Finding Malala: How Adam Ellick '99 Discovered the Girl Who Stood up to the Taliban

Update: Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 10, 2014 along with India's Kailash Satyarthi. At 17, she is the youngest person ever to receive the honor. She is one of only 16 women to have been awarded the prize.
Five years ago, Adam Ellick ’99 met a shy, precocious young girl who would one day capture the world’s attention.
Ellick witnessed and documented Malala Yousafzai’s emergence as an advocate for girls’ education in Pakistan. Just three years later, Taliban supporters shot Malala in the head for speaking out in support of education for girls and against the Taliban. Malala survived the attack and afterward was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She has since published a book, I Am Malala

Ellick originally met Malala’s father, Ziauddin [or Zia], while looking for sources to comment on a ban on girls’ education in the Swat Valley. Malala’s father, who owned a private girls’ school, said no parents would talk with a reporter. After considering the situation, Zia became a source for the story himself. His daughter, who had accompanied her father and understood English well, became another.
Ellick’s documentaries were posted to the New York Times website in 2009, and Malala subsequently became a well-known activist in Pakistan. Terrorist attacks had made 2009 the deadliest year in Pakistan since the war in Iraq had begun in 2001. Just a few months before Ellick arrived in the country, an American had been gunned down in his driveway in Peshawar. The Peshawar Press Club, where Ellick would often meet with Malala’s father, was bombed that same year.
Ellick spoke with ICView about what it was like reporting on the story, getting to know Malala, and how the experience changed him.
ICView: How did you convince your editors this was a story worth investigating?
AE: My editors did not need much convincing. 

When I told them that 50,000 schoolgirls were about to lose their [rights to an] education and that the story was not widely covered in the international press, we all agreed that the subject had undeniable journalistic merit, but also that a security assessment was necessary before proceeding.


ICView: What was the most difficult thing about covering a story in Pakistan?

AE: There are so many challenges to reporting as a one-man-band journalist in Pakistan that do not exist in other places I have worked. It usually took about four times as long to accomplish the same amount of reporting in Pakistan compared to [the time it takes] in the West. The major hurdles included constant power outages that disrupt shooting interviews with lights; security assessment and planning; and finding and hiring local reporters who know the local language, [can help with] sources, and are reliable. It's also incredibly difficult to verify facts, especially in a nation where some data is not reliable and where conspiracies are a national sport of sorts.

ICView: What kind of access did you have to Malala’s family?

AE: The family was incredibly cooperative and open to my documentary project. I followed them, on and off, for about six months. That meant meeting up with them during key moments in their lives and also at random times for interviews and check-ins to document their routine. I was always afraid of missing a critical moment in their lives, mainly because their lives were so unpredictable. I lived in Islamabad, and the father was in Peshawar, and at times, Malala was in a third city. But I spoke to the father by phone quite often, so even when I was not documenting them, I was getting updates by mobile.

ICView: How did you overcome the cultural barriers—like gender—and the difficulty of interviewing such a young subject?

AE: Malala was 11 [when I met her], which made it a bit easier to cover her as a reporter. Women are generally allowed to interact with men outside the family until puberty, after which they are veiled and often hidden from public view. Interviewing children in any culture is very challenging. They are often abrupt, shy, or struggle to express themselves to strangers. Malala made that  easy because she was quite eloquent and expressive. And her father was incredibly accommodating, and unusual, in agreeing to allow a foreigner into their lives during such tense days. I was lucky to have met such a brave family. Zia and I quickly became friends. We talked about everything from the beaches in Brazil to Rumi poems, and as a result, we trusted each other deeply.

ICView: How close did you get with Malala?

AE: Malala and I became friends. At times, I felt like her de facto uncle. I gave her a video camera and my old computer, and after the film, the family stayed with me for several nights in Islamabad. We went shopping. I have warm memories of buying her ice cream, books, and DVD movies. Malala was reflective of the culture. Kids, and especially women, are very well behaved and deferential to elders, and to men.

ICView: Did you ever worry that maybe you were getting too close to the story?

AE: No. The job of a journalist, and especially a documentarian, is to get as close as possible to the sources. I think my closeness to the story, and the subjects, yielded a more intimate piece of journalism in the end. My friendship with the family went to new heights after the films aired.

ICView: Were you ever concerned for Malala’s safety?

AE: No. Zia and I often talked about death, but it was always linked to his safety and my safety. Almost all targets were men. Women were very rarely targeted. Even the bombings of girls’ schools took place at night. One of my regrets is that I never asked Malala if she was willing to die for the cause. That said, it is important to understand the chronology of the story. My film aired in 2009, and it catapulted Malala into [a role as] a public figure in Pakistan. After I left the country, she started speaking out more aggressively in the Pakistani press, and she was shot in 2012.

ICView: Do you feel like your documentaries put her in danger in any way?

AE: When I first met Malala, she was unknown to the world. My films gave her a public profile and invited international and national media to come knocking on her door. The coverage also triggered the family’s appetite to be agents of social change. The films, and the awards and benefits that came with  the attention, emboldened Malala and her father into speaking out more aggressively. My films played a significant role in transforming her into a known figure, and her response to that eventually put her on the Taliban's radar.

ICView: What do you think of Malala’s now international celebrity and her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize?

AE: The reason that I went to Swat and invested so much in telling this story is because of the injustice: thousands of girls are not going to school in Pakistan. In fact, the country has more uneducated children than almost any country in the world. Malala's celebrity has further spotlighted that issue. That’s fantastic. At the same time, it presents a challenge because the celebrity of Malala creates interest in [her as a] person and detracts from the core issue: the millions of Malalas who remain out of school in Pakistan. Today, people ask me far more questions about Malala than about how to solve the core issue of educating kids in Pakistan.

ICView: What did you learn about yourself by covering this story?

AE: It was a privilege and an honor to report [about] the most brave and courageous people I have ever met. I cherish that experience. The story also offers obvious lessons about how precious education is. This family craved normalcy: the dad wanted to return to work, and Malala wanted her education. These routines often draw complaints and whines across most of the developed world. The story also taught me many lessons about the enormous responsibility and struggle that accompanies being a journalist in dangerous places. Of course, foreign correspondents know that our job is to give a voice to those who are experiencing injustice, but we also know that doing so can make those sources targets. Seeing those sobering decisions play out in reality has been a painful experience.

We asked Adam Ellick ’99 what led him to where he is today. Here’s what he had to say:  

Curiosity is my fuel. I am constantly trying to learn and to deepen my worldview. After college, that curiosity propelled me to spend six years overseas working as a reporter. During that time, I honed my journalism skills and realized how passionate I am about exploration and acquiring knowledge and seeing things for myself. I was aided with a stellar education that focused on critical thinking and writing. I also believe in trying new things, embracing change, and generally being an adaptive person.  

I arrived at IC wanting to be a sports reporter. But I was fundamentally changed after a semester studying in London. That experience exposed me to a larger world, full of things that I didn’t understand. I basically kept moving east, traversing Europe, Russia, and eventually living in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. I love that feeling of showing up somewhere, not understanding much, and trying to figure it all out. It’s the scavenger hunt of life.  

Professor Ben Crane also played a huge role. His classes about critical thinking and ethics offered a precious and enduring framework for a life that values science, fairness, compassion, and truth. Those skills continue to serve me well as a reporter and as a person.

1 Comment

What a wonderful and painful interview to read. Adam (and all journalists) have a unique responsibility in their reporting and to those they investigate. Mala's story reflects that huge task. I salute him on keeping the message alive and for following his dream and using his education so well. Prof. Crane also deserves kudos.

rode Neupti