by Gloria Caleb
It has been three years since the military operation in Swat ended. However, peace in the Valley, according to its inhabitants, remains elusive.
We make an early start from Peshawar and travelling via Charsadda, in less than an hour reach Dargai. This is to avoid the rush encountered at check points that have soared in the region once again. The reasons for escalation in troop deployment across the Valley are sporadic attacks in Dir and Bajaur – areas that are contiguous to Swat and border Afghanistan.
As we approach Dargai – the point of entry into Malakand and its adjoining areas – we are greeted by a heavily armed contingent of soldiers that rigorously scour a long queue of ingress seeking individuals for documents of identification. Proceeding onto the Darrah Malakand, we pass through Batkhela and Thana to reach Landakai. Here once again we are subjected to intense security checking. We enter Swat – from then onwards, movement through the once lush hill and vale, at roughly a distance of every three Kilometers involves intense scrutiny.
As we pass through Kota, an area that once bore signs of Taliban atrocities and army aggression; we find decimated schools and razed homes rebuilt. In Barikot we find bazaars bustling with life. Children coming home from school wave at us. We pass through Ghaligay, Manyar and Odigram where we find Swat’s first ever Cadet College standing proudly in place of Jamil English Academy. The Qambar Boys School and numerous others that once stood on a pile of rubble – thanks to the government of the UAE, are up and running again. On the left flank of the River Swat from Kanju to Ningolai — merely 10 kilometers apart — we are stopped at four check posts. Once again we are severely quizzed on the purpose of our visit. At the end of it all, we’re assured that peace has been restored.
“Presence of the Army in Swat is self-contradictory,” says Zahid Khan President of the Swat Hotel Association and member of the Swat Qomi Jirga, He feels that the presence of troops is detrimental to the growth and development of major sectors in Swat including tourism which constitutes 80 percent of the Valley’s livelihood. Crossing the Indian border, he feels, is easier than crossing the Dargai Check post. This, he believes has completely destroyed tourism in the Valley. As a result people – especially in Northern Swat – have begun to migrate. Lack of livelihood in the Valley has also led to its environmental degradation; trees are being chopped down for survival, leaving the once lush mountains bare.
“Swat is still a warzone,” stresses Khan. Murders and killings of innocents – that include important business and political personalities such as Afzal Khan and Muzaffar Ali Khan – especially close to military bases are the order of the day. This, he says, has raised many questions and has given rise to immense insecurity in the area. The situation can also be assessed by the refusal of banks to render loans. Applications to avail from various development schemes designed to re-establish businesses in Swat remain pending. Frustration from these circumstances – only aggravated by a ban on foreign NGOs that until recently had many locals employed – is creating growing Taliban support. In addition to this, siege and search operations conducted in the homes of the local populace have become a sore nerve. According to a local journalist, cases of harassment abound, women too, are not spared.
According to Zaheen Khan, Member Defence Committee, Nikpikhel, “Roughly 30 percent of the locals still support the Talibs.” He believes loopholes in the current system of trial allows for this, as suspected militants are released on the basis of levels of association with the Taliban – white grey and black. This, he believes, gives mixed messages to the people and is the biggest hurdle to peace and justice.
At sun down as we head back to Peshawar memories of the several encounters we had with the people of Swat in 2009 hit back. Even in situations of uncertainty – at IDP Camps – they looked forward to going back home. I remember the jubilation there was at the Shergarh Check post in Mardan as the Pak Army Jawans distributed bottles of water to the returning IDPs. It was hot and many had no idea what they were going back to – but hope triumphed. Today – three years later – fear and uncertainty prevail.