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Reporter On Friendship With Malala Yousafzai


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we've been talking a lot about the national debt this election year, but did you know that Americans, as a group, owe more than a trillion dollars in student loan debt? In a few minutes, we'll speak with a former college professor, who says faculty advisors need to be doing more to help students think that through. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, by now, you've probably heard of the story of the Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai. She is the young woman who was targeted by the Taliban. Last week, a Taliban fighter boarded her school bus and shot her in the head at close range and the militants are vowing to try to attack her again if they get the chance.

Malala is now fighting for her life in a hospital in the U.K. and her story has touched a cord around the world and it's probably due, along with Malala's own courage, to our next guest.

Back in 2009, Adam Ellick spent months with Malala and her family, especially her father, for a New York Times documentary and he became a close family friend, and he's with us now.

Thank you for joining us. Thank you so much.

ADAM ELLICK: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that there are a lot of developments here, but I'm gathering that most people really just want to know how she is, so can you just tell us what you know? I understand that you've been in touch with relatives who were at her bedside until she was actually transferred to the U.K. How's she doing, to your knowledge?

ELLICK: The latest update I have is that she remains in critical condition, but they did remove the ventilator for about two minutes a day and a half ago and she was able to breathe without stress and they were going to try it again at some point, either last night or today. But I haven't gotten a report if they were able to keep the ventilator on her for a longer duration.

MARTIN: And I understand that the British police said on Tuesday that they've actually questioned and turned away people who were trying to visit Malala and her - in the hospital where she now is and you are concerned about this, I understand, because you don't believe that these people were relatives.

ELLICK: Well, no. But the most recent reports that I'm getting said that they were sort of overzealous supporters and people who just wanted to come and pay their respects, which is entirely possible. But I can take a step back and tell you that one thing I'm pretty confident is that the family doesn't have family - any family abroad. I mean, this is a family that grew up in not just the Swat Valley, which is a somewhat remote part of Pakistan, but even a rural village in Swat Valley and we would - you know, I've met most - many of their extended family members and I don't think anyone in the family had ever left Pakistan, except Malala's father did once go to Afghanistan when one of his poems was selected in a contest when he was a kid.

MARTIN: Well, let's take a step back, then, and tell us more about this remarkable young woman and her family for people who are not as familiar with the story as you are. Let me just play a short clip from the documentary. Here it is.


MARTIN: So how did you come to know them? And just tell us a little bit more about them.

ELLICK: Well, I first met them in January of 2009. It was 10 days before the Taliban had planned to shut down all schools in the Swat Valley, which included not just Malala's fifth grade class, but also the girls' school where she studied that was owned by her father. And I contacted a Pakistani journalist when I first heard about this. It seemed like an amazingly important story and no one was talking about it. And I asked him, how many students will be affected by this close-down? And he said about 50,000 school girls will lose their education next week.

So I had him reach out to people in Swat Valley who were sort of education activists and Malala's father's name instantly came to the top of the list and I was able to meet him in a third city because Swat was too dangerous at the time, and he showed up with this little 11-year-old girl at the time and she didn't speak for the first half hour and I started asking her some questions after 30 minutes and she was answering in Pashtun, her native language, and eventually I said, do you speak any English? And she said, yes, of course. I have a fear in my heart that the Taliban is going to shut down my school.

And, you know, just hearing her voice a few seconds ago, I mean, as soon as you listen to her, you're hooked. You can be a journalist and you can pretend to be distant and remote from your sources, but she really has captivated me from the second I first met her.

MARTIN: Now, the Taliban and there - some of the affiliate groups are now claiming - in fact, they've put out another recent statement. Not only did they take responsibility, but they're also saying that they would do this again and they claim that this is not because she's an advocate of education, but because she is preaching secularism and so-called enlightened moderation. They say that she's promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas and, you know, they go on, you know, at some length about that.

How do you respond to that? What do you think that means?

ELLICK: Well, it's hard for me to interpret it. I mean, I don't have any incredibly insightful answers because my film documents Malala and her plight and I was never imbedded with the Taliban to truly understand their beliefs and their ideologies. But I did receive a seven-page statement, which they released about - they released today and, in that statement, they basically detail a lot of the things you just mentioned, including the fact that she wore makeup while speaking to a foreign reporter, which was a more recent interview she did, I believe, in the past year. They claim that she said she was pro-Obama and Obama is responsible for killing Malalas all over Afghanistan and Pakistan with the U.S. drone program.

And they also condemn her. First of all, they say she's not a child because, according to Islam, she's an adult, so they didn't kill a child. So - and the early translations I have don't mention education or schooling. So it seems that's their message, as of now.

MARTIN: Just to emphasize, she's 15 now, as I understand it, but the point - one of the - I think a point that I wanted to hear from you is before we let you go - is that the message we keep hearing from the Taliban is that this kind of girls' education is not a part of the culture, that this is something imposed by the West. From your reporting in the region, does Malala represent, does her family represent something that the people there want? I guess what I'm asking you, whose point of view do you think is accurate here?

ELLICK: Well, I think it's incredibly important to keep in mind that the vast, overwhelming majority of people in Swat Valley share the dreams and wishes of Malala, but maybe don't have the courage and confidence and are as emboldened as this young woman and her revolutionary father.

Everyone I met - and I went back to Swat a year after making the film to see how many of the girls' schools had been rebuilt in rural areas and there I found hundreds and hundreds of kids that were furious at the fact that their schools had not been rebuilt and they openly said to me, you know, our government is corrupt. We are furious at the government for not flushing out the militants even more and not rebuilding these schools with urgency and we're equally furious at the Taliban for everything that we've suffered in the past few years.

So these are people, as Malala's father Ziauddin says in the film many times, who are stuck between two forces, neither of which are making their life very easy.

MARTIN: Adam Ellick is a video and print correspondent for the New York Times and he was kind enough to join us from the studios at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Adam, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for your reporting, as well.

ELLICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.