Reporter’s Notebook: Swat After the Army Operation
Some time in 2008, I met Lalaji (Khan Sahib) and his nephew, refugees from Swat who had fled to Brooklyn. Reading the Amnesty International report on the abuses of the Pakistan Army, their stories come back to me now, along with others I heard when I finally went to Swat in 2009 shortly after a Pakistani Army operation. So, I dug up my old notebooks and harddrives on Swat. What follows are fragments of notes and video, stories and lives.
A large version of this video, here.
By 2009, the Pakistan Army had decided on Operation Rah-e-Rast (Righteous Path), a move heralded by Pakistani liberals and the US. Both camps had been unsettled by the irenic tone of the secular, provincial Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government as it struck a peace deal in February with the militant turned questionable peacemaker, TNSM leader Sufi Muhammad. The deal quickly soured, and a feverish clamor for an army offensive took over.
Militants had been attacking civilians as early as 2003. Local ANP politicians were killed with impunity and their mutilated bodies left in public to serve as a warning. On several occasions, ill-trained policemen surrendered to the Taliban rather than defend their towns. By 2007, the TTP already controlled sections of Malakand division, the larger district of which Swat is a part.
Rah-e-Rast was to be purgative, clarifying. Approximately 20,000 regular Army troops were deployed to Swat to fight an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 militants. In mid-October finally, Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared, “Operation Rah-e-Rast in Swat was successful.”
It takes us over five hours to get to Swat from Islamabad.
After the war—if it can be called a war—Swat also has the startling runic quality of a Dali painting. Shots of fuschia flowers peek furtively throw a window in a crumbling lone brick wall standing mysteriously at the edge of a field. A few miles on, a soldier peers out of a sand sack fort by the side of a dappled road. Directly across him, a staircase plateaus to the open air like an unfinished thought. Driving through Swat is like that now, a series of questions, punctuated by the Army.
Checkpoints dot the road with increasing frequency as we near the capital, Mingora. The soldiers are by turns surprisingly hospitable and gruff. At one checkpoint, we’re offered tea. At another, a soldier speaks roughly to my guide and demands to see the medicines in my bag: allergy pills.
The security is simultaneously high and thoroughly penetrable. At still another checkpoint, the soldier on guard dismisses our government issued ID cards demanding instead to see a business card for verification. The latter can be easily printed for less than a penny.
First Britain, now Pakistan: the army is here again.
Zainab—not her real name—has three kids and a detached indifference to the aftermath the military’s offensive. The death of her husband by an army explosion as he was making his way home from Friday prayers has unutterably altered her life. She searches for words to explain the economic hardships she’s now handling. She relies on her extended family for material support.
A large version of this video, here.
We’re sitting on the carpeted floor of a bedroom in Matta, a town about 30 kilometres north of Swat’s capital, Mingora. Nearly twenty women around us. News that we were coming had somehow spread, and neighborhood women kept gathering till the room became overstuffed with women and stories. They’re actually gracious that we’ve made it out this far. Not many journalists pass through here, they say. I feel silly being thanked simply for showing up.
Matta had been a militant stronghold, intermittently, since 2003 when the Taliban set up its own courts. Criminals terrorized the local residents here, butchering those that defied—or seemed to defy—the militants’ law. They were barbarous, pitiless and unrepentantly bloodthirsty.
Begum Iqbal is unreservedly glad the army came. She’s chatty, decisive in her opinions and the wife of an Urdu language professor. “It was good for us,” she tells me. “If the army weren’t here, the Taliban would be.” Her opinion is in the sheer minority in the room.
Eighteen year old Shabano—not her real name—cuts her off saying, “I don’t agree.” I turn towards her, and she looks surprised at herself for having expressed her opinion so boldly, and that too, over an elder.
“All the poor people stayed. The rich left.” She speaks nervously, her voice slightly high-pitched. “My married brothers left, but the rest of us were here. There was no food. The rations ran out. My school was destroyed.” She pauses.
“You don’t know what we went through. I don’t like talking about it.” She stops.
The casual attacks, the “collateral damage,”coupled with the merciless beatings and the torture of suspects I hear about do not look like an army trying to protect its citizenry. It looks like collective punishment. For Swatis, that has often meant that neither the government nor the army have provided support. In fact, they speak of collusion.
“There would be a soldier here and a Talib here,” says Mehnaz putting her forefingers next to each other, “but the soldier would do nothing.” She hails from a small village in Swat. I initially met her in a Pashtun neighbourhood in Karachi where she had fled after the army offensive began along with her two young children and extended family. “The Talib would leave the area, and then they would begin bombing.”
In one notable incident in 2008, the openly pro-Taliban commissioner of Malakand, Mohammad Syed Javed reprimanded and disarmed residents of Buner who had organized themselves into a militia against Taliban incursions into their town. The commissioner forced the Buneris to apologize to the militants during a meeting at his house.
“What can I say? The government doesn’t ask us anything,” said Asfand Ali when I prodded him about his opinion on the recent operation. His brother and father were killed when a mortar fell on their house.
“Whatever they do is just fine. They killed a lot of innocent people.” A ghost of a smile flickers across his face. “They can do whatever they want. It’s the government.”
Originally published at Tanqeed