The stunning Swat valley has been at the epicentre of many tragedies, so much so that even the hands writing her elegies have run out of words. Be it extremism or catastrophe, there's no calamity that has not yet descended upon the dwellers of Swat.
When I arrived in Swat after passing through many army checkpoints, it was late evening. I marvelled at my scenic surroundings and inhaled the autumnal air. The full moon seemed to play hide and seek.
A well-educated and young Pakhtun cabbie stood in front of me — a serious look in his eyes, a smile playing on his lips.
“Sahib, are you here for a visit? Should I take you to a hotel? he asked.
I ended up going with him to Swat's Mingora bazaar which was bursting with life. I found it vastly different from my last visit which was a good 10 years ago. Now it also boasts of many designers stores. The only thing that has remained unchanged over the years is the crowd.
It was here that a fellow traveller had offered me a cup of kahva (traditional green tea). As I stood there reminiscing about the kahva, I could smell its aroma in the air.
Mingora also brought back my carefree youth — when there was always plenty of energy and no restrictions. We would joke about Pakhtuns in front of them in the bazaar. The jokes would invite nothing but lively cackles and twinkling eyes.
So much had changed since then, I mused. I cruised through the bazaar for a long time, observing people.
Later, I spent the night besides River Swat in Fiza Ghat. I woke up to a crystal clear sky the next morning. Soon afterwards, I hit the road to drive through the streets of Swat.
Proceeding towards Kabal tehsil from Mingora, I could see plenty of cemented link roads, shining in the sunlight. I saw many trucks piled with vegetables and other goods. I saw small canals irrigating fields and bridges erected on canals with signboards thanking the Saudi Fund for Development Pakistan.
The disputes on distribution of irrigation water must have reduced, I thought to myself. This was confirmed by a local named Khazta Baz Khan with whom I interacted while he was enjoying the early-morning sunlight on his charpoy in the middle of his field.
"Earlier the fields near the streams would absorb all the water during the drought season, leaving nothing for the tail-end fields. During the rainy season, water would overflow, creating a flood-like situation. Now, at least, all the fields receive their fair share of irrigation water."
I sat with Baz Khan on his charpoy. An ancient cassette player played his favourite cassette. He told me that he had preserved it for many years. After a brief chit chat, his servant fetched us a jug of fresh buttermilk.
“Khan sahib! What’s this lady singing?” I asked.
"My beauty has killed half of the village and the other half will be killed soon."
We laugh loudly, rousing his labourers picking tomatoes in the field who, too, smile.
I spent the night in Khwazakhela after wandering through 4-5 villages in Kabal during the day. It was a cold night. In the dark, the fields seemed to have vanished and the electric bulbs in the distance were the only signs of civilisation. There was no moon and no people in the streets whereas just a little while ago, children had played on the streets.
Next afternoon, I went to a village in Matta tehsil. I saw some children playing in the streets who I notice look afraid for some reason. I also met with some locals and heard their stories of hardships and grievances. I learnt about the development works carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration with SFD.
One local I met with — Zor Talab Khan — offered me to sit with him on his charpoy. We started conversing.
I asked him what were the problems that locals faced when there was no link road to his village, which was a good six kilometres away from the main road on top of a high hill.
“My father died while we were taking him to the hospital on a charpoy. It took two hours to get to the main road from here. Midway, he asked us to lower the charpoy because he knew he wouldn't survive. We kept walking and he kept screaming and then...died."
After he relayed his story, Khan was completely silent. Seeing moisture build up in his eyes, I changed the topic and started talking about mundane things.
When I took my leave, children started following me. I reached the main road, where I saw a truck crammed with people. I hopped on to my jeep.
The truck and my jeep were running parallel. A Pashto song played in the truck. My driver started singing the song as well. I asked him to translate the lyrics for me.
Jab main is gaun se jaun ga, to ye gaun akela hojaye ga
Rotey rotey aao, mera aakhri deedaar to kar lo
The village will be forlorn when I leave this place
Come for the last time and meet me
We drove past roads lined with peach and apple trees — which had started shedding leaves due to autumn. Zor Khan's heartbreaking story ricocheted through my mind. There may be countless such stories here, I thought.
Swat's short link roads have paved the way for better employment opportunities. The construction of bridges over streams has made the daunting task of going to school easier for students. These bridges are the roads to dreams and better futures.
We pass through a village in Khwazakhela. Behind the snow-covered peaks of Hindukush, the sun was about to set.
I stopped at River Swat. The setting sun casted an orange glow over the water. Two labourers were on their way home after a hard day of work.
In complete solitude, I watched cranes flying over the river with Kalaam's mountain peaks in the backdrop. I watched birds vanishing as darkness took over.
I stood up and began the ascent of the emerald mine in front of me. After a strenuous climb, I came to a spot where I could see the valley in all its glory; it was a humbling moment. I could not fathom that this little valley had once been in the throes of militancy.
All photos by author | Translated by Bilal Karim Mughal from the original in Urdu here.
Syed Mehdi Bukhari is a Network Engineer by profession, and a traveler, poet, photographer and writer by passion.
He can be reached on Facebook