Malala Yousafzai has described how "a dream came true" as she made a tearful return to her hometown for the first time since she was shot there by the Taliban as a teenager.
Miss Yousafzai, who became the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner for her campaign for girl’s education, flew into Mingora, her home town in the Swat Valley, on a Pakistani Army helicopter on Saturday.
But while her return amid heavy security has been welcomed by most in Pakistan, it has been greeted by cynicism and hostility by still influential conservatives who view her as an advocate of alien western values.
Mingora is where Malala’s family was living and where she was attending school on October 9, 2012, when a gunman boarded her school bus, asked "who is Malala?", and shot her in the face.
During an emotional reunion with friends and family and a visit to a local school, she said she had "never felt so happy" and praised the Pakistani security forces for fighting the Taliban.
"I miss everything about Pakistan … right from the rivers, the mountains, to even the dirty streets and the garbage around our house, and my friends and how we used to have gossip and talk about our school life, to how we used to fight with our neighbours," she said.
"So much joy seeing my family home, visiting friends and putting my feet on this soil again," she said.
Family friends said she was in tears after entering the family home where relatives, former classmates and friends had been anxiously waiting since morning to welcome her.
So much joy seeing my family home, visiting friends and putting my feet on this soil again. #Home #Pakistan pic.twitter.com/B8VN5Odd27
— Malala (@Malala) March 31, 2018
She later thanked the military for bringing peace to the area in an address to students at the all-boys Swat Cadet College Guli Bagh, some 15 kilometres (nine miles) outside of Mingora, the district’s main town.
"Peace has been restored in the country due to sacrifices of security forces," she said. "I left Swat with my eyes closed and now I am back with my eyes open," she said, referring to the attack which nearly blinded her.
"I am extremely delighted. My dream has come true. Peace has returned to Swat because of the invaluable sacrifices rendered by my brothers and sisters," she said.
The Swat Valley, part of the deeply conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was a stronghold of Islamist militants for two years until the Pakistani Army recaptured the area in 2009.
The most beautiful place on earth to me. #SwatValley #Pakistan pic.twitter.com/eC4uHPt1wt
— Malala (@Malala) March 31, 2018
The Pakistani Taliban still carry out terrorist attacks in the area, six years since a gunman from the group attempted to murder the then 15 year old Miss Yousafzai for campaigning for girls’ education.
Miss Yousafzai’s case has garnered attention across the world and while all women are guaranteed the right to education under Pakistan’s constitution, girls education continues to face opposition from religious conservatives as well fundamentalist groups including the Taliban. A 2013 UNESCO found that over 3 million girls do not attend primary school in Pakistan, partly for economic reasons.
After treatment for her gunshot wound at a military hospital in 2012 Miss Yousafzai was airlifted to Britain, where her remarkable recovery and continuing campaigning for girl’s education earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, when she was just 17.
She has been credited with helping to improved education in the region, especially for girls, in the region. Earlier this month an all-girls school built with money from the Malala Fund opened in Shangla district northeast of Mingora, where her family lived before moving to the city.
Miss Yousafzai, who is now 20 and studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford returned to Pakistan for the first time since the attack on Thursday.
Security has been tight for Miss Yousafzai’s return to Pakistan, where her arrival has been criticized by religious conservatives.
Kashif Miza, the Chairman of the All Pakistan Private School Federation, an educational association, organized an "I am not Malala" day in his organization’s schools in protest at her visit.
"We found Malala’s book highly controversial, and contrary to the ideology of Islam and Pakistan," he told the Telegraph, referring to her 2013 book about her experience.
"Her book was written at the behest of Western forces who have used Malala for their ulterior motives and it is clear that Malala is playing in the hands of the enemies of Islam and Pakistan," he said.
Others have welcomed her however.
Kashif Adeeb Jawadani, the president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Management Association, a rival educational association, said his organisation had ignored Mr Miza’s event, and praised Miss Yousafzai as a "role-model"
"We are taking Malala as a guest in Pakistan and she is a role model for millions of Pakistanis as well because of her achievements," he said.
"Kashif Mirza has his own stance on Malala, but he cannot impose his narrative on us," Mr Jawadani said.
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