By Kahar Zalmay
A saying lately in Swat goes: God as ruler of the universe stays in the heavens; the gods of earth are in Swat valley. One wonders how the militancy and the counter-militancy operations are impacting minds of the people and new sayings and narratives are developed. Literary circles will be better placed to shed light on it but there is no doubt that the godly force and its effects are so glaringly manifested to visitors in the valley.
My memories of Swat looked so distant during my recent visit. It felt like I had come after centuries. I carried with me a sense of an outsider. There was melancholy in the wind and sorrow in the high mountains looking down on the valley, the tall deodar trees did not exude oxygen, the rivers flowed with an uneasy quiet, and the typical evening sky looked at me with thousand eyes. It looked so clear and full of stars but was not radiating life having so many stories to tell, so many secrets to share; the lifeless livings cluttered the streets, so tired and worn out like a burden on themselves and to top it all the scattered motionless figures I came across at virtually every step in Mingora Bazaar, holding guns and giving a suspicious impassive looks to passers-by.
The Swat I remembered was happy and full of life. The Mother Nature was gracious and generous to it and this generosity and graciousness was shared by the locals as well. The softest of us all and with their worldly demeanour, the people of Swat were generally peaceful and confident of their place in the world. I remember the activity in Green Square, later called ‘Bloody Square’ as Taliban would hang bodies of their victims there.
Sitting with a shopkeeper on a warm sunny day at Green Chowk, now called Farooq Shaheed Chowk, I asked him how he sees life after the operation. “Don’t ask me; look at the wary faces of passers-by, buried in deep thought. You know every person here has his share of tragedies and loss. We have stored away so much pain in our hearts and want to pour it out now. We need to shed our burden and we want to confront ourselves but we cannot. We feel besieged.” he confided in me in a secretive tone.
He was right. Every person I spoke with had so much to share but with the identical request, “Please don’t mention our name”. My first encounter with the Swat operation was at Matta Morh at the village of Zaman Khel where a school and agriculture research centre were still in the possession of military. I thought for a while about the kids not able to attend school but was pulled back from my thought process when our car was stopped by a police constable asking for our identity and the purpose of our visit.
He told us politely to take another route to Matta as the bridge swept away by the floods had yet to be repaired. He was much politer as compared to the military men manning the checkposts I encountered later. Ruined houses and buildings shelled by both the parties can still be seen on both sides of the road to Matta, my first stop. Many of the houses are being reconstructed. “How is life like now?” I asked as I entered the Hujra of my host and university mate. “Don’t you see the difference in now and then,” he said with his typical Pashtun bluntness gesturing to my friends to have a seat on the traditional chorpoys. “What difference will it make if I tell you what life is like for us after the operation? But I must tell you it’s not the life you and I were used to. It’s kind of like being prisoners to captors. Didn’t you see the manifestation of what I am saying on the numerous checkposts on the road? Didn’t they flash a cold stare and faced you down? We face it daily,” he said with a sense of despair.
“I am no more an idealist. The last three years changed me a lot and I find it difficult to believe, like every Swati, in this whole drama of Taliban taking over my town. They were outcasts having no weapons, and suddenly they show this marvellous mastery of using latest weapons, including rocket launchers. Who trained them, who gave them weapons, who gave them such a huge quantity of explosives? We want answers to these questions,” my once idealist friend said staring me in my eyes with obvious indignation in his expressions.
My next stop was Kabal, a town badly affected by the operation. The streets were narrow and it needed quite a skilful driver to drive through. The holes of bullets and shelling could still be seen on the walls and entry gates of the houses. Talking over the current picture of Swat while sipping our tea with bites from the crispy flaky paratha baked in honey, I asked our host who happened to take refuge in my home town during the operation that what he thought of the current situation. “There is a general reign of terror which has broken the spirit of local people. No one is raising an outcry but some day our patience will grow short,” he said.
When I left my house, my neighbours called me up telling me that FC personnel came with trucks, broke the locks and took everything from my house. They loaded their trucks with more than 150 sacks of my harvest of wheat and maize. They even took dove soaps, he said with a mix of amusement and contempt. We thought the forces would bring peace to us but we were wrong. “A labourer in my fields was captured by the military, saying the address on his ID is of district Dir. I said so if I go to Dir having address of Swat on my ID, are they going to arrest me? But you cannot argue with them. How can you argue with your captors, he remarked.
