Eleven-year-old Zarlashth pulls her translucent white scarf around her shoulders, walks on to the stage and stops in front of the mike.
Without a sign of nervousness she looks straight at the audience and narrates her story in simple Urdu. "Our life in Swat used to be peaceful and beautiful... but then there were lots of bombs," she says, holding back tears.
You feel a compelling need to hug the girl, who now crying, struggles to look composed. She talks about how girls, including her, were not allowed to go to school. Tears are rolling down the faces of members in the audience. Everyone is quiet. Eight more girls come and tell their own stories.
Shahana, an 18-year-old girl, talked about seeing bodies hanging. She narrated an incident of a woman who could not find her daughter; of a father who lost his son. Stories of helicopter shellings seem omnipresent. The community had to flee their city because they were told to do so.
Listening to Shahana you realize how far most of us were from the chaos and the pain they suffered. But then, Shahana looked up, resolved, and said, "Why, why after all this we are still strong? It is because you have helped us be strong. And we especially salute those who gave their blood for this land. We are here today because of all those who helped us to be strong."
Organized by 'Shajar-e-Ilm' a youth organization, this event was a part of an attempt by 14 youth from Islamabad to bring in 26 girls from Swat Khushaal Public School to learn, interact and share their stories in a week long retreat.
It was refreshing to see how a bunch of affluent youngsters were able to pool their resources to get sponsors and high profiled personalities on board.
Filled with workshops and talks, the retreat aimed to give the students a chance to share their message of progressive tolerance. As one volunteer Madiha Ansari elaborates, "They interact with jeans-clad urban dwellers as well as the local maulvi(priest) near the school. They are here to broaden their own minds as well as ours, so we think twice before stereotyping the next gentleman sporting a beard."
This was also an opportunity for the girls to be exposed to creative and progressive education as they interacted with professionals from various fields of life, including noted film maker Samar Minallah, Nigar Nazar, TV anchor Quatrina Hussain, Shahnaz Kapadia, Tahira Abdullah, Ghazala Minallah, Samina Khan, Nadeem Chowhan Natasha Ejaz, Marium Raza Zaidi.
"Before coming to this workshop I didn't know people were doing so much for the country," says Nadia, one of the girls from Swat about her experience in Islamabad. Adds Noori, another student from Swat. "We were also surprised to see the young volunteers. We thought this retreat was going to be strict and conducted by old women."
As the first day of the session wound up you could see the intensity of the experiences the Swat girls had gone through.
Shahana and her father talked about how more needed to be done to help those who truly suffered trauma, especially for those who don't live around cities like Bajaur that had access to counseling. The young girls voiced the dire need for the people of Pakistan to lend emotional and moral support beyond the material benefits.
As 20-year-old Shiza Shahid, the brainchild and director of the organization says, "I feel less helpless and less angry at myself for having those privileges. We may not have changed their lives but knowing that we can bring some change through learning and getting support from other people is what we want to continue to do."
Considering many of the student volunteers will be going back to school outside Pakistan, one can only hope that this youth organization is more sustainable than a mere one off publicity stunt.