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Inch by inch, Swat returns to normality

Published Aug 12, 2011 09:05am


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The scenic J. Kondole Lake was one of the most popular tourist spots in Swat. – Photo courtesy USAID FIRMS Project.

Something died within the people after the militants fled and the military took control of the place, says Zubair Torwali, a civil society activist in Behrain, upper Swat.

As the 64th Independence Day of the country approaches, while there could be many reasons for the people of Swat valley to celebrate – freedom from Taliban rule and the worst of the floods now behind them with signs of rebuilding everywhere, Torwali feels “something is amiss”.

“The people of Swat used to enthusiastically decorate their homes and the bazaar with flags and there was an air of patriotism. That feeling is missing today, probably because it’s now being forced on to them,” he commented.

One reason could be the army presence that is not doing much to warming the locals to them. Apart from the countless mesh of military and paramilitary check-posts and pickets spread across Swat, there are slogans painted on walls thanking the army for saving the people of the valley. A vast majority of shops have shutters painted white and green and a crescent -- the Pakistan flag – with ‘Long Live Pakistan Army’ written on many. Local shopkeepers say all this is the work of the army.

Ironically, despite the daily harassment they have to tolerate, many in Swat prefer the gun-toting soldiers to the militant butchers. “Lesser of the two evils,” says Torwali wryly.

A vast majority of shops have shutters painted white and green and a crescent -- the Pakistan flag – with ‘Long Live Pakistan Army’ written on many. – Photo by Zofeen T. Ebrahim/

Today, despite memories of bomb blasts and public display of dead bodies, Swat, with its population of 1.8 million, seems to be tottering back to its feet. The place is getting ready to receive visitors and authorities and hopes that the alpine beauty of the valley with its archaeological sites and trout fishing can beckon back travellers.

Stuck in a traffic jam with all manner of vehicles snaking their way about the bazaars of both Saidu Sharif and Mingora, which just two years ago were ghost towns, hints at life returning to normality.

While waiting, you get a kaleidoscope of local sights and sounds. Men with and without beards, men pushing hand-held wooden carts, jostle for space with brightly painted vans and a few video and CD shops are an added surprise. The local parchoon (grocery) shops with dandasa (bark used to clean teeth), spices and dry fruits in open gunny bags vie for a place between the tandoor wala, chicken shop and the chai wala with a string of kettles in different colours hanging for dear life.

One cannot help but marvel at the resilience of the people of Swat. The Green Chowk in Mingora, once dubbed Khooni Chowk, and where among many a young artist Shabana, who used to earn a living by singing and dancing was shot in the head, was like any other square – abuzz with people.

A 2005 photo of the Malam Jabba Ski Resort in all its glory. – Image by M.Sajid Ishaq.

“But you won’t see as many women on the road,” points out Falaknaz Asfandyar, whose husband Asfandyar Amirzeb, grandson of the waali (ruler) of Swat (a princely state till 1969 when it merged with Pakistan), was killed in a bomb attack. “Even we don’t venture out to the bazaar,” she said. She comes to Swat every summer with her children and continues “so that they never forget their roots” but her youngest, 10-year old Khadija, and her two older siblings remain housebound. In the good old days, before the Taliban came, the Asfandyar family would play host all summer to guests from other parts of the country. “That is all in the past.”

Now when friends ask her if it’s safe to visit, she says she really can’t give them a clear response.

“It probably is safe now, with the militants having fled, but don’t forget they have only fled and not been caught, not the top leadership,” points out Asfandyar adding that perhaps the fear remains in the minds of the people.

But time seems to have stood in good stead for the children of Swat who survived both the physical and mental trauma of insurgency, followed by military operation and then the floods.

Cricket, volleyball, jumping in the ice-cold water of a canal, fishing or floating lazily with the help of black giant tyres in the swift River Swat are some of the sights that one encounters.

The security situation may have improved, however, with road network and telecommunication being hardest hit by the militancy and then the floods, and gas and electricity in short supply, few tourists will be willing to head to the valley.

In late June 2008, the Malam Jabba Ski Resort was set on fire and destroyed by the Taliban. – Photo by Zofeen T. Ebrahim/

The road to Malam Jabba, a popular ski resort, is in a shambles and the only hotel run by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, was bombed by the army in a bid to weed out the militants occupying it.

