A look into the SWAT Valley....
Here's what life is like in the SWAT valley...
IN the former mountain resort of Malam Jabba, where skiing thrived when the surrounding Swat Valley was an international attraction, one can still see the remnants of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation’s flagship hotel. The building was blown up by the Taliban because it was being used for “un-Islamic activities”.
Hundreds of other hotels in the valley have been destroyed or forced to close after threats from the militants.
“We used to charge 1,200 to 3,000 Pakistani rupees [£10.50 to £26] for a room per night. Now we are renting rooms for 200 rupees but nobody is visiting,” said Zahid Hussain, the manager of a luxury hotel which has officially shut down.
In Mingora, Swat’s largest city which once buzzed with foreign tourists, the shops are empty. The women’s clothes markets are either closed or show banners proclaiming: “Women are banned from entering this market.”
Barbers have pasted hand-written posters to their shop fronts saying: “Shaving a beard is unIslamic. We have stopped shaving beards. Please don’t visit the shop for a shave.”
After two years of fighting between 5,000 Taliban militants and 12,000 troops from the Pakistan army, a ceasefire has been hammered out between the government and the rebels. It has left the Swat Valley, just three hours drive from Islamabad, the capital, under the control of a hardline cleric known as Radio Mullah for his fiery sermons on an illegal radio station.
American officials are concerned that the cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, who is intent on imposing a harsh version of sharia (religious law), will allow the valley to become a base for Al-Qaeda and other terrorists.
Last week I became the first journalist from a British paper since the ceasefire to venture past the heavily armed Taliban checkpoints and travel into the valley.
The journey was not made without trepidation. On Wednesday a journalist for Pakistan’s Geo television network, Musa Khan Khel, 28, was killed when he tried to secure an interview with Fazlullah. In a characteristic Taliban flourish, there were signs that his killers had attempted to behead him.
What I found in Swat was a hell-hole. Suicide bombings, car bombs and artillery have scarred the valley’s roads and buildings. The charred remains of hospitals and even a madrasah (seminary) litter the landscape.
Nearly 200 schools have been destroyed, all girls over the age of eight are banned from lessons and, in a symbol of the Taliban’s hatred of learning, the public library in Mingora has been wrecked.
The Taliban have banned music and dancing, television and internet cafes. Women cannot leave home without wearing a burqa, the all-encompassing robe. Justice has been enforced with floggings and public executions.
Everyone who can afford to leave has fled the valley. Police stations are deserted and fewer than 100 local policemen remain. In deserted parks the swings are rusting, creaking and empty.
Green Square, in the heart of Mingora’s bazaar, is now known as Khooni Chowk – or bloody square – because of the public executions carried out there by Taliban who leave the bullet-riddled bodies of police and soldiers for all to see.
Local residents said mothers used to warn their children not to pass through the square on their way to school. “Sadly, our children have got used to such sights,” said Fayaz Zafar, a local journalist. “They’ve become inured to scenes of decapitated bodies, suicide bombs and military operations. They now play ‘Taliban and soldiers’ in the playground.”
Naveed Khan, owner of a cable television network in Mingora, said that at first the Taliban had ordered him to block channels showing English language films. Then came a warning from its spokesman to remove all channels showing music and songs and all films in local languages. Later a Taliban commander ordered the closure of all the cable broadcasters. Snooker clubs and video game arcades have also been banned.