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Earthly matter: Heading home to destruction

August 09, 2009

Almost two years ago, in the month of August, I was supposed to visit Swat. An NGO based in Swat called the 'Environmental Protection Society' (EPS), which had received funding from the UNDP under their small grants programme to promote tropical forests, had invited me to visit their successful projects.

I recall I had to cancel my visit because trouble had started brewing in the valley and the Taliban began targeting NGO workers, especially women. The situation deteriorated rapidly soon after that and I never did make it to Swat.
Members of the EPS were soon forced to flee Swat themselves and landed up as IDPs in Peshawar. I believe they are now heading home — they will resume their activities once they have settled their families and reclaimed their lives. No one knows for sure how much destruction has taken place, though. The picture will become clearer in the weeks to come.

Last week, I found myself in Mardan, in Takht Bhai to be exact — I had gone to visit the last of the IDPs from up north, who are now heading home, back to Swat and Buner. Many were apprehensive — “We hear there is no food in Swat. All the bazaars are shut, the hotels have been bombed and many houses have been destroyed,” they told me. Yet they are going back — the road leading to Takht Bhai was once lined with makeshift camps, and now only a few tents remain.

Zafar Hussain, a shopkeeper who had recently returned from Mingora after a two-day visit (he had gone to scout the area to see if it was safe for his wife and children to return) told us “There is still a curfew which makes life very difficult. My shop was alright, but the Taliban had broken the locks to my house and looted everything”. He has returned to Mardan disappointed. “I still don't think it is safe as yet to take my family. The army will have to stay for a while to ensure peace.”

Clearly, it will take some time for life to return to some semblance of normality in Swat and Buner. We met some IDPs who told us that fighting was still continuing in their areas (especially Dir) and that they could not return for now. Another large family we visited who was living in a government school was, however, preparing to leave immediately. “Safe or not safe, we need to go back now,” they said.

These people were caught between the Taliban offensive and the army action, which has wreaked havoc in these areas. Their crops have been ruined, their forests and orchards cut or bombed. The official spokesman of the EPS recently told the press “Swat's orchards, verdant fertile fields, and lush forests have been destroyed and denuded”.

“We will need to do an inventory once the relief and resettlement phase is underway,” said my colleague, Saleemullah, from the UNDP's disaster relief cell. “The first priority is to rebuild infrastructure. But we also need to survey and list how much damage has been done to Swat's natural resources. We are in touch with members of the EPS and other NGOs and hope to help them get started once again.”

By most accounts, the Taliban began cutting timber illegally as soon as they began their offensive in the area in 2007. Those living in and near the pine forests were the first to flee. Apple orchards were also cut down in the drive to sell more timber, which brought in large revenues for the Taliban. In fact, people say that the 'timber mafia' operating in Swat and Dir has long been controlled by the Taliban.

Taliban militants were responsible for the widespread cutting of pine forests and apple orchards in Malam Jaba, Fatehpur, Miandam and Lalko in collusion with the mafia elements. In 2008, Environment Minister Hamidullah Jan Afridi pointed out the militant-criminal nexus in FATA and stated that the 'timber mafia' has been responsible for funding militancy in the NWFP and in FATA. Another government official added “The losses suffered by forests in the last year were more than the losses of the last two decades.” The timber mafia has been active for years now — long before the Taliban grew into such a menace, yet somehow the government could do nothing to prevent them (maybe because they even managed to get elected and join the government!). Experts say Pakistan is suffering the loss of 65 billion rupees annually from the illegal timber trade and indiscriminate deforestation (of state owned forests) alone.

It is only when the IDPs finally return to their homeland and settle down in their towns and villages that we will know clearly just how much damage was done in the past two years. During the holy month of Ramazan (which is starting this month), there will certainly be a truce in the fighting and this will give the IDPs a chance to rebuild their homes and salvage their livelihoods. If peace prevails, then forests will be re-generated and orchards replanted. Given time, the damage done by the Taliban and the army can be undone.