Resurgence of Taliban activity reopens traumatic wounds in Swat
inter in the mountainous areas of Pakistan is dull, grey and harsh. As mobility gets restricted a pall of gloom appears to have descended over Swat.
After militant violence in 2009 and flooding in 2010 badly affected Swat, significant efforts were made to bring it back to normalcy. Over the last decade, special attention has been paid to ensuring peace and prosperity. The growth in the tourism sector resulted in expansion of commercial activities and created employment opportunities. The extension of the road network made more areas accessible to tourists. An increasing number of tourists visited Swat over the past few years. Chief Minister Mehmood Khan and former federal minister for communications Murad Saeed hail from the area and have played a significant role in its development. Together, they have also worked to make Swat a stronghold of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI).
However, during the same period, the Taliban gained ground, and finally after the US exit from Afghanistan took control there. These developments were followed by rumours of a peace agreement between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Army. In Malakand division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, especially Swat, this raised serious concerns.
In the last ten years, a whole new generation of children who remember the Taliban militancy and associate it with lack of tolerance, pointless violence and economic disaster has come of age. For them, this was when Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan leader Mullah Fazlullah, popularly known as Mullah Radio, used to regularly identify people by name in his broadcasts and threaten them with brutal violence. Bodies of random citizens and policemen would be found lying on roads around Mingora city. It was a terrible chapter in their lives, remembered for its horror and brutality. Formally, Mullah Fazlullah demanded that ‘shariat’ be enforced in the Malakand division, in which Swat is a district. His father-in-law Maulana Sufi Muhammad had made the same demand earlier but had not been that violent. In the 1990s, he had led the Black Turbans Movement. After the military operation in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid and the establishment of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in 2007, violence was a major aspect of the movement led by Mullah Fazlullah. As soon as they had a large enough number of armed enforcers on the ground they banned girls’ education. Women were forbidden to leave their homes without a male guardian. Many of Swat’s women started wearing the burqa during these years. Many schools were blown up with bombs. The Taliban set up check posts everywhere, surveilling and restricting movement of people and goods. Policemen were targetted so regularly that their families pleaded with them to leave their jobs. Retirement advertisements for police officers became commonplace in local newspapers. A number of lay civilians were killed after being accused of spying for the government. Finally, the local leaders of the Awami National Party started raising their voice against the Taliban. For this, they were targetted as well. Many were attacked and killed. Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin, who ran a school in the area, were threatened. In October 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot in Swat.
Once again, Swat has been struck by the twin calamities. Since the month of August, reports of a resurgence of the Taliban have been pouring in. Calamitous flash floods caused by torrential monsoon rains wreaked havoc in Swat around the same time.
Journalists reporting from Swat were under constant threat. This started a regular exodus from Swat and later other areas in Malakand. Businesses ran up losses. Tourism, in particular, came to a standstill. An attempt was made to secure a negotiated peace. During the coverage of government-Taliban talks for this peace agreement, The News International Swat correspondent Musa Khankhel was killed. That evening I was in Swat. Musa Khankhel’s body was placed in a public square and his journalist colleagues protested around his body. It was finally decided that the journalists will leave Swat the next day.
This was followed by a massive military operation. As a result of this operation, three million citizens of Malakand became homeless. Finally, peace was restored and many of them returned to their homes. The historic 2010 flood then wreaked havoc in Swat. Over the last decade the deep wounds started healing as life in Swat returned to normal; tourism increased and businesses boomed.
Once again, Swat has been struck by twin calamities. Since the month of August, reports of a resurgence of the Taliban have been pouring in. Some policemen abducted by Taliban fighters were released after negotiations by a local jirga. Government sources called it a ‘misunderstanding’. Around the same time, calamitous flash floods caused by torrential monsoon rains wreaked havoc in Swat. Many hotels, shops, and gardens perished. Recently, an unidentified person opened fire on a school van, killing the driver. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police Chief Moazzam Jah Ansari claimed that this was not a terror incident. According to police sources, it was an honor killing. Along with the murder weapon, the motorcycle has also been recovered, but the main suspect has managed to escape to Dubai. It remains to be seen why the police took so long to investigate a simple murder. In an area like Swat, where everyone is in fear, the laxity of the police in this incident had eroded public confidence in the security apparatus. On the other hand, the spokesperson of the provincial government, Barrister Saif, has personally requested the Taliban to leave Swat. In these circumstances, the suspicions and fears of the people are not surprising.
The residents of Swat, still traumatised by the events of ten years ago, began protesting, placing the body of the deceased driver on the road. Thousands of people participated in the demonstration. Aimal Wali Khan and Sardar Hussain Babak of the Awami National Party, Manzoor Pashteen of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), Mushtaq Ahmad Khan of Jamaat-i-Islami and other mainstream leaders addressed the protestors.
The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has urged the youth to start talking openly against the Taliban militancy. The protest was under-reported in the mainstream media. The availability of live streams to thousands of viewers on social media is the major difference from the situation in 2009.
The entire population of Swat appears to be looking for help from outside. They are holding their breaths, bracing for an approaching storm.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer.