Malala Yousufzai: My 'small video star' fights for her life

Malala's father said he was willing to die for the cause. But I never asked Malala if she was willing to die as well.

Adam Ellick October 10, 2012
I had the privilege of following Malala Yousafzai, on and off, for six months in 2009, documenting some of the most critical days of her life for a two-part documentary. We filmed her final school day before the Taliban closed down her school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley; the summer when war displaced and separated her family; the day she pleaded with President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, to intervene; and the uncertain afternoon she returned to discover the fate of her home, school and her two pet chickens.

A year after my two-part documentary on her family was finished, Malala and her father, Ziauddin, had become my friends. They stayed with me in Islamabad. Malala inherited my old Apple laptop. Once, we went shopping together for English-language books and DVDs. When Malala opted for some trashy American sitcoms, I was forced to remind myself that this girl – who had never shuddered at beheaded corpses, public floggings, and death threats directed at her father — was still just a kid.

Today, she is a teenager, fighting for her life after being gunned down by the Taliban for doing what girls do all over the world: going to school.

The Malala I know transformed with age from an obedient, rather shy 11-year-old into a publicly fearless teenager consumed with taking her activism to new heights. Her father’s personal crusade to restore female education seemed contagious. He is a poet, a school owner and an unflinching educational activist. Ziauddin is truly one of most inspiring and loving people I’ve ever met, and my heart aches for him today. He adores his two sons, but he often referred to Malala as something entirely special. When he sent the boys to bed, Malala was permitted to sit with us as we talked about life and politics deep into the night.
The author, right, with Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin.

(Adam Ellick, the author, right, with Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin.)

After the film was seen, Malala became even more emboldened. She hosted foreign diplomats in Swat, held news conferences on peace and education, and as a result, won a host of peace awards. Her best work, however, was that she kept going to school.

In the documentary, and on the surface, Malala comes across as a steady, calming force, undeterred by anxiety or risk. She is mature beyond her years. She never displayed a mood swing and never complained about my laborious and redundant interviews.

But don’t be fooled by her gentle demeanor and soft voice. Malala is also fantastically stubborn and feisty — traits that I hope will enable her recovery. When we struggled to secure a dial-up connection for her laptop, her Luddite father scurried over to offer his advice. She didn’t roll an eye or bark back. Instead, she diplomatically told her father that she, not he, was the person to solve the problem — an uncommon act that defies Pakistani familial tradition. As he walked away, she offered me a smirk of confidence.

Another day, Ziauddin forgot Malala’s birthday, and the nonconfrontational daughter couldn’t hold it in. She ridiculed her father in a text message and forced him to apologise and to buy everyone a round of ice cream — which always made her really happy.

Her father was a bit traditional, and as a result, I was unable to interact with her mother. I used to chide Ziauddin about these restrictions, especially in front of Malala. Her father would laugh dismissively and joke that Malala should not be listening. Malala beamed as I pressed her father to treat his wife as an equal. Sometimes I felt like her de-facto uncle. I could tell her father the things she couldn’t.

I first met Malala in January 2009, just 10 days before the Taliban planned to close down her girls’ school, and hundreds of others in the Swat Valley. It was too dangerous to travel to Swat, so we met in a dingy guesthouse on the outskirts of Peshawar, the same city where she is today fighting for her life in a military hospital.

In 10 days, her father would lose the family business, and Malala would lose her fifth-grade education. I was there to assess the risks of reporting on this issue. With the help of a Pakistani journalist, I started interviewing Ziauddin. My anxiety rose with each of his answers. Militants controlled the checkpoints. They murdered anyone who dissented, often leaving beheaded corpses on the main square. Swat was too dangerous for a documentary.

I then solicited Malala’s opinion. Irfan Ashraf, a Pakistani journalist who was assisting my reporting and who knew the family, translated the conversation. This went on for about 10 minutes until I noticed, from her body language, that Malala understood my questions in English.
“Do you speak English?” I asked her.

“Yes, of course,” she said in perfect English. “I was just saying there is a fear in my heart that the Taliban are going to close my school.”

I was enamoured by Malala’s presence ever since that sentence. But Swat was still too risky. For the first time in my career, I was in the awkward position of trying to convince a source, Ziauddin, that the story was not worth the risk. But Ziauddin fairly argued that he was already a public activist in Swat, prominent in the local press, and that if the Taliban wanted to kill him or his family, they would do so anyway. He said he was willing to die for the cause. But I never asked Malala if she was willing to die as well.

