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Inch by inch, Swat returns to normality

Published Aug 12, 2011 09:05am

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/Dawn.com

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/Dawn.com

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’.