Here is no enemy but a rough winter

Published December 26, 2013
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer
Photo taken by writer

Under the greenwood tree

Who loves to lie with me

And turn his merry note

Unto the sweet bird’s throat,

Come hither, come hither, come hither.

Here shall he see

No enemy

But winter and rough weather. (William Shakespeare, As you like it)

The people of the mountains lead a considerably peaceful life as compared to the hustle and bustle of big cities. The hilly countryside is fortunate in terms of fresh air, clean water and healing greenery.

Being born, raised and based in the mountainous area of Swat-Kohistan (the Kohistan of Swat — the valleys of Bahrain and Kalam in Swat), I have my heart and soul entrenched in the stones, soil, trees and streams of this paradise on Earth. I usually dread the commotion of Pakistan's big cities that are not only overcrowded but are also extremely mismanaged.

Despite all the natural glories, rich flora and fauna, the mountainous areas and valleys in the north of Pakistan have their woes. These areas are the least developed in Pakistan despite the fact that the country’s tourism potential rests here. True, thousands of Pakistani (in the past, foreign tourists had these places as their cherished destinations) tourists visit these areas; a number of them spend their summer here and many more cherish to visit and enjoy this place. The summer here is a real blessing but winter becomes the worst enemy of the dwellers.

With a weak infrastructure of roads, health, electricity and education, these areas push the residents to the Stone Age. Many among them flee the winter for the cities. For instance, over 70 per cent of the population of the Kalam valley flees the winter and seeks shelter in the plains of Charsadda and Swabi.

Similarly, almost 40 per cent of the youth of the Bahrain valley go for work to Quetta, Chakwal, Hyderabad or Karachi. Being unskilled and illiterate, the youth undertake the hard labour of coal mining in Chakwal, Quetta, Hyderabad, Cherat in Nowshera and in Kohat. The fortunate among them go to Karachi and become the security guards or part of the workforce in the textile industry.

Health facilities become completely dysfunctional in the area during winter. The single hospital in Kalam cannot retain doctors for winter. The side valleys and the smaller hamlets become worse for the residents. Deaths in these valleys rise in winter compared to summer. The elderly and children easily fall prey to the freezing cold of winter here. Women come next. Many of these are natural in the sense that the cruel nature kills them. Even a minor flu can kill the old or an infant as they are unable to get proper medical attention due to lack of health facilities or doctors nearby.

A few years back, I happened to visit a faraway hillside village for a survey on the human condition there during the winter. The area experienced five feet of snowfall that year and many died in the villages as a result of avalanches.

It was a sunny day and the snow was hard enough to walk on. On my way over the snow and underneath an oak forest I heard screams coming from a hill slope. Startled I stopped to listen. After a while, I saw two men dragging something over the snow. When they reached where I was, I saw a woman lying on the branches of deodar trees attached to one another with ropes. The woman was screaming due to birth pains.

The men wanted to take her to a local quack who many of the villagers regard as a physician. Later in the evening, I learned that the woman had died.

Winter is usually eight months long in these areas. Very often, it halts life altogether. In the faraway villages, people cut precious trees just for firewood but even this ‘luxury’ is not available to all. In some places, lack of firewood becomes a major cause of concern for the people since they are unable to keep their homes warm. The brutal winter then takes its toll on the women and children.

During this time, electricity becomes a cherished luxury for people. With a permanent fragility, the electric infrastructure malfunctions with the first snowfall. The government has failed to restore an electricity transmission line to Kalam which was damaged by the floods in July 2010.

People regard the winters as wrath of the Almighty and the only thing that grows in winter here is disease. In bazaars, the people have to buy rotten vegetables and other substandard edibles. These difficulties accelerate the rate of disease leading to an increased number of deaths.

Locals are unaware that in other ‘human’ and ‘humane’ parts of the globe where winters are harsher people enjoy or even celebrate the season. My people do not know that winters become the best source of income for the people of Switzerland with which their own homeland — the Swat Valley — is often compared.

What many of these simple people do not grasp is that death due to harsh weather is not the inevitable outcome rather the result of a lack of facilities and amenities which should have been provided by a government that has clearly abandoned them. They are also clueless about the precious resources in their surroundings in the form of forests, water, snow and winter.

They do not know that their resources are exploited by the rulers for their own interests in the name of ‘national interest’. For example, hydropower projects are being constructed using the resources of these ‘people of the hills’ with no benefits for them.

Many of the winter woes of these people of the mountains in northern Pakistan can be turned into joys if electricity is produced of their water and provided to them free of cost so that they may use it in winter not only for lighting but also for heating their homes. This will boost economy, education and will also improve the living conditions of the people as they will have a cleaner, warmer and friendlier home environment in winter too.

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