Malala facing life in exile as terror grips schools

Pakistani children at a Rawalpindi school chant prayers for Malala Yousafzai. Picture: AP

Pakistani children at a Rawalpindi school chant prayers for Malala Yousafzai. Picture: AP

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One year after a Taleban bullet tried to silence Malala Yousafzai’s demand for girls’ education, the 16-year-old has published a book and is a Nobel Peace Prize contender.

However, the militanthave said they will kill her should she eturn home to Pakistan, and the headteacher at her old school claims that as Malala’s fame has grown, so has fear in the classrooms.

Although Malala remains in the UK and her assailant is still at large, police say the case is closed. And many Pakistanis publicly wonder whether the shooting was staged to create a hero for the West to embrace.

Shortly after the attack, children filled the streets carrying placards with the words: “I am Malala.” A year later, a popular refrain is: “Why Malala?”

In Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the giant sign that once identified Malala’s school is gone. Rickshaws rumble to a stop as girls, their heads covered and faces obscured, scramble out and dash into the building.

The school made no plans to mark yesterday’s anniversary, although children in other parts of Pakistan did. Teachers and pupils are afraid. Even a giant poster of Malala that once adorned the wall of the assembly hall has been removed. Children scrambled to hide from the camera. Interviewed this week, school principal, Selma Naz spoke quickly and in hushed tones.

“We have had threats. It is much more dangerous for us after Malala’s shooting and all the attention that she is getting,” she said. “The Taleban are very dangerous. They have gone from Swat, but still they have a presence here. It is hidden, but it is here. We all have fear in our hearts.”

An armed soldier now stands guard outside the school’s massive black steel front door.

On 9 October 2012, Malala left the school, laughing with friends as they climbed into a small pick-up used to transport pupils. They laughed and talked as the pick-up rumbled over roads pocked by potholes.

Suddenly a masked man with a gun stopped the vehicle beside a dusty, open field. A second masked man jumped into the back with a pistol.

“Who is Malala?” he shouted. No-one said anything but heads involuntarily turned toward Malala. He raised his pistol and fired and fired again. One bullet hit the top of Malala’s head. Two other students, Shazia Ramazan and Kainat Riaz, were also hit, but their wounds were not serious. Malala woke up a week later at a hospital in Birmingham, where she was taken for specialist treatment. She slowly regained her sight and voice and was reunited with her parents.

However, the many awards that have since been bestowed on Malala, including a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, the winner of which is to be announced tomorrow, have stirred anti-western sentiments in Pakistan, where a brutal insurgency has killed thousands of civilians and more than 4,000 soldiers. Frustrated by the relentless demands by the West “to do more”, many Pakistanis even see Malala’s international acclaim as a western drama played out to heap more criticism on ­Pakistan.

Last December, students at a school in the Swat Valley protested over a government decision to rename it the Malala Yousafzai Girls College. Eventually, Malala’s name was removed.

Malala’s battle for girls’ education began when she was barely 11 and at a time when the Taleban roamed the valley, blowing up schools, beheading security forces and leaving dismembered bodies in the town square.

“It was a very, very hard time. Malala spoke out on TV and in newspapers. She was threatened, her father was threatened,” said Ahmed Shah, a family friend and teacher, whose support for girls’ education has also brought death threats from the Taleban.

Mr Shah said Malala, who has just published a book about the assassination attempt, is also paying a price for her fame. “I was talking to Malala’s father the other day and he said Malala is weeping and saying, ‘When will I study? I am going to America, to Austria, to Spain and for so many days I have not even had one class of geography’.”

Ms Naz, who started as head three months ago, said it doesn’t help that Malala’s assailant is still at large. The attacker will most likely never be caught, said Mr Shah, noting that police rarely even investigate an incident if the Taleban take credit for it.

Fear among judges leads to acquittals anyway, said Swat lawyer Aftab Alam. “No-one can dare to appear before the court, even the police cannot dare to investigate,” he said. “It is just impossible.”

Military officials say Malala’s assailant, identified as ­Attaullah, has fled to Afghanistan, and the police say the case is closed.

Attaullah’s sister, Rehana, spoke at her Swat Valley mountain home: “We don’t know where he is, whether he is dead or alive.” His uncle Painda Khan mumbled: “We don’t know why people are blaming him. No-one has told us why.”

The Taleban, driven out of the valley nearly four years ago, are creeping back. In recent months militants have killed the regional commanding officer as well as dozens of men on peace committees, and warn of more kilings until Sharia law is imposed.

Last weekend the Taleban again vowed to kill Malala if she returned to Pakistan, which she has said is her dream.

“If we found her again, then we would definitely try to kill her,” Taleban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said. “We will feel proud upon her death.”

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