Malala visits native Pakistan, 1st time since Taliban attack

Malala Yousafzai
The Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said Thursday she was excited to be back in Pakistan for the first time since she was shot in 2012 by Taliban militants angry at her championing of education for girls.

Yousafzai, who landed in her home country just before dawn flanked by heavy security, said in a brief speech at a ceremony at Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s office that she will continue to campaign for the education of girls and asked Pakistanis to be united on issues like providing better health care and education.

She said she remembered having to leave Pakistan for treatment after she was attacked. Covering her tear-filled eyes with her hands, Yousafzai said it was hard to wait for more than five years to return home.

“It is now actually happening and I am here,” she said.

It’s unclear how long Yousafzai will stay, neither she nor her family have announced any travel plans. Pakistani officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said their understanding is that her visit will last until Monday.

Speaking after meeting the prime minister, Yousafzai said Pakistan was always in her thoughts — even when she traveled to cities like New York or London.

“I was always dreaming for the past five years, that I can come to my country, whenever I was travelling abroad,” she said, adding that her dreams were of simple things, “like driving in Karachi, Islamabad.”

“Finally, I am here,” she said.

Since the attack, Yousafzai spent lengthy stretches of time undergoing medical treatment to recover from her wounds. She also went to school in Britain.

Her native Swat Valley still sees occasional militant attacks, though the Pakistani military has largely restored peace since retaking the area. In February, a suicide bombing at an empty lot used by soldiers for sports and exercise killed 11 troops, underscoring the threat that militants still pose to the region and this Islamic nation.

Abbasi praised Yousafzai for her sacrifices and role in the promotion of girls’ education. He said he was happy to welcome her home, where he said “terrorism has been eliminated” — a line often repeated by Islamabad despite persisting militant attacks across the country.

Since her attack and recovery, Yousafzai has also led the “Malala Fund,” which she said has invested $6 million in schools and to provide books and uniforms for schoolchildren.

“For the betterment of Pakistan, it is necessary to educate girls and empower women,” she said.

Earlier, tight security greeted the now-20-year-old university student upon her arrival at Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto International Airport. Local television stations showed her with her parents in the lounge at the airport, before leaving in a convoy of nearly 15 vehicles, many of them occupied by heavily armed police.

Her return had been shrouded in secrecy and she was not likely to travel to her hometown of Mingora in the Swat Valley, where the shooting occurred.

As news broke about Yousafzai’s arrival, many of her fellow Pakistanis welcomed her.

The party of Imran Khan, former international cricket star and now leading Pakistani opposition politician, said Yousafzai’s return was a sign of the defeat of extremism in the country.

Mohammad Hassan, one of Yousafzai’s cousins in the northwestern town of Mingora, said it was one of the happiest days of his life. He said he was not sure whether Yousafzai will visit her hometown, where he said schoolchildren were jubilant and wished they could greet her.

Javeria Khan, a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Mingora said she wished she “could see her in Swat.”

“I wish she had come here, but we welcome her,” she said, as she sat among schoolchildren.

Marvi Memon, a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party, said it was a pleasant surprise for her to see Yousafzai back home and a “proud day” for Pakistan.

“What an incredible surprise, I woke up to this morning” to know that Yousafzai is back along with her parents, Memon said.

Yousafzai was just 14 years old but already known for her activism when Taliban gunman boarded the school van in which she was sitting and demanded to know “who is Malala?” before shooting her in the head. Two of her classmates were also wounded.

In critical condition, Yousafzai was flown to the garrison city of Rawalpindi before being airlifted to Birmingham in Britain.

She has since spoken at the United Nations, mesmerizing the world with her eloquence and her unrelenting commitment to the promotion of girls’ education through the Malala Fund, a book, meetings with refugees and other activism.

She was awarded the Nobel in 2014, along with Indian child-rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, and said on the day she collected the prize that “education is one of the blessings of life, and one of its necessities.”

She remained in Britain after undergoing medical treatment there and was accepted to the University of Oxford last year.

At home in Pakistan, however, she has been condemned by some as a Western mouthpiece. Some have even suggested on social media that the shooting was staged. Yousafzai has repeatedly responded to the criticism with a grace far outstripping her years, often saying education is neither Western, nor Eastern.

Often when she has spoken in public, Yousafzai has championed her home country and spoken in her native Pashto language, always promising to return to her home.

On March 23, when Pakistan celebrated Pakistan Day, Yousafzai tweeted, “I cherish fond memories of home, of playing cricket on rooftops and singing the national anthem in school. Happy Pakistan Day!”

Local television channels have been showing her return to Pakistan with some replaying the horror of her shooting and the rush to get her treatment.

Pakistani officials say they captured several suspects after the attack on Yousafzai, but the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah, is still on the run and believed to be hiding in neighboring Afghanistan.

Fazlullah’s spokesman, Mohammad Khurasani, earlier this month said Fazlullah’s son was among 21 “holy warriors” killed by missiles fired by a U.S. drone at a seminary in Afghanistan in early March.

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Zada reported from Mingora, Pakistan. Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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