Features | Society | South Asia

Long Journey Back to Heaven

The Diplomat’s Pakistan correspondent, Mustafa Qadri, meets refugees from the conflict in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and finds anger, trepidation and hope as they return home after this summer’s counter-Taliban military offensive.

By Mustafa Qadri for

Travelling along the road leading to the Swat valley is a memorable experience. As the narrow dual carriageway snakes around impossibly steep mountain ranges, the breathtaking vista of snow-capped peaks come into view as they loom over an emerald green valley pierced by the Swat River. It looks too perfect to be natural.

‘The beauty of Swat is unmatched in the world,’ says Ashraf, a Swati villager and journalist who agreed to take me to the region. When I ask if anyone maintains the near perfectly manicured grasslands and pine forests he laughs and shakes his head. Described in local poetry as heaven on earth, for centuries Swat has been home to saints and soothsayers–first those hailing from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and in more recent centuries mystical Sufi Islam.

But these mountains can be treacherous too, something I realise after I dare to glance down at the unfenced road where the rusting wreckage of cars and trucks litter the foot of the mountains. Still, given this breathtaking backdrop and its history, it is hard to imagine that this once tranquil alpine resort could become the site for a savage battle for Pakistan’s soul.

‘We had everything, flowers, forests, factories… But everything has been devastated–our businesses, our communities… we [lost] everything because of the Taliban and the Army,’ says Purmanri, a small business owner from Mingora, the region’s largest city.

In July 2007, local militias claiming to fight in the name of the Taliban initiated a string of bombings, taking local police and paramilitaries completely by surprise. In the chaos and confusion they quickly installed a parallel government demanding taxes from civilians and the prohibition of music shops and other practices such as folk poetry and ‘un-Islamic’ dance.

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This was not the first time that ultra conservative Islam had been aggressively imposed on the region. In 1989, as Russian tanks began rolling out of Afghanistan, disillusioned religious hardliner Sufi Mohammad Khan left the Jamiat-e-Islami political party, Pakistan’s largest mainstream religious political party, to establish Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat-Mohammadi or Movement for the Promotion of Islamic Law. Sufi had spent the late 1980s fighting and recruiting young men for the anti-Communist mujahedeen in what was one of the dirtiest of Cold War conflicts.

With the Soviet withdrawal, Sufi returned to his native Swat where he vigorously lobbied for the enactment of an Islamic legal system that would only a few years later reach global notoriety under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Five years later, in 1994, TSNM activists blocked the main highway linking the entire Malakand Division of northwest Pakistan (which includes Swat) from the rest of the country. Government authorities, wary of the destabilising effects of continued violence on what was then a major source of tourism in Pakistan, acquiesced to Sufi’s demands.

This rapid acquiescence was an early indicator for Pakistani Islamists that when pressure was placed on the state, the state would give in to their demands. In truth, the Pakistan state itself was largely to blame for this dangerous blowback, after the Army under military dictator Gen. Zia ul Haq spent the previous decade developing a militant infrastructure in the tribal frontier that borders Afghanistan.

A veteran politician from Swat, speaking anonymously out of fear of retribution, told me that Sufi had always maintained close links with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. As they shifted their focus away from Afghanistan and towards Kashmir, the Inter Services Intelligence, the Pakistan Army’s clandestine operations agency, sought to maintain the same recruitment infrastructure that had proved so devastatingly effective against the Soviets.

That relationship appeared to change after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. Dramatically transformed from pariah state to key ally in the new War on Terror, Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf ordered TSNM to be banned and Sufi imprisoned after he led a group of 10,000 men into Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against pro-US forces in Afghanistan.

Yet in the intervening years, Sufi’s son-in-law, Fazlullah, continued where his father’s fiery sermons had left off. When in 2004 Fazlullah began incendiary clandestine radio broadcasts decrying Pakistan’s support for the US occupation of Afghanistan and threatening women and music shop owners with violence, authorities looked the other way.

In July 2007, emboldened by the state’s inaction, Fazlullah launched a surprise offensive against police and security forces throughout Malakand, setting up a parallel administration that taxed non-Muslims, closed down music shops and forbade women from attending schools and colleges. It took the Pakistan Army until October to finally send troops into what became a bloody town-to-town battle during which military operations and a string of audacious suicide bombings claimed hundreds of lives. Although the Army regained several key areas, the overall stalemate and public hostility towards the operations compelled top generals to sue for peace with Fazlullah’s Taliban.

