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Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai (center) recovering in a U.K. hospital with her mother, Thorpekai (left), brothers Khushal Khan (third right) and Apal Khan (far-right), and her father, Ziauddian.
My introduction to Malala Yousafzai through her schoolteacher father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, was somewhat accidental.

It happened during the Taliban's unprecedented ban on girls' education in Pakistan's Northwestern Swat Valley in December 2008.

I had been covering the story for the BBC's Urdu-language service. The ban prompted me to pitch to my editors the idea of enlisting a young schoolgirl to write a blog for our widely read website.

The concept was simple -- to document life under the Taliban as seen by a schoolgirl.

After getting the go-ahead from the editors, I approached one of my key contacts in Swat, Ziauddin. He ran a private school and was a vocal member of the anti-Taliban Swat Qaumi Jirga (community assembly), and provided great insight into his troubled homeland.

Within days he introduced me to one of his 10th grade students who was eager to write the blog but soon backed out because of parental pressure.

Nonetheless, I persisted and pressed Ziauddin to help me in finding a replacement. He eventually turned to his 11-year-old daughter, who gladly accepted the challenge.

It was the worst of times in Swat. After years of fighting in the remote western tribal regions along Afghanistan's border, the Taliban had expanded their reach and captured a strategic district close to Pakistan's heartland and imposed harsh rule.

Floggings of alleged thieves and fornicators, beheadings, suicide attacks, and targeted killings were everyday occurrences. Raising a voice against Taliban atrocities in Swat was practically akin to signing your own death warrant.

Gaining In Confidence

I was impressed by Malala's intelligence. Long power cuts and almost no Internet in Swat Valley forced me to ask her to dictate her blog over the telephone.

I wanted to protect her identity. So I used to call her from my wife's cell phone. I strongly suspected the Pakistan intelligence services of tapping my telephones because of my critical reporting of their operations against the Taliban. As a further security precaution, I gave her a pen name, Gul Makai -- Pashto for cornflower.

Malala was very shy initially but gradually gained in confidence and it was very easy to work with her. Her blog attracted a lot of attention within Pakistan and gained international fame after the BBC began to translate it into English for its global audience.

Gul Makai's real name was revealed to the world in 2011 when she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

But the Taliban were not happy with her prominence. Malala's name resonated around the globe after a Taliban assassin failed to kill her in October 2012. Following her miraculous recovery, Malala turned into a global icon. Her story reverberated across continents and inspired millions.

Despite her global fame very few people know the folks who raised Malala.

Her father, Ziauddian, and mother, Thorpekai, have done much to turn their eldest child into an independent individual who is courageous and articulate.

Ziauddin, a short moustachioed man with neatly combed hair, has mentored Malala. He once told me that he encouraged Malala from a very young age to grow as an independent person.

"I wanted her to be my friend -- someone who can be a comrade in my struggle and believes in my mission and philosophy," he said. "I never tried to clip the wings of my daughter who was meant to fly high in the sky."

Standing Up To The Taliban

By 2005, Swat gradually turned into the personal fiefdom of Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah.

Ziauddin was one of the handful of local activists who dared to oppose him openly. His witty and incisive speeches were appreciated in Swat and he was widely quoted in tea houses and drawing rooms.

His efforts were aimed at uniting the people against Taliban atrocities.

"Swat has been treated like a poultry farm," he told one gathering. "The Taliban are slaughtering us one by one. We should see the writing on the wall and respond to their mayhem collectively."

At the height of their reign of terror in Swat in 2008, the Taliban identified Ziauddin as one of their opponents in one of their FM radio broadcasts.

Such pronouncements were considered to be a death sentence in Swat.
Malala's mother, Thorpekai Yousafzai
Malala's mother, Thorpekai Yousafzai

Ziauddin was not deterred. Instead of publicly renouncing his struggle, Ziauddin moved underground. For many months of that year, he never spent a single night in one place.

After the Taliban were driven out of Swat in a huge military offensive in 2009, Ziauddin recalled the dark days under Taliban rule.

"Malala and her mother kept a wall ladder ready in the house," he said. "They thought it was my last lifeline if the Taliban came for me."

The overwhelming atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Swat prompted many of his relatives and friends to urge him to give up his public opposition to the Taliban.

But Ziauddin never regretted his opposition to the extremists.

"Cowards would always expect you to be frightened," he said. "But brave people would expect you to stand up."

The Pakistani military government's failure to confront the Taliban in Swat pushed Ziauddin to conclude that his country's security establishment wanted to keep its Taliban allies alive to use them as proxies in neighboring India and Afghanistan.

"First we were seduced to become the Taliban," he said. "We were then held responsible for being extremists and were killed after being labelled as the Taliban."

He often ridiculed the meagre compensation Islamabad offered to victims of Taliban violence.

In one of his speeches he called attention to how the blood of people in Swat was cheaper than cattle. "The compensation for a Pashtun victim is less than the price of a buffalo," he said. The horned animal favoured for its milk costs nearly $3,000 in Pakistan whereas the compensation paid at that time for someone killed by the Taliban was $1000.

Taking The Military To Task

Ziauddin once likened Islamabad to bad parents. "A state treats its citizens like children but unfortunately we have been cheated by our parents," he said.

