From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
For the last three months, in their cramped classroom at the Khushal School and College in Mingora, Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai's ninth-grade friends have kept vigil at her empty desk, praying for her recovery. So when the news came that she was leaving the hospital, their joyful cries echoed down the hall. "I thought it would be impossible to recover," marvels Kainat Riaz, 16. "It's a miracle."

And a testament to the resilience of one brave girl. Nearly assassinated Oct. 9 by a Taliban gunman for her passionate championing of girls' education in Pakistan, the outspoken former BBC blogger, 15, became a global heroine, earning accolades from government leaders and calls for a Nobel Peace Prize. On Jan. 3, after recovering from a bullet that pierced the left side of her head and required the replacement of part of her skull with a titanium plate, she waved as she was discharged from Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, to await further reconstructive surgery at her family's temporary home nearby. While the effects on her cognitive ability remain unclear, "Malala is a strong young woman and has worked hard ... to make excellent progress," says the hospital's medical director Dr. Dave Rosser. Those close to her say that strength hasn't wavered: The top-scoring pupil recently vowed to a teacher to return to Mingora. When she does, adds student Shazia Ramzan, 13, she'll get a hero's welcome. "We could never have hoped," says Ramzan, "things would turn out like this."

  • Contributors:
  • Rob Crilly/Pakistan,
  • Ashfaq Yousufzai/Pakistan.