But the peace proved short lived as the Taliban insurgency, now spreading to the neighbouring Bajaur tribal area, a key transit point bordering Afghanistan, continued to expand across the Swat valley. Under a mix of international and domestic pressure, the Army commenced a second, much larger operation in July 2008. Backed by jets, helicopter gunships and counterinsurgency training, primarily from the United States, the Army managed to retake many of the largest towns.

But the war was taking an increasingly devastating toll on civilians. Desperate for an end to hostilities, many called for a detailed peace agreement in the hope that the Taliban and its TSNM allies would cease hostilities if their key demand, the application of Sharia Law, was accepted across Malakand. With the Army engaged in an unpopular war, the government—facing immense political pressure due to rising inflation and nationwide energy shortfalls—finally caved.

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Although the Swat valley is often described as a settled part of Pakistan, it has more in common with the tribal areas that abut the border with Afghanistan than the urban centres of Punjab and Sindh. Most Swatis are Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group of Pakistan’s tribal areas. Although the laws of Pakistan are meant to apply in Swat (unlike in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that include South Waziristan, headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud), the judiciary and civil administration was considered corrupt and inefficient.

That history is a living, breathing legacy that connects past disenfranchisement with today’s poverty, ignorance and desperation, ills that gave the Taliban and TSNM a casus belli for confronting the state. They promised stability in exchange for their version of Islam.

For many locals, the peace deal’s announcement was hugely welcome. In the streets of the Malakand region, villagers distributed sweets, a common expression of joy usually reserved for celebrations at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. As a sign that the peace deal represented a victory for the Islamists, Sufi Mohammad led members of the TSNM on a march through Mingora, the largest city in the Swat valley. Most of those marching—an estimated 15,000—wore black turbans, the signature dress item of the Taliban.

But dark clouds of repression quickly formed over Swat. ‘We’ve lost the battle against the militants. We’ve seen day by day how the government and army have [been] weakened, how they have finally been reduced to talk and to deal…’

one local woman told Shuja Nawaz from the Atlantic Council. ‘Someone said to me the other day, “Don’t complain, because the one you complain to will be your enemy,”’ she added.

‘[The government of] Pakistan has betrayed us,’ says a middle ranking commander of the Swat Taliban with the nom de guerre Mullah Noor Alam. We are speaking at a secret meeting conducted at a remote Swat village in the dead of the night. ‘Ultimately, we want Sharia over all of Pakistan. But, first of all, here in Swat,’ he says determinedly. ‘Once Islam has been established in Pakistan, you will see there will no longer be any strife.’

But strife has become synonymous with the Taliban. As the Army stepped into Swat again in late April under intense pressure to remove the Taliban, the mutilated corpses of captured soldiers and others like dancers and music shop owners considered apostate littered the streets of Mingora. ‘In all of our Pashtun history, we never saw such barbarism,’ says Abdur Raheem Mundokhel from the Pakhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party. ‘We have a history [of] people being killed in blood feuds, but still they would give honour even to their enemies.’

The government has responded with its own brand of ruthlessness. Taliban fighters are not the only ones targeted. Family members, even those who played no part in the conflict, and others forced by circumstance to support the insurgents, have been killed. Key Taliban commanders who surrendered to authorities have only days later been found dead, with officials claiming they had never been in their custody in the first place. Corpses have been discovered floating down the rivers while others dangle from electricity poles with notes warning of dire consequences for the Taliban and its supporters. Some villagers claim that state security forces have even warned them against giving a Muslim burial to fallen Taliban fighters (in Islam the dead are supposed to be buried immediately). Others say that family members have been kidnapped by security forces and threatened with death if their militant relatives, currently in hiding, do not turn themselves over to the authorities.

And the army has been accused of arresting tribal Pashtuns not linked to the militancy simply because they belong to clans associated with the Taliban. They also stand accused of a widespread and systematic campaign of murder and intimidation of those perceived to be sympathetic to the Taliban. According to eyewitnesses and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Army and state paramilitaries have carried out reprisal killings on a mass scale.

Before the April offensive, some estimates placed the Taliban as occupying 11% of Pakistan, almost all of which was in the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas that are presently the focus of military operations being conducted by Pakistan and US forces. Now the main districts of the Swat valley, including Mingora, are firmly under Army control. The government says it hopes to repatriate the displaced over the coming months, emboldened by a raft of aid packages from the United States and other foreign governments, as well as support from international institutions known as the Friends of a Democratic Pakistan.