Months before Malala's shooting in late 2012, Ziauddin's friend Zahid Khan, was attacked and injured by the Taliban. Members of the Swat Qaumi Jirga that Khan headed called on the local Pakistani military commander to consult with him about their anxieties.

One of the participants told me that Ziauddin told the officer that the real war was supposed to be between the Taliban and the army. "

We have never heard about the killing of any army officer," he told the general. "Instead the leaders and opinion makers who are backing you are being targeted. Why?"

The participant said that Ziauddin's question left the officer speechless.

Malala's mother, Thorpekai, a modest housewife, has gifted the qualities of humility and simplicity to Malala. She is the unseen force behind her husband and daughter's courage and forthrightness.

Thorpekai never went to school but she was inspired by her father, Jan Sar Khan. He was a dedicated follower of the 20th-century Pashtun pacifist

Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was allied with Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. They used the power of non-violence to humble the mighty British Empire.

Thorpekai has never been part of a political movement but she has proved a wise counsel to her husband.

Ziaudin was once attracted to jihadists but Thorpakai’s father and brother convinced him to distance himself from a local cleric who was brainwashing youngsters to send them to Afghanistan for jihad.

The cleric was associated with the Panjpiri sect -- a local version of ultraconservative Salafi Islam.

Ziauddin told me that Thorpekai saved him from a nervous breakdown after Malala was shot.

He told me that one day he asked her "if Malala dies people will hold me responsible for her death."

But Thorpekai replied, "Never. You never groomed her to become a criminal or a terrorist. She stood for a noble cause."

-- Abdul Hai Kakar
Many Afghans accuse people connected to the government of stealing land.
A major report revealing the names of thousands of alleged land-grabbers in Afghanistan has been released after pressure from lawmakers.

Afghans have long complained about the widespread practice of land-grabbing by well-connected and powerful figures in Kabul and around the country.

To address the issue a special body, the Commission on Monitoring Government Acts of the Afghan Parliament, was set up nearly eight months ago to investigate the seizure of state-owned and private land.

But despite the passing of a draft law by the lower house of parliament in September to prevent land-grabbing, some Afghan lawmakers have been frustrated by what they see as the commission's inaction, in particular in regard to naming names.

Speaking on the phone, Zalmai Mojaddedi, the head of the Commission on Monitoring Government Acts of the Afghan Parliament, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on October 21 that the commission had been "forced to release the report."

"Certainly we did this under pressure. Actually, doing so had its problems from a legal point of view. Unless the court has sentenced someone, we cannot give them to the media and cannot say that they have been sentenced,” Mojaddedi said.

Mojaddedi said that his oversight commission has compiled a 2,500-page report that lists more than 15,000 individuals allegedly involved in grabbing over 500,000 hectares of land, worth $7 billion, mainly in the Helmand, Balkh, Kabul, and Herat provinces.

The report singles out 19 people as the main offenders who are alleged to be involved in taking more than 4,000 hectares of land around Afghanistan. Most of these names are lesser-known individuals, although one of them is Said Ishaq Gilani, a former lawmaker.

Gilani was registered to run in the April 2014 presidential election until he was among 16 candidates disqualified by the Independent Election Commission on October 22. The election commission has said that the candidates were disqualified because of improper documents and because they could not collect the required 100,000 signatures from supporters.

The identity -- and exposure -- of the land-grabbers is a highly charged political issue in Afghanistan, with politicians regularly trading accusations.

According to tolonews.com, commission head Mojaddedi recently accused the party of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord, of being involved in landgrabs -- claims that were rejected by his party.

"There are some circles that have plotted and started conspiracies against Jumbesh-e Milli and the Commission on Monitoring Government Acts of the Afghan Parliament is a part of this," said Tayanj, a spokesman for the party.

Dostum is a running-mate of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadza, a leading reformer and former World Bank executive, in the upcoming election. Unlike the disqualified Gilani, Ghani made the cut and is on the list of 10 remaining contenders in the upcoming presidential race.

The timing of the report's release has been criticized by some Afghan analysts.

Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, told Radio Free Afghanistan that some lawmakers are trying to purposely discredit some election candidates.

“It seems to be a political maneuver. Other than that, if the government wanted it could have released the names of the land-grabbers beforehand and the land could even have been taken away from them by now," Safi said. Touching on the issue of naming names, Safi said: "I don’t think that the names of big shots can be released under the current government or that their cases will be even sent to court.”

He added that most of the land-grabbers in the country are the friends and allies of Karzai’s government.

That is a sentiment shared by many ordinary Afghans.

Commenting on Radio Free Afghanistan's Facebook page for young listeners, Arianpoor Afkhami said that the land-grabbing won't be resolved by naming powerless individuals.

“The current list does not include the names of the main land-grabbers. Most of the public properties have been grabbed by high-ranking government officials. The Sherpor area in Kabul, residential areas built in parts of Kandahar, and the lands of Dahana-e Ghori in the Baghlan Province are prominent examples of land-grabbing by senior officials in the current government,” Afkhami said.

Asar Hakimi, a young activist in Kabul, told Radio Free Afghanistan that the list prepared by the oversight commission only contains the names of people who lack connections to the government.

“Even if it contained the names of big shots and powerful individuals, they would have been acquitted by the system. This is actually ridiculing the people of Afghanistan,” Hakimi said.

-- Mustafa Sarwar

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