They capture innocent people but not the known figures associated with Taliban. The brother of Akbar Hussein, Taliban commander in Kabal, Jan Madani, was released after three days when everybody in Kabal knows he was their financier and would negotiate on behalf of Taliban when they would kidnap someone. He now runs a fertiliser agency in Kanju bazaar. Very recently they released Pai Muhammad, commander of Bar Kalay in Saidu Sharif, he said. But why were they released, I asked. He shrugged and said “They are our gods, money is their god.” It explained everything.
On my way to headquarter of the Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, I could easily assume that Kabal, Kooza Band, Bara Banda and Imam Dheri were the most badly hit areas. The evidence of destroyed houses, shops, schools and police station could be seen on the road. The Kanjoo airport is also partially damaged. The spectacle of men dismounting from vehicles and being asked to walk for half of kilometre holding up their ID cards could be seen in Fateh Pur, Guli Bagh and Thalay Graam. There are around 35 checkposts in the aforementioned three villages. Don’t say that you are a journalist, my friend told me before approaching a checkpost. They would stop you for hours without any reason, he added. I didn’t argue and followed his instructions as the uniformed men holding guns inspired a sense of dread and I didn’t want them to stop me for hours. Do they subject you to this practice daily, I asked a man in his 50s, he said yes. “They make us feel outsiders in our own town” he said.
There is resentment against the forces and the feeling of affection is dimming. Two different views are emerging with regard to the military presence, a professor told me. One section is so frustrated that it says let the Taliban come and kills us all but the military should leave. The other section believes that the military should stay but it must not humiliate the local population in the name of security.
Women were the worst affected by the presence of Taliban, now replaced by the military. “They took the token, necessary for compensation for the ruined houses, back from me when I didn’t encourage their overtures. I am a widow having young girls at home,” a woman in Kabal told me with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Who were they?” I asked, but she refused to name them for obvious reasons.
Another victim of harassment by the powers that be, a subject specialist teacher in Saidu Sharif area shared her ordeal. “More than 5000 men, mostly young boys, are missing in Swat since November 2007. My younger brother is one of them. Women having no male figures in their families go out to look for their loved ones and are thus subjected to all sorts of exploitation,” she said.
I had decided as usual to keep my rendezvous with local journalists at the end of my trip. I found the local journalists very brave and vocal. “Why don’t you publish what you are telling me,” I asked a journalist. “Our stories are not published,” he retorted bluntly with a long stare. But I see your stories of encounters are published, I said. They exchanged smiles and said, “They pick prisoners from military camp, shoot them and send a text message to us that a certain number of Taliban have been killed in the encounter and thus curfew has been imposed,” one journalist said sifting through his documents to give me exact details.
On the night of December 1, 2009, 67 prisoners were shot at in Kabal, Kanjoo and Dherai in the name of encounter, he said. And what about the expeditions mounted against militants, I asked fully confused. Well appearances must be preserved my naïve friend from Islamabad, one of the journalists said with a wink. I could not help but felt impressed by their openness, bravery and commitment.
My young cousin, Akhtar Ali was killed with drill machine. Not a single organ was spared of his body. He is survived by his wife and two kids, one born five months after his death, Shehzad Alam, a local journalist told me. But why was he killed, I asked. A Major wanted to settle scores, he replied. Narrating the whole incident, he said “My car was parked in front of my house. A Major came around 9pm and directed me to remove my car, citing curfew hours. I said but curfew timing starts from 11pm, trying to show him message of ISPR. Curfew commences and ends at my sweet will, said the major waving to his men to dump me in his van. Luckily I got enough time to alert my journalist colleagues. I was released but the next day the same Major took my cousin and within two days when I was knocking at every door to secure his release, they dropped his drilled body in front of his house.”
Few days later after my cousin death, Alam said, I received a phone call from the same Major, saying that it was my turn indeed but the target got missed, but my number will come ultimately, he said sounding helpless. His office was beautifully furnished. It seemed more like an office of business executive than a journalist. Welcoming us with his broad smile, this young handsome journalist projected such an air of confidence. While multitasking, Fayyaz Zafar also brushed danger after writing an article suggesting sarcastically that visitors should not be encouraged to visit the valley in the presence of so many check posts. “The plan was that they would shoot me on my way home and a text message would be circulated which would read that Taliban claimed responsibility of my murder. I was lucky that an insider alerted me to the plot and I sent emails across the country exposing the plot” he said.
I wish to elaborate on the picture of Swat in the words of poet mystic, Rehman Baba: Da waro waro khudayano de banda kram; loya khudaya za ba cha cha tha sajda kram (You enslaved me to small gods; O’Lord my God, how many I should bend my knees to and submit?)