Taliban Foe Celebrates Girls' School Reopening

Ziauddin Yusefzai ignored the Taliban's death threats when they took over his city in Pakistan's Swat Valley. He marched against the militants and for as long as he could, kept running his school for girls. He is now celebrating because the Taliban is out of the city and his girls are returning to school.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Now, we're going to meet an unusual man in Pakistan. He became entangled in the conflict between government forces and the Taliban. He's from Swat Valley, that's in the northwest of that country, where he runs a school.

NPR's Philip Reeves went to visit him.

PHILIP REEVES: The school day is beginning. Ziauddin Yusefzai is standing by the gate, waiting to see how many of his students turn up. A nervous-looking girl, swaddled in a shawl and lugging a backpack, walks in, then another and another. Yusefzai smiles broadly.

A few months back, his school was shut on the orders of the Taliban along with all the other girls' schools in the area. By then, the militants had already torched many girls' schools and were threatening Yusefzai.

Mr. ZIAUDDIN YUSEFZAI: They left some threatening messages to me. But…

REEVES: What did these messages say?

Mr. YUSEFZAI: Messages said that you have to close the school; otherwise, you will face very harmful consequences.

REEVES: Yusefzai is director of a school in Swat's main city, Mingora. Some 200 pupils are enrolled to study here in the school's girls' section, which is discretely tucked away in a back alley.

(Soundbite of bell)

REEVES: It's time for assembly. About 60 girls gather in a courtyard under the hot morning sun to go through their daily ritual of prayers.

Unidentified Group: Oh, my God, I offer you…

REEVES: This is from the Quran…

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: …and the Pakistani National Anthem.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: These kids have been through a lot. In January, the Taliban took over Mingora. That was the first time their school closed. Yusefzai reopened it in February after the Taliban and Pakistani authorities agreed to a peace deal. The deal broke down. And in May, the Pakistani army launched a military offensive to regain the city, so Yusefzai had to close his school again.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: The war compelled many of these girls and their families to flee the valley. Now that Pakistani forces have driven the Taliban out of the city, the people of Mingora are coming back.

Today, Yusefzai welcomes the girls home.

Mr. YUSEFZAI: My dear daughters, you see after the military operation…

REEVES: Yusefzai is a lean and energetic man who looks younger than his 40 years. His cheerful manner portrays nothing of the ordeal he's been through; for he's one of those rare people you find in wars, people who, even at the height of danger, refuse to keep silent.

Mr. YUSEFZAI: You may come a bit crazy, because God has bestowed me with a mindset that whenever I see something unjust, I can't forebear it. The least thing I do, I express it.

REEVES: When the Taliban moved into Swat, most people preferred to lie low. Yusefzai organized peace marches. He appeared repeatedly on Pakistani TV. He often strongly criticized the Pakistani government, but he also excoriated the Taliban at a time when it was very risky to do so. He did take some precautions. To protect his wife and three children, he stopped sleeping at home.

Yusefzai says his natural optimism helped a lot.

Mr. YUSEFZAI: Of course, and one has to be an optimist to live.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YUSEFZAI: For life, optimism is very much important: hope and optimism.

REEVES: The people of Swat Valley are Pashtuns. Pashtuns tend to be religious and highly conservative. The women usually stay in the background.

Yet, in the stark classrooms of Yusefzai's school, the girls are talking about the war, including his daughter, Malala, who's 12.

Ms. MALALA YUSEFZAI (Ziauddin Yusefzai's Daughter): Sir(ph), you know, that in Swat, there was Taliban and army. The Taliban were blasting schools. They have tortured us, very much. They stopped us from going to school. They banned the girl education.

Mr. YUSEFZAI: They slaughtered us. They killed people. They dishonored women, flogged girls.

REEVES: Yusefzai says if the Taliban had introduced good governance and a just legal system, he would have supported them himself. But they didn't.

Mr. YUSEFZAI: They partake only raising the gun and depressing the people means government. They had no idea of the institutions, of the education, of the health sector, of the law sector. They had nothing to do with it.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: As life returns to his school, Yusefzai is enjoying the moment. He doesn't exclude the possibility the Taliban or others like them will come back; yet he doesn't believe they'll ever prevail in Pakistan. And he hopes he'll never close his school again.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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