SWAT - Malala Yousafzai visited the Swat valley Saturday morning for her first trip back to the once militant-infested region where she was shot in the head by the Taliban more than five years ago.

“I left Swat with my eyes closed and now I am back with my eyes open,” said the 20-year-old Nobel laureate, referring to how she was airlifted out in a coma after the attack in 2012.

The brief trip by Malala is a highly symbolic moment for Pakistan, which presents Swat as a success story in its long battle with extremism.

Malala landed at Circuit House in Mingora where she was greeted by military officials on the helipad.

“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 at a school outside Mingora, the district’s main town.

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. She was treated first at an army hospital then airlifted to the British city of Birmingham.

Her near-miraculous recovery, and tireless career as an education advocate, have since turned her into a global symbol for human rights, and in 2014 she became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when she was just 17.

On this visit she was accompanied by her father, mother, and two brothers. State Minster for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb and other senior officials also accompanied her.

Malala took pictures of Swat valley from an army helicopter and tweeted them saying: “The most beautiful place on earth to me.”

Upon reaching her home in Gulkada, Malala broke into tears as she met her relatives and friends who were anxiously waiting for her.

Security forces and police had taken strict security measures and Gulkada Road was blocked for all kind of traffic during her short visit.

Malala also visited the all-boys Swat Cadet College Guli Bagh, a military-run school some 15 kilometres outside Mingora.

She was warmly welcomed by the students and staff, and a briefing was given to her about the standard of education.

In her speech, Malala said that “I am really proud that I belong to Swat. Swat is a peaceful place and people of Swat are educated and peace loving”. She said that her joy knew no limits since she was among her own people.

Malala went on to say that she came to Swat after her studies in Britain and was playing her role in the betterment of education sector in the region. Later, she left for Islamabad.

“So much joy seeing my family home, visiting friends and putting my feet on this soil again,” she tweeted. There she lingered some 45 minutes, taking photographs, before travelling back to Islamabad.

The entire visit that lasted just over two hours was arranged on a short notice on Malala’s request, and its details were kept secret.

Her family also expressed their joy in coming home.

“I am unable to believe I am back in Swat and meeting my own people,” her father Ziauddin Yousafzai said, in comments echoed by her mother Toor Pekai.

The trip comes two days after Malala, currently a student at Oxford University in Britain, made her emotional return to Pakistan, where her surprise visit has been met with widespread joy and pride.

She broke down in tears as she made a televised speech on Thursday, saying it was her “dream” to be back, and has vowed to Pakistani media that she will return permanently after she has completed her education.

However she has also been met with pockets of intense criticism. Malala is widely respected internationally, but opinion is divided in Pakistan, where some conservatives view her as a Western agent on a mission to shame her country.

There had been much speculation within the country over whether Malala would go to Swat during her visit.

The mountainous region, once a prized tourist destination famed for its pristine scenery, was overrun by the Pakistani Taliban in 2007.

The militants imposed a brutal, bloody rule, but the army drove them out in 2009. Recently restrictions on tourists visiting the area were lifted.

However security has remained fragile, as the assault on Malala three years after the military operation demonstrated. In February this year 11 military personnel were killed in an attack, and analysts have warned the militants still have a presence there, though not much significant.

Residents of the area have praised Malala in recent days, crediting her with helping to generate improvements in education - especially for girls - in the deeply conservative region, part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

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.

While in Swat, Malala said that she could see vast changes in the area since 2012 - but added she has read reports which claim up to 50 percent of children are still out of school. “We will have to work very hard to bring them all to school,” she vowed.

Residents of Swat also welcomed her visit and urged fellow Pakistanis to support her efforts to promote girls’ education.

“We welcome Malala and the slogan that she has raised - one pen, one teacher. We have pinned our hopes in Malala,” Nazir Khan, a government servant said.

“People have positive as well as negative views about her,” fellow resident Arshad Ali said.

“We need to see what she has done until now, she has constructed a model school at Shangla reflecting her sincerity of purpose - to promote education especially among girls in the country.”



Malala visits town where she was shot


our staff reporter/AFP