When the converted truck that served as Shazia Ramzan’s school bus came to a sudden stop just after noon on Tuesday, Oct. 9, she didn’t think much of it. Traffic often clogged the narrow streets of Mingora, the mountain-fringed capital of Pakistan’s Swat district, and such stops were frequent. Fourteen girls and three teachers crammed on the parallel benches that ran the length of the truck bed, and the thick plastic sheeting that protected them from the elements had no windows. The only way to see out was through the open back. Shazia, a 13-year-old eighth grader who was sitting two in from the opening, glanced out. She was startled, then horrified, to see a masked man swing himself onto the back of the truck. “Which one is Malala?” he barked. Terrified, the girls fell silent. Malala Yousafzai was their 15-year-old schoolmate, a well-known children’s rights advocate who frequently challenged the Pakistani Taliban’s stance against girls education. She was sitting to Shazia’s right. “I think we must have looked at her,” admits Shazia. “We didn’t say anything, but we must have looked, because then he shot her. He shot her in the head.” Shazia screamed when she saw Malala slump forward. The gunman turned and shot Shazia twice, just below her left collarbone, and in her left hand when she tried to protect herself. Then he aimed his Chinese-made imitation Colt 45 at Kainat Riaz, the 16-year-old 10th grader sitting to Shazia’s left. He shot her in the shoulder, then dropped off the back of the truck and disappeared.
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Four bullets, three school girls, point blank range. It is nothing short of a miracle that all three survived. Malala, of course, was sent to England for treatment of serious wounds to the head. She will be fine, but at this point in time, it is not clear when, or if, she will come back to Swat. Shazia and Kainat, however, returned to the Kushal School and College for girls on Nov. 29, determined to continue their education no matter the threat. “I love to study, and nothing will stop me, not even a bullet,” Kainat told TIME on her first day back in class. Shazia was equally defiant: “Even if they attack me three more times, I will always go back to school.”
The story of Malala’s shooting and survival has inspired millions and focused attention on her campaign for girl’s education around the world. Presidents and prime ministers have lavished praise on her. Pakistan’s army chief has hailed her as a hero. But heroes come in different sizes. Every single one of the students at Khushal, which was founded by Malala’s father Ziauddin Yousafzai, returned to school, despite the fact that the gunman and his accomplice have yet to be caught. Even the suspected shooter’s sister, Rehanna Haleem, defied expectations and condemned her brother’s alleged actions in a Nov. 6 interview with CNN. “He has brought shame on our family, “ she said. “What he did was intolerable. I don’t consider Atta Ullah my brother anymore.” Standing up to the Taliban in such a public manner takes guts. Attah Ullah, the accused, may have fled to Afghanistan, but the fact that he was able to attack a school bus, and get away in an area not 200 meters from an army checkpoint suggests that the Taliban continue to have sympathizers in the area. “This is what I call real character, standing up in the face of adversity, knowing full well what the repercussions could be,” says Mubasher Akram Butt, a political analyst based in Islamabad. “Anyone of these girls could be killed by the gunman’s accomplices, yet they are unbowed.”
Shazia and Kainat are true illustrations of how Malala is no outlier, but rather an example of the kind of students coming out of Khushal school: courageous, intelligent and articulate. Samar Minallah Khan, a documentary filmmaker who filmed the school in 2010, was astounded by the ambition and character of all the girls she met. “There has to be something exceptional going on with either the school or the person running the school if all these girls are as confident, as inspiring and ascourageous as Malala,” says Khan.
Kainat and Shazia’s first day back at school was an emotional one, full of tears and hugs and laughter as they rejoined their classmates and struggled to catch up on six weeks of missed studies. That is not to say things are back to normal. Shazia and Kainat no longer take the bus. Instead they go in motorized rickshaws, trailed by police vehicles. Armed guards stand watch at their homes. And even though it is on the way, neither Shazia nor Kainat is ready to travel past the deserted cricket pitch where they were shot. Shazia rubs the scar near her wrist where the bullet exited and shudders when she thinks back on that day. “No, I don’t want to go there. Never,” she says.
Both still struggle with fear, and how to quell the panic that rises every time the memories come flooding back. Kainat, a slim, pretty girl with a ready smile and gemstone-flecked glasses, has trouble sleeping. Still, she says, the attack has strengthened her determination to fight for girls’ education. Before the shooting it was always something abstract—after all, she is one of the lucky ones, with a family willing to pay for her education all the way through graduation. Now that she has seen first hand how far some people are willing to go to take away that right, she knows what is at stake. “I feel myself stronger now,” she says, as she sits on a traditional rope bed in her family’s high-walled courtyard. “It was an unfortunate situation, but it gave me courage. It made me realize that it is the duty of every girl to encourage education. Now that Malala is in the UK, we have to fulfill her mission.”
Neither Kainat nor Shazia will condemn the Taliban outright—“I don’t want to confront anyone, I just want my education,” says Shazia— and both are loath to talk about the dark days in 2008 and 2009 when the Taliban ran Swat, when headless corpses littered the town square, when women accused of adultery were publically flogged andgirls schools shut down. Shazia says she prays for the gunman, that she asks God to change his path. “I pray for him to understand that what he did was wrong,” she says. “Islam gives us this right to get an education.” Shazia, the fourth of nine children, is sober and studious. She wants to be a doctor, and excels at her favorite subject, biology. She often thinks about what she would say to the shooter if she ever saw him again. “I would ask, ‘don’t you have sisters and daughters like us?’”
Both are acutely aware that as long as Malala is in England, it is their responsibility to carry the community’s courage, even when they least feel like it. “I have to be brave,” says Shazia, “so everyone else can be too.”
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