The task ahead is massive. Many of their communities now lie in ruins. Hundreds of schools and hospitals have been destroyed by Taliban or Army bombardment. It is a trauma that many find too difficult to discuss openly. Some, like young schoolgirl Mannu, use song to express their grief.

My sweet land has caught fire,
Not just from one side but from everywhere.
The fire has engulfed everything,
Our people, our customs, our schools, our markets.
My beautiful land, with its valleys and peaks, its perfumed flowers,
All have lost their lustre.
In every direction there is war.
The people, who laughed, who sang, are now silent.
The once majestic and peaceful River Swat has dried up.
I pray to you God, bring back the paradise, the peaceful Swat I remember.

Emboldened by her recital, Mannu feels comfortable enough to express her thoughts about the situation in Swat. ‘The Taliban say they want sharia, but what kind of sharia is this–killing and looting? It’s just a game to them,’ she says. Mannu has dared to seek an education in a region of Swat where the Taliban openly forbade women from doing so. ‘I’m not afraid of going to school,’ she says defiantly when asked about her studies. Risking physical harm as the Taliban destroyed more than 200 schools, Mannu continued to attend one of the few schools that remained open before eventually fleeing with her family.

‘We’re not afraid because we are doing the right thing,’ says Ziauddin Yousufzai, a school teacher from Swat, when I asked him if he feared for his life when he chose to continue instructing both boys and girls after the Taliban issued death threats against him. ‘Islam tells us that getting an education is compulsory for every girl, wife, for every woman and man. This is the teaching of the holy Prophet. I own Islam as much as it is owned by the Taliban. Why I should I be dictated [to] by the Taliban, why should I follow the Taliban model of Islam? The Holy Koran is my book as well. I have a right to act on it. Allah hasn’t said to me that I must follow the Taliban type of Islam. So that is why it’s very clear and Islam allows me, Islam rather motivates me to give education to my children because education is light and ignorance is darkness. And we must go from darkness into light.’

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At an August meeting of high-level diplomats and international agency officials in Islamabad Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari spoke of the need to determine the ‘how and why’ of the Taliban’s encroachment into Malakand. But the real question is whether authorities will manage to confront the Army’s historical support for militancy, or whether the generals themselves have the ability to break links that, after 30 years of patronage, have firmed into strong personal and institutional bonds.

‘I don’t think this is the Taliban [fighting Pakistan forces in Swat],’ a young Army officer tells me in Rawalpindi. He says that colleagues who served as military advisers to Mullah Omar’s Taliban government in Afghanistan before September 2001 praised the Islamists for their austere and honest lifestyles. ‘They [the Taliban] couldn’t be behind the attacks.’

Yet the region remains home to many young men who either fight or have fought with the Taliban and other jihadi organisations in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Some, like 25-year-old Farooq (not his real name) refuse to take part in the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan. ‘This is my country, I have fought for it [in Kashmir], I won’t murder my own people,’ he says. Now a member of the Tableeghi Jamaat, a Muslim preaching movement that while ostensibly non-violent maintains close links with militant organisations, he has married and turned to a simple life of prayer, meditation and working the family farm. ‘I became ill while fighting [in Kashmir]. After my platoon was martyred by the Indians I managed to escape,’ he recalls. ‘My parents were in total shock when I returned. I hadn’t seen them for months… After that, they forbade me from returning to the jihad.’

Government authorities have been quick to repair roads, electricity grids and other civil infrastructure, even in places that were raging fronts in this brutal conflict only days earlier. The risks of continued violence are also high, but over 100,000 families have already returned and many of those interviewed were upbeat about the future.

‘When I was living in Mardan as IDP, I was so frustrated that I could never imagine my beautiful valley would return to normal,’ says university graduate Abdullah, who recently returned to his town of Saidu Sharif. ‘I can hear the music coming through the waves of the cool breeze of Swat valley at home. Everything seems to be fine…[there is] no food shortage, [and] markets have reopened, roads are safe again too. We feel secure now.’

This is a reflection of the Army and government’s speedy reconstruction of infrastructure such as roads and electricity grids that were heavily damaged during the past two years of fighting. ‘The military has done a wonderful job this time,’ remarks Suhail from Mingora, the largest city in Swat. ‘I’m sure [the Army] will be able to clear the rest of Swat as they did in Mingora.

