(NEW YORK) — A classmate of Malala Yousafzai, who was also injured in the attack on the girls’ rights activist, says she’s still afraid to leave her house, prays for Malala to come home, and thought her arm “had been blown off” during the attack.
Kainat Riaz, 15, spoke to ABC News from her home in the Swat Valley, an area of northern Pakistan that was home to a Taliban insurgency four years ago. Riaz was riding in the same school bus as Yousafzai and others nearly a month ago, when a lone gunman boarded and demanded to see Malala.
“We were coming back from school,” the young girl says. “I was discussing my paper with a friend and suddenly found a man on the ledge of the van.”
“When he fired, Malala immediately fell,” she recalls.
“She was hit in the head and lost a lot of blood. We thought she wouldn’t survive… We just looked at Malala and cried.
“Then he fired at Shazia (another classmate) and then I got hit. I thought my hand had been blown off. It got numb. When I came home, I found out what happened and then went to the hospital.”
To speak with Riaz, ABC News travelled through a series of narrow streets and alleys in Mingora, the capital of Swat district, until reaching her home, a small two-bedroom bungalow which is now permanently guarded by two full-time, armed policemen. Her female relatives sat in another room while Riaz, wearing glasses, a headscarf, and a traditional Pakistani shalwar khameez, spoke openly about the night of the attack – and beyond.
In a possible indication of the security threats that still surround her, an armed police guard remained at her side during the entire interview.
While other media reports have suggested Riaz returned to her school to resume her studies, she emphatically told ABC that is not the case. She says she only returned once to the school for a “change of scenery.” The situation, she says, still isn’t safe, though she hopes it will soon change.
“God willing I will definitely go back to school,” she says, offering a hint of the resilience that has made the girls national heroes in Pakistan.
The attack hit a raw nerve in Pakistan, drawing widespread condemnation from all sectors of Pakistani society, including a rare public statement and visit to the hospital by Pakistan’s reclusive army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Ordinary Pakistani citizens began holding demonstrations, while “We are all Malala” became a rallying cry in a country where millions of young girls are still denied access to an education.
Before the attack, Yousafzai had become an icon of hope. When the Taliban swept through the Swat Valley beginning in 2008, she write a diary for BBC’s Pashto service under a pseudonym, chronicling her desire to stay in school even after the Taliban had demanded all girls’ schools be closed. Even after the Taliban, who demolished several girls’ schools and flogged women in public, were eventually routed by the Pakistani military, Yousafzai continued to speak out. At just 11 years old, she would often appear on Pakistani media outlets, encouraging other young girls to pursue an education.
Through it all, she and her family continued to defy death threats from the Taliban. In the end, by being attacked, Yousafzai and her classmates have done something no other leader – whether civilian or military – has been able to do: They’ve united the overwhelming majority of the country against the Taliban’s extremism.
“A lot of people have learned that girls’ education is very important,” Riaz says of the incident’s aftermath and the outpouring of media coverage.
“Malala almost sacrificed her life for it. Many girls who weren’t studying are studying now.”
The case has even drawn high-profile international support from unlikely quarters. Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who serves as a goodwill ambassador to the UN, wrote an op-ed declaring “We are Malala,” and pop superstar Madonna recently dedicated a concert to the young girl.
Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Education, has taken up Yousafzai’s cause, starting a global movement pushing for girls to have free and unfettered access to education. A petition he initiated reportedly has more than a million signatures. He plans to visit Pakistan on Saturday – which he’s dubbed World Malala Day to present the petition to Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, in person.
All of this — the outpouring of support, the media coverage, the potential to change millions of lives — doesn’t faze Riaz, who speaks in a confident tone. Though her wounds haven’t fully healed — she still has fevers and migraines at night — her thoughts remain focused on one thing.
Her friend Malala.
“There is no one like Malala,” she says, flashing the tiniest hint of a smile.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio