The Talibanization of Paradise

It seems like yesterday that the people of Swat were living with honor and dignity.

swat pakistan 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
swat pakistan 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Swat, peaceful beauty, land of color, roses and gushing rivers, rich in history, home to myriads of Buddhist stupas, idyllic spot for glorious Pashtun traditions of love, peace, and hospitality, until recently. Once a paradise on earth - now all is lost. "There was a time when women and girls from the valley traveled from Mingora town all the way by foot over the high and legendary Mountains of Elum to the mausoleum of the famous saint Pir Baba in downtown Buner, there to offer prayers for finding a sweetheart or to sing sad songs telling of separation. We were poor but happy then. God only knows who cast an evil eye on our land and turned it into hell", said Shaukat Sharar, a local intellectual from Mingora town, capital of the scenic Swat district in northern Pakistan, a mist clouding his eyes with nostalgia. TNSM-the First Pro-Taliban Movement: Swat Valley, which fell to pro-Taliban fighters in July 2007, and became a valley of death and destruction, was the most beautiful and scenic valley in southern Asia. The people were liberal in attitude and way of life. They had culture, traditions, and above all-hope. It seems like yesterday that the people of Swat worked in their orchards and rice fields, reaping enough corn and money to live with honor and dignity. There was a street called Music Street, where beautiful Swati girls once danced to the tune of artistically rich Pashto music for the greater delight of visitors. Even the former Wali (ruler) of Swat State married a famous dancer to bless her community with respect for the richly traditional Pashtun society. Then in 1992 Maulana Sufi Muhammad, an extremist cleric, launched the "Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi Movement" (TNSM or Movement for the Enforcement of the Islamic Legal System) in Malakand region. His followers occupied government buildings and schools as a means of pressuring the government to accepting their demands. His supporters blocked the main Peshawar-Mingora highway and killed a member of the provincial assembly and scores of people in adjoining districts. "When the US attacked the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan in 2001 the hardline clerics in the TNSM leadership started recruiting people for jihad against the infidels (the US and its allies) on Afghan soil. Some 10,000 people with old-fashioned guns in their hands were taken to the border to fight the high-tech war planes of the United States", recalled Shah Dauran, a local resident. But Sufi Muhammad's fighters were untrained and ignorant in the ways of modern warfare and most of them were killed or arrested by the Northern Alliance forces. With some other TNSM leaders, Maulana Sufi Muhammad was arrested by Pakistan security forces in January 15, 2002 and sent to jail. After seven years in prison he was released recently by the government and admitted to hospital in Peshawar for treatment of diabetes. President Pervez Musharraf's government has also banned the movement, which it defines as a terrorist organization. Though TNSM has been dormant for the past seven years, its leadership formed another armed movement under the leadership of Maulana Fazlullah, Maulana Sufi Muhammad's son-in-law, who is a strong opponent of western socio-political ideals. From Tourism to Terrorism: Following the arrest of his spiritual leader and father-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, 31, gave the movement new impetus in a novel and effective manner. He launched a network of illegal FM radio channels throughout the Swat Valley and began broadcasting fiery speeches denouncing education for girls, prophylactic anti-polio drops, music shops, and the pro-American policies of President Pervez Musharraf. In a June 2007 interview, the firebrand cleric told me that following his advice people had burnt TV sets, VCRs and computers worth a million rupees. "This was the first blow to the region's liberal values and the first step towards obscurantism", Khurhsid Khan, coordinator of a local NGO said. The radio broadcasts gradually spread to a radius of 40 kilometers and thousands of people used to listen to it with great veneration after their night prayers. Harnessing the air waves like this brought change. Parents stopped sending their girls to school. The illiterate women of the region, who saw Maulana Fazlullah as a true leader of Islam, donated their gold jewelry to build Imam Dheri a religious seminary on the bank of the River Swat. The use of anti-polio vaccine for children was also accused of being "un-Islamic" by Maulana Fazlullah. In October 2006, Pakistan's air strike on a religious seminary in Bajaur Tribal agency, which the locals believed was carried out by US forces, killed 82 people including its administrator Maulvi Liaqat Ali. Laiqat Ali was very close to Maulana Fazlullah whom he called his brother. After the incident, Maulana Fazlullah very openly embarked on a campaign arousing the people to join him fight the invading US forces. "We will teach them a lesson. We will avenge them for killing our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan and Bajaur Agency", he said in one of his broadcasts straight after the incident. In July 2007, when the Pakistan government launched Operation Silence against the Hafsa Seminary in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Maulana Fazlullah seized it as an opportunity to strengthen his support base and called on the people to take arms and fight the US and its allies. Explosive detonations in girls' schools, shops selling CDs, and suicide attacks on police and security forces became the order of the day. Maulana Fazlullah's "Shaheen Force", commanded by Siraj-ud-Din and supported by foreign fighters, took over schools, hospitals, and government offices in the upper Swat valley. The Pakistani flag was replaced by the black and white flag of the movement. The caretaker government at the time dispatched 25,000 regular army forces to confront Maulana Fazlullah fighters in Swat. Pakistan's central government officials said that prior to this the ruling six-party religious alliance of North West Frontier Province had opposed military action, but was now determined to fight until the valley was cleared of militancy. Paradise Lost In the clash that followed the security forces suffered massive casualties and more than 13 Pakistani security personnel were beheaded by armed men in the Matta and Charbagh areas of the district. Of the valley's 1.5 million population some 400,000 were displaced by the fighting. Tellingly, in Jehandabad, the fighters blew up a 700 year-old statue of Buddha, symbol of peace and humanity. Zahid Khan, president of the Swat Hotels Association said that 1200 hotels had closed down in the area with owners suffering losses of 4 billion rupees. The government claimed the area had been cleared of rebels and the infamous FM radio station of Maulana Fazlullah shut down. But, after a few days break, Maulana Fazlullah was back to broadcasting, and threatened security forces with dire consequences for killing his men and occupying the seminary he had built at a cost of 8 million rupees. "They say we are hiding. That is wrong. We are not hiding; this is just a war strategy. We will teach them a lesson as our brothers did to the forces of the USSR in Afghanistan", he announced boldly in his new radio broadcasts. The past five months of fighting between Pakistani security forces and the extremists have rendered the whole area a virtual hell, where fear prevails and the locals have serious reservations about the military action. They say the government has proved itself unable to nip the evil in the bud, "First they allowed Maulana Fazlullah to recruit and train people. He was a minor leader then, but the government allowed him to become a monster. Now they are not able to rein in him", Sher Ali, a college professor in Mingora said. Zia-ud-Din, Secretary of the Swat Private Schools Association said that thousands of students were not attending class due to the school closures. "They are frightened, lost, and utterly confused. Many of the children are suffering from psychological trauma", he reported. Local people want to see something positive come out of the military operation, which has led to the deaths of many civilians and destroyed the local infrastructure. However, realities on the ground indicate that this lyrical, scenic valley, home to the Gandahara civilization is lost forever. The current wave of violence in other parts of the country is darkening the gloom still further.