A young, frail, 11-year-old girl walked towards me making her way up the incline on the road, wearing a loose tunic and pants; she had a veil loosely covering her hair. I had became interested in speaking to her when I heard that a girl from the Swat valley, a Pashtun from the tribe of Youssaf Zai, had a reputation of standing up against the Taliban, for the freedom of girls to get education.
Voice of courage
Malala was a breath of fresh air. While her demeanor was that of a young child, tiny in height and petite in structure she had a mind and speech clearer than that of a well-honed politician. She thought clearly and spoke eloquently in English, a language that was not her mother tongue. In a place where she could not really practice her spoken English, she had picked up listening to broadcasts of PBS, BBC and CBC.
Malala talked about how under the Taliban rule, girls continued to go to school in hiding. They would wear their ordinary clothes, as wearing school uniforms would be a giveaway.
She fought them head on, knowing very well what the consequences could be. She told me that, “If I were caught going to school they could kidnap me or throw acid on my face or kill me.”
So, to still make it to school, she would hide her books under her shawl. Then when in school she said, “we would go into the primary section of the school, so that the Taliban could not object to our being in the school”.
Behind her success was a proud father who would let his daughter shake hands with men as equals, let her do a TV interview on her own with a crew. In places like Swat it is almost impossible to interact with women. Her father, Ziauudin, did not want his daughter to be confined within the regressive ideology of the Taliban. Ziauudin also serves as the principal of the local school and recognised what good education and exposure meant for the success of students.
I met her for the first time in November 2009 when the Taliban had just been flushed out. This is when the terrorist group led by Maulana Fazlullah or Radio Mullah decided that they were going to make their next big move and try to take over Islamabad.
This attempt to take over Islamabad met with a serious answer from the Pakistan army. An evacuation of civilians was ordered and three million Swat residents fled the region including Malala and her parents, shutting down her father's school for months.
Voice gets stronger
I decided to go back to Swat in 2011, to see what had happened to Malala. I knew that a girl with those leadership qualities was somebody that we needed to watch.
I had been in touch with her father over email and knew that she was working hard in school and doing well. I arranged to meet her at a location away from the glare of the rest of the media who were travelling with us. I did a sit down interview with Malala. She talked about Indo- Pak peace and how that was something she hoped for, “I want to be a politician, as every country needs good leadership. I would like to change policies and develop good friendship with India”.
She was just 13. Chatting about her plans in life, she mentioned that she was interested in becoming a lawyer and then wanted to become a politician. Last year I was also in touch with her as she was nominated for an international peace prize. Her parents were proud of her and she was on a path to international fame.
‘Shut her up’
In Swat being a girl with any opinion, does not go down too well in the tribal setup.
Most people are uneducated and above that if you are Radio Mullah, the head of a terrorist group and a 14-year-old girl is challenging you, then you are going to shut her up. I am told by my sources that this strike was planned by the Radio Mullah himself. But there is no way for me to confirm this.
More Malalas needed
The attack on Malala is a reminder that many elements of the terrorist organisation are still floating around. It’s a reminder to the Pakistanis that they will have to continue to fight for many decades to try and rid their country of the terrorists. But it won’t be easy.
(Rohit Gandhi is an Emmy award-winning TV journalist)