Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who was shot 5 1/2 years ago by Pakistani Taliban militants for championing girls' education, made a surprise return to her home country Thursday for the first time since the attack.
Yousafzai, 20, broke down in tears in an emotional speech at the Pakistani prime minister's office, saying she dreamed of coming home and would continue to fight to raise the number of girls in school.
"I am very happy, and I still can't believe that this is actually happening," she said. "For the last five years, I have always just seen this dream of setting foot in my homeland."
Her visit was kept secret for her own security — ultraconservatives in Pakistan have continued to denounce her as a stooge of the West — and officials did not disclose her itinerary other than to say she would spend four days in the country.
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, speaking after Yousafzai, said she was the country's most famous citizen.
"The entire world gave you honor and respect, and Pakistan will [also]," Abbasi said. "It is your home. Now you are not an ordinary citizen. Your security is our responsibility."
Pakistani media reported that Yousafzai — now a student at Oxford University in Britain — landed at the airport in Islamabad, the capital, early Thursday morning accompanied by her father, Ziauddin, and two other people, officials said.
It was not immediately clear whether she would visit her hometown in the Swat valley, where she and two classmates were shot as they sat in a school bus in 2012, when she was 15. All three survived the shooting, but Yousafzai had to be transported to Britain for treatment after a bullet lodged in her head.
She made a full recovery, but Taliban militants have vowed to attack her again.
Her father invited a few close friends in Swat to meet her in Islamabad, suggesting that she would not make the 155-mile trip. But that did not diminish the excitement among friends in Swat.
Fazal Khaliq, who taught Yousafzai English for three years, said he was overjoyed to hear of her return.
"Malala is a global icon for girls' education, and she must visit Swat," Khaliq said. "Her visit will inspire women, especially girls in Swat. Most of the people of this region are proud of Malala because of her bravery and campaign for education."
He acknowledged that some conservatives would be displeased that she was back in Pakistan.
"But I am proud of Malala, and people of Swat love her," he said.
Her fans and celebrities welcomed her on social media. Mahira Khan, a popular Pakistani actress, tweeted: "Welcome home baby girl."
Umar Saif, a Cabinet minister in Punjab province, said: "Pakistan's daughter and the global symbol of female education is back in Pakistan. Welcome home."
Yousafzai has lived in Britain since the shooting, which galvanized worldwide outrage and propelled her to becoming the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2014. She has spoken on talk shows and at the United Nations, inspiring crowds with her calm eloquence, and established the Malala Fund to help educate some of the 130 million girls worldwide who are out of school.
She said Thursday that the fund had invested $6 million in girls' education in Pakistan and vowed to continue the work.
"I hope we can all join hands in this mission for the betterment of Pakistan, so that our future generation can receive the right education and women can become empowered, do jobs, stand on their own two feet and earn for themselves," she said. "That's the future we want to see."
Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.
Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia
8:50 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times staff reporting.