ISLAMABAD – Students wearing green and gray uniforms returned Monday to the school in northwest Pakistan where Taliban militants murdered 134 of their classmates as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the country for security talks.
"This is a message that we're not scared," said Noorin Sana, a former teacher at the army-run school, whose youngest son was killed in the Dec. 16 massacre. "Here is another battalion standing against terrorists."
Parents, teachers and students cried as they revisited the site of the horror in Peshawar. Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif joined them Monday morning at an assembly on the school's grounds to recite verses from the Qur'an and sing the national anthem.
The killings changed the political atmosphere in Pakistan, with opposition parties ending months of street protests to join Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a renewed fight against terrorism. He has lifted a ban on executing terrorists and helped pass a law giving military courts jurisdiction in terrorism trials.
Seven Taliban fighters stormed into the school's auditorium last month after scaling its back wall, killing 152 people in total in the hall, classrooms and administrative block. Taliban militants said they targeted the children of military officers and have threatened more attacks since then.
Kerry and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, met in Islamabad with the prime minister, the army chief, Sartaj Aziz, the de facto foreign minister and other Pakistani officials as part of the annual U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue later in the day.
Kerry emphasized the need to go after all militant groups operating from Pakistan, including those that target Afghanistan and nuclear-armed neighbor India, according to a State Department official who wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
The secretary of state announced $250 million in aid for Pakistan to help stabilize tribal regions that border Afghanistan, where many of these groups hide. The United States will use the money to work with Pakistan in providing emergency food, aid, shelter, health care, education and livestock support for about 700,000 people who have been displaced from the region.
Extra security was deployed in and around the school in Peshawar, the capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, as well as other schools that reopened after the winter break.
Sahibzada Muhammad Amin said he was surprised his 14-year-old son wanted to return to the school after witnessing the horror.
"Our kids are more brave than us," he said. "I don't know how they absorbed all this."
The government said it plans to take measures against organizations and Islamic schools involved in terrorism and sectarianism. The military is also continuing to battle Al-Qaida-linked militants in the tribal region of North Waziristan near the Afghan border in an offensive that began in June.
"It is a sad, tough moment," said Sana, the teacher whose son died. "But life has to go on."