MINGORA, Pakistan (REUTERS) - Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai visited her home town in Pakistan's Swat Valley on Saturday (March 31) for the first time since she was shot by a Taleban gunman as a teenager, two security officials and a family friend said.
Roads leading to the 20-year-old education activist’s home in Mingora were blocked off earlier in the day.
Yousafzai has been visiting Pakistan since Thursday, her first trip home since she was shot and airlifted abroad for treatment. The government and military have been providing security.
It had been uncertain whether Yousafzai would be able to visit Swat, parts of which spent nearly two years under the Pakistani Taliban militants’ harsh interpretation of Islamic law, due to continued concerns for her safety.
“I miss everything about Pakistan ... from the rivers, the mountains, to even the dirty streets and the garbage around our house, and my friends and how we used to have gossip ...to how we used to fight with our neighbours,” she told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
Two security officials told Reuters the trip by helicopter would likely be just for one day.
The Taliban claimed responsibility in 2012 for the attack on Yousafzai for her outspoken advocacy for girls’ education, which was forbidden under the militants’ rule over Swat.
Yousafzai’s return to her home town was eagerly awaited by admirers and family friends.
“We’re very happy that Malala has come to Pakistan. We welcome Malala,” said Arfa Akhtar, a third-grade student in a school where Yousafzai once studied. “I’m also Malala. I’m with Malala in this mission.”
Barkat Ali, 66, says he remembers holding Malala in his lap when she was a child in Mingora. He is proud of the 20-year-old’s struggle to promote girls’ education, just as he is of his refusal 10 years ago to turn over his son when the Taliban demanded new fighters.
“They were the old illiterate people who would say that our daughters will not go to schools,” Ali said, recalling two mortar shells landing in his street, often patrolled by the Taliban.
“Now people have become sensible. They educate their girls.”
The Taliban took over much of the valley starting in 2007, banning girls’ education, killing people, flogging women and hanging bodies from electric poles to enforce their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
The Pakistani army wrested control of Swat back from the Taliban in 2009 and the area remains mostly peaceful, but the Taliban still occasionally launch attacks including one on the military a few weeks ago.
Not everyone in the valley has such reverence for Yousafzai, who became the youngest Nobel laureate in history in 2014 at age 17.
Resident Mohammad Nisar Khan says the international celebrity and official protection given to the young woman overshadows the sacrifices made by others in Swat.
“We were the ones who stood up against the Taliban... My four uncles and two cousins were slaughtered by the Taliban in Matta. They were brutally martyred. Yet, no one has asked about me,” Khan said.
“Can someone show me one brave deed that Malala Yousafzai has performed ... that we have not performed at age 50?”
Elsewhere in parts of Pakistan, her arrival was met with outright hostility from those who accuse her of building a career abroad by painting a negative picture of her homeland.
In the eastern city of Lahore, a group of private schools staged a protest on Friday with teachers and their students chanting “I am not Malala”, some wearing black armbands.
The organiser of the protest, Kashif Mirza, said dozens of private school chains participated and teachers told students in classes “that Malala does not represent true Pakistan”.
“She maligned Pakistan, Islam and the Pakistani army after going abroad,” said Mirza, who leads the President of All Pakistan Private Schools Federation. He said his group condemned the gun attack on Yousafzai but said since going abroad she had been influenced by foreign powers.
Other private schools, however, declined to join the anti-Malala protest.
“No such day was observed in any of our branches, because we don’t support any event which spreads hatred,” said Tabraiz Bokhari, spokesman of Beacon House School System, with 200 affiliates across Pakistan.
Many Swat residents, including family friend Jawad Iqbal, were hopeful Malala would be able to return on this trip.
“The people of Swat and the whole of Pakistan are with Malala,” Iqbal said standing in front of a portrait of Yousafzai with her father, who is a teacher.
“God willing, we will counter the terrorism and extremism in our region with the weapon of education, with the weapon of a pen, with the weapons of teachers and with the weapons of books.” Along the road where Malala was shot on her school bus, resident Amir Zeb also said he hoped Malala will visit.
“Malala Yousafzai is the daughter of Pakistan,” he said, adding. “We’re proud of her.”