Terror struck in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, when militants stormed an Army-run school popular with military families based in the northwestern Pakistani city. The outcome of the attack -- 147 dead, most of them schoolchildren -- showed the world how far the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan would go to beat back an ongoing government offensive. Residents of the regional capital, however, were already well aware that they lived on the front lines of a bloody war.
When the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) gained control of Swat in 2009, just two years after the militant group and government forces had reached an uneasy peace in the western district, it came as a shock to Islamabad.
Pakistan's government awoke to the grim reality that a formidable militant threat was in control just two hours' drive from the capital. It had to find a way to cope with hundreds of thousands of families displaced by a failed military campaign. And the fall of the picturesque district in Khyber Pahkhtunkhwa Province represented much more than the loss of a popular tourist destination -- it threatened a cradle of Pashtun history and culture.
These were challenging times for the Pakistani authorities. From Swat, the TTP was positioned to advance on restive areas to the north. To the west, the militants were gaining strength in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. And Peshawar, the regional capital and largest city in Khyber Pahkhtunkhwa Province, was coming under intense pressure.
Whether out of fear or because of party interests, lawmakers across the political spectrum were silent as the military campaign foundered and the TTP encroached.
When the TTP advanced south from Swat to the bordering Buner district, however, it was a step too far. The Pakistan military responded with "Operation Rah-e-Rast" -- a massive undertaking that put 20,000 troops on the ground, backed by artillery and air support.
Within a few months, the area was declared clear of militants, but TTP chief Fazlullah and some of his key aides managed to evade capture. In an effort to finish the TTP off once and for all, several operations were subsequently conducted in the neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), with mixed results.
While a controversial U.S. drone campaign focused on taking out select targets, the Pakistani government and military exhibited reluctance to launch a promised operation in North Waziristan, the last strong militant hideout in FATA.
The TTP's strategy of targeting major population centers put strains on the newly elected government in 2013, increasing calls on lawmakers to make a clear decision on how to tackle the militant threat. When crucial security installations in Karachi and Peshawar were attacked in 2014, the decision was made.
In an attempt to forge a peace in the spring of 2014, the government had held several rounds of talks with the TTP. But the strategy's failure, evidenced by the attacks in Karachi and Peshawar, gave Pakistan's military leadership no choice but to launch yet another massive military campaign -- Operation Zarb-e-Azb. This time the objective was North Waziristan, and even before the military advance began on June 15, 2014, thousands of families fled their homes and embarked on new lives as displaced persons.
Six months later, as the military was counting its numerous successes against militants in North Waziristan, the TTP would counter with a game-changing operation of its own.
It was early on a Tuesday morning, and students and teachers were going about their daily routines. Many assembled in the school auditorium, in the center of the multi-building campus, where students were to undergo first-aid training. When armed militants burst in to the room, they showed no mercy.
Amid the carnage of what would become Pakistan's deadliest-ever terrorist attack, tales of survival emerged. Hundreds escaped or were rescued when security forces stormed the campus. Those who perished live on in the memories of their loved ones.
The attack ushered Pakistani politics into an unprecedented era of solidarity. Parties of all stripes came together, unanimously condemning the TTP and urging the country's political and military leadership to take serious steps to curb extremist groups.
The vast majority of the 147 victims were schoolchildren, the youngest aged 6. The oldest student victim, who was enrolled at a college attached to the campus, was 22. Altogether 22 staff members were slain. Three soldiers died during the rescue operation.
Thank you to all the victims' families and others who provided material for this project.
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