Two weeks ago, while U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban gained control, I lay in a hospital bed in Boston, undergoing my sixth surgery, as doctors continued to repair the Taliban’s damage to my body.
In October 2012, a member of the Pakistani Taliban boarded my school bus and shot one bullet into my left temple. The bullet grazed my left eye, skull and brain – lacerating my facial nerve, shattering my eardrum and breaking my jaw joints.
The emergency surgeons in Peshawar, Pakistan removed my left temporal skull bone to create space for my brain to swell in response to the injury. Their quick action saved my life, but soon my organs began to fail and I was airlifted to the capital city, Islamabad. A week later, doctors determined that I needed more intense care and should be moved out of my home country to continue treatment.
During this time, I was in an induced coma. I don’t remember anything from the day of the shooting until the moment I woke up at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, U.K. When I opened my eyes, I was relieved to realise I was alive. But I didn’t know where I was or why I was surrounded by strangers speaking English.
I had the most severe head pain. My vision was blurry. The tube in my neck made it impossible to talk. Days later I still couldn’t speak, but I started to write things in a notebook and show them to everyone who came to my room. I had questions: What happened to me? Where is my father? Who is going to pay for this treatment? We don’t have money.
I wrote “mirror” and showed it to the nurses. I wanted to see myself. I recognised only half of my face. The other half was unfamiliar — black eye, sprinkles of gun powder, no smile, no frown, no movement at all. Half of my hair had been shaved off. I thought the Taliban had done this to me too, but the nurse said the doctors shaved it for surgery.
I tried to stay calm. I told myself, “When they discharge me, I will find a job, earn some money, buy a phone, call my family and work until I pay all the bills I owe to the hospital.”
I believed in my strength. I believed I would get out of the hospital and run like a wolf, fly like an eagle. But I soon realised I couldn’t move most of my body. The doctors hoped it was temporary.
I touched my abdomen; it felt hard and stiff. I asked the nurse if there was a problem with my stomach. She informed me that when the Pakistani surgeons removed part of my skull bone, they relocated it in my stomach and that, one day, I would have another surgery to put it back in my head.
But the U.K. doctors eventually decided to fit a titanium plate where my skull bone had been, reducing the risk of infection, in a procedure called a cranioplasty. They took the piece of my skull out of my stomach. Today it sits on my bookshelf.
During the titanium cranioplasty, they also added a cochlear implant where the bullet had destroyed my eardrum.
When my family joined me in the U.K., I started physical therapy and rehabilitation. I walked slowly, taking baby steps. I talked like a baby too. It felt like starting over, a second life.
About six weeks after I first landed in U.K., the doctors decided to tackle my facial paralysis. To do this, they cut into my face again and tried to stitch my severed facial nerve back together, hoping it would eventually regrow and facilitate movement.
A few months after the nerve surgery and with regular facial massage, my symmetry and movement had improved a little. If I smiled with my lips closed, I could almost see my old face. I covered my mouth with my hands when I laughed – so people wouldn’t see that one side didn’t work as well as the other.
I avoided staring in the mirror or watching myself on video. In my own mind, I thought I looked fine. I accepted the reality and was happy with myself.
My parents, on the other hand, wanted a cure for everything their daughter had lost. So we met with surgeons at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston to talk about a cross facial nerve graft, a complicated treatment for facial paralysis.
I would need two extensive surgeries. In 2018, the doctors first removed a nerve from my calf and inserted it into my face, running from the right side to the left. In 2019, they took tissue from my thigh and implanted it into the left side of my face. They hoped that the nerve would attach to the tissue and begin sending signals to muscles in my face.
And it worked – I finally had more movement in my face. But the second procedure also caused extra fat and lymphatic fluid to build up around my cheek and jaw. The doctors said I needed yet another surgery.
On August 9 in Boston, I woke up at 5:00 am to go to the hospital for my latest surgery and saw the news that the Taliban had taken Kunduz, the first major city to fall in Afghanistan. Over the next few days, with ice packs and a bandage wrapped around my head, I watched as province after province fell to men with guns, loaded with bullets like the one that shot me.
As soon as I could sit up again, I was making phone calls, writing letters to heads of state around the world and speaking with women’s rights activists still in Afghanistan. In the last two weeks, we’ve been able to help several of them and their families get to a safe place. But I know we can’t save everyone.
When the Taliban shot me, journalists in Pakistan and a few international media outlets already knew my name. They knew that I had been speaking against the extremists’ ban on girls’ education for years. They reported on the attack and people around the world responded. But it could have been different. My story might have ended in a local news item: “15 year-old shot in the head.”
Without the crowds of people holding “I am Malala” signs, without thousands of letters and offers of support, prayers and news stories, I might not have received medical care. My parents certainly wouldn’t have been able to cover the costs on their own. I might not have survived.
Nine years later, I am still recovering from just one bullet. The people of Afghanistan have taken millions of bullets over the last four decades. My heart breaks for those whose names we will forget or never even know, whose cries for help will go unanswered.
The wounds from my recent surgery are fresh. On my back, I still carry the scar where doctors removed the bullet from my body.
A few days ago, I called my best friend, the girl sitting next to me on the school bus when I was attacked. I asked her to tell me again what happened that day.
“Did I scream? Did I try to run away?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “You stood still and silent, staring into the face of the Talib as he called out your name. You held my hand so tightly that I felt the pain for days. He recognised you and started firing. You covered your face with your hands and tried to bend down. A second later, you fell into my lap.” Two of my classmates, Shazia and Kainat, were shot in the hand and the arm. The white school bus went red with blood.
My body has scars from one bullet and many surgeries, but I have no memory of that day. Nine years later, my best friend still has nightmares.