after the duo noticed residents were covering their windows in thick curtains in order to watch “Rambo movies, Congolese sitcoms, music videos and Nollywood dramas,” instead of the spectacular views on offer.