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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Malala defies threats to return to Pakistan

The 20-year Nobel Peace Prize winner returned to her homeland for her first visit since she was attacked by a Taliban gunman in 2012

Malala Yousafzai meets Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, centre right, with her parents. EPA
Malala Yousafzai meets Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, centre right, with her parents. EPA

She landed at Islamabad’s international airport named after a daughter of Pakistan who was educated at Oxford University and aspired to keep the ravages of extremism at bay.

Malala Yousafzai, the 20-year Nobel Peace Prize winner, returned to her homeland for her first visit since an attack on her school bus in 2012 left the student from Swat Valley fighting for her life. Like Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who was killed by an assailant in 2007, Miss Yousafzai is now studying at a top Oxford college.

Arriving at the house of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the current prime minister, in an official convoy under heavy security, Miss Yousafzai was moved to tears as she sought to discuss her exile from her homeland.

The Philosophy, Politics and Economics student became emotional as she explained her departure had not been of her choice. "I don’t cry much," she said at the short official reception. “I had to go out for further treatment, I had to go out to continue my education.

"It has been my dream that I should go to Pakistan and there, in peace and without any fear, I can move on streets, I can meet people, I can talk to people," she said.

The ambition has been curbed on the trip. She has been targeted by a bitter hate campaign that at its wildest fringes accuses the young woman of being a pawn of Western intelligence agencies.

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The Pakistani military airlifted Miss Yousafzai by helicopter hours after a Taliban gunman boarded a bus in the Swat town of Shangla, shooting her in the head. She was first flown to Peshawar, where she was placed in a medically induced coma, and then moved in a medical evacuation to the British city of Birmingham, where doctors battled for three days to save her life.

With the prize money from sharing the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize and proceeds from a bestselling memoir, Miss Yousafzai established the Malala Fund to help support the efforts of those seeking to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a schoolgirl before the attack, she had already become a champion for greater access to learning.

The four-day trip is in part designed to promote the work of the fund, and Miss Yousafzai plans to meet with government officials and female and education activists. The fund has restored and supported schools in Pashtun areas.

Security considerations mean that a mooted plan for her to visit Swat, a picturesque area that was once a hiking and tourism destination, has been dropped.

Instead her family will travel to Islamabad where she is expected hold a reunion at a well-secured luxury hotel. Miss Yousafzai's exact schedule is being closely guarded for security reasons and fear of another attack by the Taliban.

Reflecting on her new life, she said she had “returned without any fear,” observing: "I have seen a lot in these years."

The visit was cheered by many in Pakistan, including Marvi Simed, a member of the executive council of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who quoted words of welcome from the Urdu poet, Hafez Juanpuri.

“Welcome home [Malala],” she said. “You made us cry today. Really hope that all the children of my country and all countries are safe and secure.”

Others had a more grudging reaction based on suspicion of those who remove themselves from their homeland. "Pakistan is her home and if she has come home we welcome her, but we think that she has come as part of international agenda to malign Pakistan and we strongly condemn that," declared Kashif Mirza, president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation.

A social media campaign used the slogan “Know the real heroes” to attack the visit. It showed the image of a school boy shot in the mouth, claiming he had remained in Pakistan to study.

“Real Pashtun don't leave the battleground they get back on their feet and face the enemy but Malala dramazai gets training from MI6 part of a script,” declared Yawar Mir on Twitter.

However, other users responded that the image was of another Pakistani victim of violence, Waleed Khan, who was studying at the University of Birmingham school and had stood for the UK Youth Parliament as a champion of courage in the face of intimidation.