ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After days of cold, a fitful sunlight emerged above the foothills of the Hindu Kush and schoolchildren in Peshawar took to the playground to play cricket and soccer.
Zeeshan Jehangir, 14, and his two best friends were not among them. The three — dressed in maroon-and-gray school uniforms — huddled on the stairs and planned out how it would be when the gunmen came for them.
Which part of the school wall could they scale the fastest? Where could they hide? Should they pool their pocket money and buy a pistol? They were planning for every eventuality, Jehangir said.
“Which place is safe? The threat is everywhere, school and home,” said Umair Iqbal, 13. “We sit in the back seats of our class. Nobody wants to sit in the front rows, because they will be the first killed.”
Students began trickling back to schools in Pakistan this past week, after widespread closures following the Jan. 20 terrorist attack at Bacha Khan University that left 20 students and two employees dead.
But anxiety among parents and children throughout Pakistan remains high. A breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban — thought to be responsible for the massacre of nearly 150 at a nearby school just over a year ago — claimed responsibility and then released a chilling video promising more school attacks.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, directed schools to take additional security measures to ensure safety and vowed to stop the extremists from killing children.
“Those who were threatening kids from going to school will be defeated,” he said.
Yet panicked parents, some who have continued to keep their children at home, said they had little faith that the government could protect them at school. The scale of the security needs is daunting — the province where the attacks occurred has more than 27,000 schools and 200 colleges and universities.
“Where is the government and where are our security agencies?” asked Sohail Nasir, 51, a doctor and father. “It seems it’s a matter of choice for terrorist organizations. They decide when to strike, take their time and then strike successfully again, and our security organizations can’t do anything about that.”
The Pakistani Taliban — an offshoot of the terrorist group waging insurgency in Afghanistan — has destroyed an estimated 1,500 schools in Pakistan since 2001, according to Pervez Hoodbhoy, a national security expert and physics professor at Forman Christian College in Lahore. The group believes that education in the public schools is contrary to Islam and that the only education that is needed is in madrassas, religious schools, he said.
“They say this is where apostasy is nurtured. In that sense they’re not that much different from [the Islamic State],” Hoodbhoy said.
Militants in the same province shot a young girl in the head and neck as she sat waiting in a school bus in 2012. Malala Yousafzai survived and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
The most recent attacks have disrupted learning in a country where educational attainment remains “dismally low,” according to a 2014 report from the Ministry of Education. One third of children — about 7 million — do not attend school at all, and 42 percent of the country is illiterate, the report said.
The two school attacks have raised questions about the efficacy of the government’s military campaign against Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents in the country’s northwestern tribal belt, which has scattered militants and pushed them over the border into Afghanistan. Yet overall terrorist incidents are down, and by and large Pakistanis feel safer than they have in recent years.
After the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, where nearly 150 students and teachers were killed, government officials and police urged schools to build walls, add armed guards and even train teachers to shoot, sparking a debate similar to the discussion of arming educators in the United States.
Students said a pistol-wielding chemistry teacher at Bacha Khan University may have helped some escape, but he was eventually shot to death.
“Those guys will come along with machine guns, and there’s absolutely no use. It militarizes the school environment and puts everything under a cloud of fear,” Hoodbhoy said. To fight extremism, he said, the government must strike at the root of the problem and put in place “strict restrictions on the madrassas and mullahs and their apologists in society and in the press.”
Faisal Mushtaq runs a chain of private schools with 50 campuses and 24,000 students across the country. In the past year, he has installed a security system with armed guards, metal detectors and a biometric turnstile that identifies students by their fingerprint and sends a text to parents when the child enters. Male teachers have mandatory firearms training.
“We as teachers used to carry pens; now we have to learn how to fire guns,” Mushtaq said. “We have to get used to it because the enemy of the state has realized the weakness of society and that is the young child.”
On Monday, after a breakfast of toast and jam, Jehangir returned to school for the first time since the university attack. He carried a mobile phone, a gift from his anxious parents.
The campus with about 1,000 students was abuzz with activity. Security guards searched cars. Police with AK-47 assault rifles sat in watchtowers on the roof. Morning assembly had been canceled.
His classmates were ready with mordant jokes. Was one boy’s down vest a suicide jacket? How many explosives were students carrying in their overloaded backpacks?
The sight of a police van unnerved him.
“I fear the worst that could happen,” Jehangir said.
Since the Army Public School massacre a year ago, he no longer plays cricket outside and instead stays indoors on his computer. His friends say he has grown more reserved and serious in the past year. Last year, he couldn’t sleep for days thinking about the dozens of students gunned down in classrooms and gathered in the auditorium for a first aid course.
“The violent scenes of the schoolchildren were always in front of my eyes,” he said. “I couldn’t get my mind out of those scenes for weeks.”
On Jan. 20, when fresh attackers descended on nearby Bacha Khan University, his parents kept the television news firmly switched off.
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.