“For almost five years the infrastructure remained in a state of disrepair and thus the condition of roads,” acknowledged a van driver.

“No doubt road network, telecommunication, proper supply of gas and electricity are essential for any tourism destination, but most of the roads are under construction and they will be ready by next summer,” explains Aftab Rana, tourism development consultant with United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) Firms Project.

The USAID is supporting the Provincial Relief and Rehabilitation Settlement Authority of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province prop up the tourism industry in Swat.

Rana also said that the damage due to flood was so huge that it cannot be “restored in just few months; it needs lot of funds and a lot of efforts,” he said.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist.

View the accompanying photo gallery ‘Swat: Back on the radar of tourists’.


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Comments (13) Closed

ZZ Aug 12, 2011 02:56pm
The above photo of destruction of Malam Jabba ski resort depicts the sick mentality of the Taliban. What is its status now and is anyone trying to bring it back to its former glory.
Tariq Aug 12, 2011 04:20pm
I have recently visited Swat where people are taking sigh of relief; their life is returning to normal, they see their Army with glittering eyes as messenger of peace. Hardworking people have already produced lovely and delicious fruits. It is all peaceful; police is seen relieving Army from security duties. Tourism is also remerging and people are happy to see tourist whom thy call “Mehman”.
ali Aug 12, 2011 03:58pm
Its nice to see this news. These are good signs... Alhamdullillah
Irfan Aug 12, 2011 08:28pm
Great article,I did not know that there was a ski resort in Pakistan. Hopefully, the Taliban never come back in any form, shape or size.
Sarmad Aug 13, 2011 01:02am
"Ironically, despite the daily harassment they have to tolerate, many in Swat prefer the gun-toting soldiers to the militant butchers." What is so 'ironic' about the people preferring soldiers over terrorists? And what harassment? Checkpoints are there to protect from militants, and are present in many cities in Pakistan.
Amrut S. Gole Aug 13, 2011 04:03pm
photography is good. Thank you. Amrut Gole From India.
teluka65 Aug 13, 2011 06:12pm
I have seen pictures of parts of northern Pakistan in Dawn and now of Swat.Do you realize that you have a goldmine in the form of tourism?Thousands of people will come to see such splendor. Add the ski resort and think of the arabs coming here instead of going to Europe.Your people at these areas not forgetting your govt. getting an income while hundreds of your people getting jobs.
najma Aug 13, 2011 09:09pm
I am thrilled to welcome this good news from Pakistan. A sigh of relief. May Allah destroy the enemy of Pakistan. We all want to see Pakistan as peaceloving country not as a hated terrorist country.
RocksDisoza Aug 13, 2011 09:53pm
Nice to see PAK army doing some good job.
Zafar Aug 14, 2011 03:25am
I am really sad to know that Malam Jabba Ski resort was destroyed by terrorists. It was one of those places that I have visited numerous times with my friends. I hate those terrorists for destroying my country.
Khan Aug 14, 2011 03:51am
I'm a tourist and am currently in malamjaba as i write this after having consumed a sumptuous sehri. The article's fairly written but as far as role of army is concerned its been superb from what i heard from the locals. The very people who couldn't even dare clap with both hands 3 years back, now throng to this ski resort in thousands, listening to blaring music and enjoying bar b que and other local delicacies every weekend. As far as the roads are concerned the c&w Department is doing a fairly good job as they have started repairing the road in Ramadan as there isn't much traffic these days. Normalcy has returned to quite an extent dear author. Its for the civil administration to put its act together and start training their civil armed forces so as to take the reigns from the military as the military would be more than happy to hand over the latter instead being made an escape goat.
Muhammad Aug 14, 2011 04:10am
I remember those days when every year from Mingora we used to hire cars and went to Kalam and then on wards using the Jeeps. This picture of Kondole Lake brings tear in my eyes, what a magnificent place what lovely people and then what they went through. The urgent need is the full restoration of the road in first phase to KALAM. Also a fair bit of forest has been lost during the militancy phase something needs to be done there as well
Satya Aug 14, 2011 09:47am
Dear Friend, If you really want Taliban not to come back, then you have to create the right system, structure and values in the society. Unfortunately mere wishful thinking will not yield anything if that's not backed by societal changes. Wish you Good luck! Pakistan is a beautiful country, may it return to its pristine beauty where peace prevails.