In Swat, a girls' school gripped by fear

 

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MINGORA, Pakistan — Under a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, the ninth-grade girls clasped their chemistry texts, smoothed their white head scarves and movingly voiced support for the cause of their classmate, Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Taliban last week because she advocated a girl's right to attend school.

"In our hearts is the thirst for education," one 14-year-old told reporters brought to her classroom by the Pakistani military's public relations wing on Monday. "We want to show the world that we are not worried."

It was a brave but ultimately false front. "We are worried for our lives," the same girl confided later, out of earshot of the army minder. She pleaded that her name and photograph not be used because she feared retribution by the Taliban.

The powerful army, which immediately took over Yousafzai's care after she was shot in the head in Mingora, the Swat Valley's largest town, says the attack last Tuesday was an aberration, not an indication of resurgent militancy. In the main that seems true: Verdant, mountainous Swat, once a haven for foreign tourists, is peaceful except for rare violence, its residents say.

But Yousafzai's shooting spoke to a larger truth: The threat of Pakistani Taliban attacks pervades the entire nation, especially the northwestern frontier and the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. The instability persists despite massive military operations three years ago to quash the extremist group and the continued presence of troops in all seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

That nagging threat seemed reinforced when the military assigned a heavily armed squad from its Rapid Reaction Force, including a mounted machine gunner, to protect a small convoy of international journalists for a six-hour trip to Mingora from Islamabad.

"There is a security alert in this area," a military official said. "That is why some precautions were taken."

Soldiers were posted at every stop along the route, including the Khushal Girls High School and College that Yousafzai attended; the final, boisterous regional match of the "Peace Cricket Tournament"; and the police station where the open-backed, canopied van that carried the schoolgirls still bore splashes of blood on its white benches.

Even so, parents here refuse to bow to terror: While 14 girls out of 31 in Yousafzai's class did not come to school the day after the assassination attempt, on Monday only six were absent.

The attack grievously wounded Yousafzai — who was flown to England on Monday for specialized treatment — and left two classmates with lesser injuries. Yousafzai's prognosis appears to be improving, but she faces long-term rehabilitation.

In the face of worldwide revulsion, the Pakistani Taliban has issued several statements attempting to justify her shooting.

The latest is a six-page disquisition emailed to journalists Monday night that twists Islamic history and scripture to reach the same murderous conclusion that has been denounced by Muslim leaders worldwide:

"Malala was using her tongue and pen against Islam and Muslims," the Taliban said, "so she was punished for her crime by the blessing of the Almighty Allah."

In the religiously conservative, ethnically Pashtun Swat Valley, residents initially embraced the imposition of Islamic law, viewing the secular government and courts as unresponsive and corrupt. But their support faded during a reign of Taliban terror from 2007 to 2009.

The militants shuttered girls' schools and blew them up. They flogged and executed people and left their bodies to rot in the town square for supposed noncompliance with the Taliban interpretation of sharia law.

The army routed the extremists led by Maulana Fazlullah, known as Mullah Radio for his sermons broadcast on pirated FM signals, and they relocated to eastern Afghanistan. The Pakistani military estimates that Fazlullah has 1,000 men under arms.

They and other militants regularly attack Pakistani security posts along the Afghan border, capturing soldiers and beheading them, but the army says the insurgents have been beaten back and are contained in a relatively small area.

Out of frustration, extremists resort to "sneak attacks" like the one on Yousafzai, a senior military officer told journalists in a briefing. "It is a one-off incident. There is no question and no room for a resurgence."

Residents generally agree. "I think terrorism will never come back in Swat as in past years," said Ahmed Shah, a member of the Swat peace jirga, a council of elders. "But we worry that the target killings will continue in the future."

Riaz Ahmed said he also considers Swat to be much safer now — even though his daughter Kainat was wounded when the pistol-wielding assailant fired inside the van full of students, about 16 of them, after classes let out.

"We are determined that we will send her back to school — and to the same school," Ahmed said in the small courtyard outside his home in Mingora's winding alleys.

Kainat Riaz was inside, propped up in bed under a fuzzy blanket as she recovers from injuries to her thumb and arm. She looked overwhelmed by the knot of reporters and TV cameramen jostling and pushing in with their lenses.

Was Kainat afraid of returning to school?

"I was scared at first, but not anymore," the 16-year-old answered.

A few moments later, she said in a quiet voice, "I can't sleep out of fear."

In early 2009, Yousafzai published a pseudonymous chronicle of life under the Taliban on a BBC blog. She later won prizes and international acclaim for fearlessly speaking out for girls' education in defiance of Taliban threats.

Photos of her meetings with Pakistani and foreign dignitaries line the walls at the private Khushal school, run by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. Many of Malala Yousafzai's peers, like her, are well versed in English. They come from families of educators and military officers.

On Monday, chemistry rules were on the lesson plan until the journalists barged in. "The oxidation number of all elements in the free-state is zero," said the text on the instructor's podium.

Like 14-year-old girls everywhere, the students are prone to chattering, giggling and wearing chipped nail polish. But they sense no limits, looking toward careers in medicine, science and the military.

And Yousafzai?

"She just wanted the pen to be in her hand," principal Mariam Khalique said. "She wanted to study. She wanted other girls to study."

Khalique, 28, said the school refused to close despite repeated demands by the Taliban. It finally ended classes the day before the army launched its Swat offensive.

Khalique nominated Yousafzai for an international children's peace prize for which the teen became a finalist.

Despite the growing attention on Yousafzai, the school did not add security staff. "Ziauddin would say it's in the hands of God," the principal said, referring to the girl's father, who founded the school. "I believe that, too."

She was home tending to her toddler son when the frantic call came in around noon that her star pupil and two classmates had been shot.

Within hours Khalique was on a military helicopter with Yousafzai; she also comforted her in the ICU.

At first, authorities said that a bullet had just grazed the girl. "It was to console us," Khalique said. But then she learned the bullet had crashed through Yousafzai's skull and into her neck and come to rest near her spinal cord.

"She kept touching her forehead and her shoulder," Khalique recalled. "Her throat was swollen so she couldn't talk.

"I knew she was feeling pain. She was pressing on my fingers, hard, because she could not scream."

Soon tears came to Khalique's brown eyes, the only part of her face not veiled in white.

"I can't come out of this trauma," she said. "I knew her as a baby."

She spoke of her own preschool daughter. "I think Hana will also be like Malala," Khalique said.

Later, amid the media scrum in the hallway, the principal introduced her child, who looked about 3 or 4. Hana warily extended her tiny hand to a stranger.

Khalique paused to take a call. Hana backed up against her mother's long, shielding pink dress, searching for a place to feel safe.

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