Our house and shop both are safe, and we are really happy returning home after several months in the IDP camps.’

‘We’ll never forget what happened to us,’ he adds, ‘but we are really happy that the Taliban have been punished.’

His is a sentiment shared by many here. ‘Listening to the morning assembly of kids in the just opened schools is amazing. I’m really feeling excited…we are regaining our paradise,’ a gleeful Mohammad Rome from the town of Spalbandai exclaims, remembering times, under Taliban rule, when many schools were destroyed and coeducation and girls schools were strictly forbidden.

Citizens have even started thronging to their District Police Department hoping to be recruited as community police officers, something that was unthinkable even last April when the Taliban would warn policemen against going to work on pain of death.

‘Fear of Taliban is diminishing with each passing day,’ says community elder Hazer Gul from Salampur.

But returning the Swat Valley to its former pristine self is a massive task that will take years of planning and funding. While the Pakistan Government has already paid Rs25,000 ($US300) each to 125,000 displaced families, the United States a further $US415 million in humanitarian aid for the displaced, and Britain $US36 million, the United Nations estimates that the cost of completely rehabilitating these former war zones will cost billions.

On paper, total aid pledged to Pakistan thus far appears impressive. Pakistan has secured over $US5 billion in pledges from the Friends of Democratic Pakistan group that includes the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and the United Nations, as well as $US7.5 billion over the next five years from the United States and a further $US11.7 billion from the International Monetary Fund. But Pakistan government bureaucrats familiar with the aid packages privately express doubts that all of the pledges will be met, and there is scepticism about Pakistan’s capacity to administer the necessary funding and services.

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Ordinary village and townsfolk also remain wary of Pakistan’s formal democratic process. Wealthy and influential locals, including politicians, quickly fled once the fighting erupted, leaving them exposed to the Taliban’s excesses. They remain fearful of returning to their communities even now that the Army appears to have vanquished the Taliban.

And the threat of a return to violence is ever present. Although the army has physically reclaimed most of the Swat valley and either killed or captured senior insurgent leaders, many remain at large while huge pockets of remote mountainous terrain make a possible future return a real threat. There is also sporadic terrorism, like the suicide bombing of an army convoy in a busy market place in early October that claimed 27 lives.

According to residents throughout Malakand, including the Buner district, which remains the closest the Taliban has ever come to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and Dir on the cusp of the Afghan border, the Taliban have recommenced their clandestine radio broadcasts after a two-month hiatus, and started to distribute propaganda audio and video tapes recording their claimed victories against the Pakistan Army and international forces in Afghanistan. Adding to the drama is the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah. Although reportedly cornered by security forces in a remote mountain range in September there has been no word about his capture.

Yet despite this grim picture there are glimmers of hope. One positive development is the formation of Aman Tehreek, or Peace Movement, a grassroots network established by teachers, trading bodies and ordinary citizens with the express objective of seeking a peaceful and sustainable resolution to the current conflict. Peace groups have proliferated in several towns recently liberated in the tribal areas, often with the aim of brokering ceasefire agreements between security forces and local pro-Taliban fighters or to assist communities in the rehabilitation process. Like these other groups, Aman Tehreek’s immediate concern is trying to facilitate humanitarian assistance and rehabilitation for the war-torn communities of the North West Frontier Province. But what makes it unique is its longer-term objective of seeking to prevent future radicalisation. It hopes to achieve this by promoting education, development, and traditional Pashtun culture—like music, dance and poetry—long suppressed by militant Islamism.

‘There’s a social, moral and political breakdown of Pakistani society,’ said Raza Rabbani, a Pakistan Peoples Party senator in the federal parliament, at a recent Aman Tehreek gathering in Islamabad. Ziauddin Yousufzai, the local school teacher, is also a member and coordinator of Aman Tehreek. Education, he notes, is the key to preventing future extremism. He should know. Working at one of the last schools to defy Taliban edicts and teach girls in Swat, he has witnessed how low levels of literacy, poor employment prospects and the marginalisation of women have been wellsprings of opportunity for extremists.

Still, Aman Tehreek and other grassroots initiatives to rebuild local communities perhaps explain why people like Mohammad Yahya, something of an elder statesman and former mayor of a town in the Swat valley, can remain optimistic. ‘This is our homeland. It is like heaven to us.’