Finally, my favorite memory of Malala is the only time I was with her without her father. It’s the scene at the end of the film, when she is exploring her decrepit classroom, which the military had turned into a bunker after they had pushed the Taliban out of the valley. I asked her to give me a tour of the ruins of the school. The scene seems written or staged. But all I did was press record and this 11-year-old girl spoke eloquently from the heart.

She noticed how the soldiers drilled a lookout hole into the wall of her classroom, scribbling on the wall with a yellow highlighter, “This is Pakistan.”

Malala looked at the marking and said:
“Look! This is Pakistan. Taliban destroyed us.”

In her latest e-mail to me, in all caps, she wrote, “I WANT AN ACCESS TO THE WORLD OF KNOWLEDGE.” And she signed it, “YOUR SMALL VIDEO STAR.”

I too wanted her to access the broader world, so during one of my final nights in Pakistan, I took a long midnight walk with her father and spoke to him frankly about options for Malala’s education. I was less concerned with her safety as the Pakistani military had, in large part, won the war against the Taliban. We talked about her potential to thrive on a global level, and I suggested a few steps toward securing scholarships for elite boarding schools in Pakistan, or even in the United States. Her father beamed with pride, but added:
“In a few years. She isn’t ready yet.”

I don’t think he was ready to let her go. And who can blame him for that?

This post originally appeared here.

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Adam Ellick A New York Times video and print journalist who covered Pakistan from 2009-2011. He is currently on leave at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. His website is
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Osman | 11 years ago | Reply @Anoop: Although people have already indulged into a discussion over the 3 questions you have posted. I just couldn't resist holding back because I feel that as a principle you have misunderstood what the Pakistanis think, like and dislike with respect to the taliban. Though the questions put forward are how we (Pakistanis) are perceived by the world, but this is all what the media wants the world to believe about us. 1) Pakistan doesn't support the Afghan version of the Taliban rather as any other Sovereign Country Pakistanis respect the laws and governments of any other countries. It is not only the Taliban restricting the basic rights to Women, if you look around most of the African countries deprive their citizens of basic human rights, Countries like Saudi Arabia who are Oil Rich and allies of the USA are not criticized by the USA government of them depriving Women of their rights. Be it Pakistan or any other country doesn't have the right to intervene into another countries matter. It is the people of that Country who have to stand for themselves and bring about a change for themselves and their Children's future. As for Taliban's in Afghanistan if the people support and give them power no country has the right to object their Rule of Power. As for Pakistan it is a sovereign democratic country and has its own Constitution and Laws binding on every Citizen and Foreigner inside of Pakistan. 2) I would agree with you on the 2nd point, Pakistanis have lost the value of life in the last decade. It has become a norm to listen to 100 deaths in a drone attacks, suicide bomb, bus accident, fire accident or the sort on a daily basis. So murders, killings, value of human life has been lost by us. Though to this day there are many who still believe that the attack on Malala, murder of Salman Taseer or bounty hunting is immorally disgraceful and not what our divine religion teaches us. 3) Again, reverting back to my answer of Point 1. Taliban if elected in elections have a right to bring in their laws and modifications to the constitution. Otherwise every individual within the geographical boundaries of our nation has to follow the law of the land. If this is overlooked there will be 100 more different groups with more than 50,000 - 100,000 individuals with firearms imposing their rule of law. No nation would accept that and neither any nation in History has accepted that. I hope that you're able to understand my replies and understand that Pakistanis are not what they are being portrayed to the world by the International Media. We have literate, educated, ethical and valued individuals, businessmen, philanthropists, religious scholars, doctors, scientists and professionals in every field. Like any other person from any other country we have fans of MJ, Madonna etc. we love Hollywood/Bollywood movies, love the western cuisines, have international chains opening up in our country etc.
Majid | 11 years ago | Reply @Sumaiya: Dear Sumaiya for your kind information Malala was not attached by so called Talib or Taliban. It was a game of US and Pak Govt. to withdraw the attention of the Muslims from the film made against our Prophet (SAW). Remember it is done by the Blackwater. See the pictures when she was fired and now when she is at hospital. she has no symptom of bullet or wound. It was just a game. All who blame Islam or so called TAliban for this act should know that it was a game for initiating military operation in FATA and withdrawing the attention of Muslim from that film.
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