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A Shooting Foreshadowed By Taliban Threats

Malala Yousafzai, 15, and her father ignored Taliban threats for years and spoke out in favor of education for girls. Malala, shown here in March 2012, was shot in the head on Tuesday and is in critical condition at a military hospital.
T. Mughal
Malala Yousafzai, 15, and her father ignored Taliban threats for years and spoke out in favor of education for girls. Malala, shown here in March 2012, was shot in the head on Tuesday and is in critical condition at a military hospital.

A 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl remains in critical condition after being shot in the head for defying the Taliban and championing the right of girls to go to school. Malala Yousafzai rose to prominence during the recent war in Pakistan's Swat Valley by writing a blog under a pen name. NPR's Philip Reeves reported on that war — and twice met Malala's father. Reeves sent this account of the tough world in which Malala spent her childhood.

Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is sitting behind his desk in his small, rather tatty office. He is speaking, rapidly and passionately, between sips of tea. The subject of our conversation is an issue that, for him, represents a daily mortal threat: the Taliban.

It is August 2008. Beyond the office door, amid the heat and bustle of a late summer morning, lies the city of Mingora. In the dusty haze beyond that, there are the rivers and orchards of Swat Valley, gloriously ringed by mountains.

Tourists used to come here from far and wide, to hike the trails, fish the streams and ski. But war has crept down into Swat Valley from the nearby mountains of the tribal belt along the Afghan border. Swat is turning into a battleground in which the Pakistani army and the Taliban are slugging it out.

Both sides are causing havoc. Both sides are committing atrocities.

Scattered around the valley is the evidence of the Taliban's recent handiwork — the blackened ruins of at least 100 girls' schools, firebombed by Islamist militants in an effort to ensure the next generation of Swat's females are imprisoned in their homes.

That is why I have come on this hot morning to talk to Yousafzai. He is the chairman of the Swat Private Schools Association, and the head of a girls' school.

He is also known in Pakistan as a tireless peace campaigner. Many in this troubled valley are afraid to talk publicly because of the risk of retribution. He is not.

"How can we think of ignoring half of our population ... to keep them illiterate and ignorant?" he says, leaning in to get closer to my microphone, as the conversation turns to the Taliban's attempts to obliterate any prospect that Swat's girls will ever be educated.

A Daughter In Her Father's Image

Yousafzai's daughter, Malala, would later publicly and persistently ask the same question as her father. She would pay for doing so with a bullet to the head.

But on this day back in August 2008, I had no idea that Malala exists, or that — aged 11 at that time — she would soon begin secretly writing a diary chronicling the travails of life as a child at war in Swat Valley for the BBC's Urdu Service.

Ziauddin Yousafzai is a lean and energetic man who looks younger than his 40-odd years. His cheerful manner portrays nothing of the pressure under which he lives. It emerges that each night he sleeps in a different house. He is being threatened by the militants, and wants to protect his wife and three kids, he explains.

We talk about the leader of the Taliban of Swat, a commander called Mullah Fazlullah — known to everyone as the "FM Mullah," because he broadcasts fundamentalist sermons, beaming them into the valley from transmitters strapped to the back of donkeys.

Fazlullah has been "assigned the task to make trouble in this area," Yousafzai remarks bleakly.

But Yousafzai takes no sides in this war. He criticizes Pakistan's government and also its army, whose shelling is killing civilians in Swat, and whose nightly curfews are choking the local economy. He accuses the United States of unnecessarily fueling conflict by funding Pakistan's military. Yousafzai's overriding priority is simply peace.

A Changed City

One year after this conversation, in 2009, I return to Swat and visit Yousafzai again. It is another hot August day. Yet the city of Mingora has changed greatly.

The Pakistani army has finally ousted the Taliban. Battered looking cars and buses, packed with baggage, are streaming back through the mountains, bringing home a multitude displaced by the conflict.

Supporters of the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf pay tribute to Malala in Islamabad on Wednesday.
Aamir Qureshi / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf pay tribute to Malala in Islamabad on Wednesday.

Shopkeepers are clearing up looted, half-wrecked stores. The valley is still tense. There are regular nightly assassinations, often of Taliban sympathizers. Residents widely believe these killings to be the work of Pakistan's security services.

Yousafzai is excitedly standing by the gates of his school. He was forced to close the school, first by the Taliban, and then again, in May 2009, when the fighting escalated sharply.

On this day in August 2009, he is opening his doors for the first time since the militants departed. He watches happily as his young female pupils troop in to class. They include Malala.

The people of Swat Valley are Pashtuns, as are the Taliban. They tend to be devout and highly conservative. Women usually stay in the background. That does not deter Malala, who confidently steps up to NPR's microphone with an account of the war she's just endured.

"There was Taliban and army," she says in English. "The Taliban were blasting schools. They have tortured us, very much. They stopped us from going to school. They banned the girl education."

Her father chimes in: "They slaughtered us. They killed people. They dishonored women, flogged girls."

Yet his view is also surprisingly nuanced. If the Taliban had introduced good governance and a just and efficient legal system, Yousafzai says, he would have supported them.

It turned out the militants knew absolutely nothing about building or running education, health or legal institutions, he says. They simply lived by the gun.

Daring To Speak Out

These are brave words. The Taliban may have left, but they are still active, and still a threat. It occurs to me during this meeting that Yousafzai is one of those exceptional people you sometimes meet in war zones, who refuse to keep silent no matter how great the dangers.

Once his pupils are in the classroom and busy studying, I ask him about this.

"You may call me a bit crazy," he explains, but "God has bestowed me with a mindset that whenever I see something unjust, I can't forebear it."

He says his natural optimism helped him pull through the darker hours of Swat's conflict.

"One has to be an optimist to live," he says. "For life, optimism is very much important: hope and optimism."

Some four years on, as his daughterMalala fights for her life, Yousafzai needs every drop of optimism that he can muster.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.