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‘Dreamed of this day for 5 years’: Malala returns to Pakistan for first time since Taliban attack

Malala’s visit to Pakistan has divided the society where many have hailed her return while some conservatives view her as a Western agent on a mission to shame her country.

world Updated: Mar 29, 2018 19:56 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times, Islamabad
Malala Yousafzai,Malala,Pakistan
This screengrab taken and released on March 29, 2018 by the Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) shows Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai addressing the media after a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi during her visit to Islamabad. (AFP)

Malala Yousafzai, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt and went on to win the Nobel Peace prize, returned to Pakistan on Thursday after more than five years, saying she will continue to campaign for the education girls.

Malala, 20, who has lived in the UK since she was flown to Birmingham for medical treatment after the 2012 bid on her life, said she was excited to be back in Pakistan. She appreciated the improvement in the security environment and called on the people to be united on issues such as education and healthcare.

Officials said Malala is visiting Pakistan for four days to highlight the work of her foundation and to create awareness about the education of young girls.

It could not immediately be ascertained whether she would visit her hometown in Swat Valley, a former Taliban stronghold where she had angered militants by championing the education of girls.

At a reception in her honour, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi welcomed Malala and noted that when she was attacked, Pakistan was reeling under a wave or terrorism. “Now we have overcome terrorism,” he said.

This handout photograph released by the Press Information Department (PID) on March 29, 2018, shows Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (C) presenting a shield to Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafza (4L) at the Prime Minister Office during her visit to Islamabad. ( AFP )

When it was Malala’s turn to address the gathering at the Prime Minister’s House, she repeatedly wiped away tears from her eyes while recounting how much she had missed Pakistan since she moved abroad for her treatment and education.

“I still cannot believe this is happening. I have dreamed of this day for five years. All the time I was in cars and planes around the world, I used to tell myself that I am back home in Pakistan. And it was never true,” she said between sobs of happiness.

Malala lamented how so much had changed in her life in so little time. She also said she would never have left Pakistan if she had a choice. “The attack happened and I had to leave home, everything was happening by itself. I could not control it,” she said.

The Nobel laureate highlighted how the doctors who initially operated on her in Pakistan had saved her life, and further treatment for her injuries forced her abroad. “Now I have to continue my education abroad,” she added.

“I have always wanted to come back home and meet people here, talk to them, and spend time on the roads and streets I cherish so much, and now that it is actually happening, I am very grateful.”

Malala said extremism and terrorism in Swat had devastated the region after the Taliban took over, adding that the future of Pakistan is now bright and the people are its biggest resource and asset.

“We need to invest in the education of the children in Pakistan. Malala Fund has already spent more than $6 million in Pakistan for the education of girls,” she said, referring to the non-profit group she co-founded with her father.

Malala expressed hope that everyone in Pakistan would join hands for the betterment of the nation, adding that empowering women should top the agenda.

A Pakistani teacher walks in a classroom of the school of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in her hometown of Swat Valley in Pakistan, Thursday, March 29, 2018. ( AP )

During her stay in Pakistan, Malala is scheduled to discuss the prospects of promoting education in less-developed areas with authorities, officials said. Her visit was kept secret due to security reasons.

Tight security greeted the university student on her arrival at Benazir Bhutto international airport. Television channels showed her with her parents in the lounge of the airport before leaving in a convoy of nearly 15 vehicles, many of them occupied by heavily armed policemen.

On Thursday, Malala also met Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. It is being speculated that Chinoy will make a movie on her life.

As news broke about Malala’s arrival, many Pakistanis welcomed her. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s party said her return was a sign of the defeat of extremism.

Mohammad Hassan, one of Malala’s cousins in the northwestern town of Mingora, said it was one of the happiest days of his life. He said he wasn’t sure whether she would visit her hometown, where schoolchildren were jubilant on her return.

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

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

But at home in Pakistan, she has been condemned by hardliners as a Western mouthpiece, with some suggesting on social media that the attack on her was staged. Malala has repeatedly responded to such criticism with a grace far outstripping her years, often saying education is neither Western nor Eastern.

Pakistani officials say they captured several suspects after the bid on Malala’s life, but Mullah Fazlullah, the Pakistani Taliban chief who ordered the attack, is still on the run and believed to be hiding in neighboring Afghanistan.

First Published: Mar 29, 2018 08:17 IST