This is an excerpt from Malala Yousafzai's new book, "We Are Displaced." Published with permission.
CHAPTER 3 - Internally Displaced
Once what was technically our winter break was over, my brothers went back to school, and I didn’t. Khushal joked that he wished he could stay home. I didn’t find it funny.
The Taliban continued bombing schools. In my BBC blog post from only a few days after my school closed, I wrote, I am quite surprised, because these schools had closed, so why did they also need to be destroyed?
My father continued to speak out, and I joined him, appearing on TV and doing radio interviews. The ban on girls’ education was so unpopular that the head of the Taliban was persuaded to soften it, and by February he had agreed to lift the ban for girls up to fourth grade. I was in fifth grade. But I knew this was my chance, so I pretended to be younger, as did some of my friends. For a few blissful months we attended what we called our “secret school.”
When peace between the army and the Taliban was declared not long afterward, we were relieved. But it never truly took, and the Taliban became more powerful. Things got so bad that on May 4, 2009, government authorities announced that everyone had to leave Swat. The army was planning to launch an intense military operation against the Taliban. They predicted full-fledged warfare, and it was not safe for people to stay in the valley. My family listened to the news in shock. We had two days to evacuate.
My mother began to cry, but my father just stood there, shaking his head. “It will not happen.”
All you had to do was go outside to see: It was already happening. The streets were flooded with people piled into cars and hanging out of buses. People were fleeing on motorbikes and trucks, in rickshaws and mule carts, all with the same wide-eyed look of shock. Thousands more fled on foot because there were not enough vehicles to go around.
Belongings were shoved into plastic bags, children were strapped to bodies and carried, and elderly people were pushed in wheelbarrows.
But my father refused to budge. He kept saying we should wait to see if this was real.
The tension in our house got so thick that my mother finally called my father’s friend who was a doctor and said, “You must come quickly. This man is crazy. He is staying, and it is dangerous.”
That same day, a relative came running to our home with the news. A distant cousin had gotten caught in the crossfire between the army and the Taliban. He was dead.
My mother started packing. We would go to Shangla the following day. We would become IDPs—internally displaced persons.
I am not an emotional person, but I cried that day. I cried for the life I was being forced to leave. I worried I would never see my home or friends or school again. A reporter had recently asked me how I would feel if I had to leave Swat someday and never return. At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous question, because I couldn’t even imagine the possibility. Now here we were, leaving, and I didn’t know when, if ever, we’d come back.
As my brothers begged my mother to take their pet chicks(when my mother said they’d make a mess in the car, Atal countered with a suggestion that they wear diapers), I grabbed some clothes and packed a bag filled with schoolbooks. It was May, and our exams were at the end of June. I kept asking, “When will we be back? In a week? A month? A year?” No one could answer; everyone was too busy packing. My mother made me leave the books behind because there was no room. Distraught, I hid them in a closet and said a silent prayer that we would be home soon. She said no to my brothers, too.
Since we didn’t own a car, we split up and squeezed into the already-full cars of two friends. I went with my friend Safina and her family, following right behind my father’s friend, who took everyone else in my family. We joined the long queue of cars leaving Mingora that day. The Taliban had blockaded many of the streets, in some cases cutting down trees to do so, forcing traffic to only a few roads. The streets were so clogged and chaotic that we inched our way out of the city. At one point we passed a big truck that had a small platform joining its two front wheels. The platform was not meant for passengers, and yet I saw two people sitting there, gripping the hood as the truck made its way through the streets. Falling beneath the wheels of a truck was preferable to staying in Mingora. These were the choices people made that day.
From the relative comfort of our crowded car, I stared out in awe at the flood of people. Women with a bag on one shoulder, a child on the other. Some people with bags stuffed and weighing them down, others with nothing, not even shoes on their feet. I saw cars meant for five people packed with ten, trucks for ten packed with twenty. A woman with a scarf tied around the hands of her two daughters to make sure she didn’t lose them in the crush.
What kind of choice was this? It was like a doomsday for our region. What we and all these people were doing wasn’t a choice: It was survival.
The road we usually took to Shangla was barricaded by a large group of Taliban fighters, so we had to take a longer route that day. Evacuating civilians was the only chance the army had for defeating the Taliban without causing mass casualties. The Taliban knew that, and keeping us from leaving so they could have innocent human shields was their best course of action.
We made it as far as Mardan that first day, about seventy miles away. Camps were already set up, but we were lucky to stay with a friend of my father’s. I remember little about that first night except for the fear and hopelessness I felt. My thoughts were a jumble of unanswerable questions: What will happen to us? Will our house be safe? Why has this happened? How is this our life now?
My father kept saying that this wouldn’t last more than a few days and that everything would be fine, but we all knew that wasn’t true. In the morning we prepared to continue our journey to Shangla, and my father went to Peshawar. He had decided to stay there to work with three of his activist friends on pressuring the government to restore peace in Swat so all its residents could return home as quickly as possible. He wanted to be sure that people everywhere knew what was happening in our region.
As I hugged my father goodbye, I fought back tears. I had so many questions: When will I see you next? Will you be okay on your own? Will we be okay without you? But the words got balled up in my throat so that all that came out were great big sobs. I buried my face in my father’s chest, trying to stifle my cries.
“Jani,” he said, calling me by my pet name -- it’s Persian for “dear one” -- “I need you to be strong.”
After three days of uncertain travel, staying in the home of kind strangers one night and a dirty hotel the other, we had to walk the final fifteen miles, carrying all our belongings. We all just wanted safety and to see something familiar. To stop moving. I had never wanted to simply sit so badly in my life.
I was eleven years old—old enough to understand why we were fleeing. Atal was five, and he only understood that we needed to flee. But after a while, even my endless wondering ceased, and all I could feel was the same thing that Atal felt: exhaustion.
When we finally made it to the village, I let out the breath I felt I had been holding for days, since we’d first heard the order to evacuate. We were welcomed with open arms and pained faces. My uncle -- my father’s brother -- was the first to speak.
“The Taliban were just here,” he said. “We have no idea if they will be back.”
My mother just shook her head, too tired to cry. Nowhere was safe.
My uncle’s house had stone walls, a wooden roof, and a dirt-packed floor. It smelled like the earth, woodsy and dank. I closed my eyes, trying to absorb the smell of mud, one of my favorites, because of what it meant. Home. Family. And at least for this moment, peace.