Terrorised by the Taliban, displaced by military operations, and shunned by the state, victims from the valley wonder if the nation realises just how much they’ve lost to ensure Pakistan’s survival.
“He did not drown in a river. He too is a martyr like the students of Army Public School Peshawar. But no one cares. The government’s promises to us have not been fulfilled. We can’t do anything but mourn my brother’s martyrdom.”
These are the words of Isa Khankhel, the brother of Musa Khankhel who was a senior journalist working with Geo TV based out of Mingora. Musa was killed during the reign of terror in Swat.
Isa, also a journalist by profession, says while sacrifices of terror victims are appreciated today and financial assistance provided to heirs, nothing of the sort was witnessed by his family. In fact, he maintains, the sacrifices of those who gave up their lives for the sake of the soil, when extremism had reached its apogee, are ridiculed today.
The first peace deal with Taliban fighters was signed on February 16, 2009 in Swat by the Awami National Party-Pakistan People’s Party coalition government. Two days later, Musa Khankhel was shot dead by unknown assailants in Swat’s Matta area.
Maulana Sufi Muhammad, head of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammadi, was especially released from prison for the deal, which he signed as the representative of Swat Taliban at the time. Maulana Sufi Muhammad was the teacher, and father-in-law, of the then Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah.
Following the agreement, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, along with hundreds of supporters, took rallies out in various areas of the region to bring peace to Swat. Musa Khankhel had gone to cover one of his rallies in Matta, where he was shot dead.
This was a time when the local administration in Matta and surrounding areas was extremely weak. Police and other law enforcement personnel had left most of the government buildings and moved to safer places. Till date, no one has claimed responsibility for Musa Khankhel’s death.
Truth On The Line
Musa Khankhel was 28 years old at the time of his death. He was unmarried. According to Isa Khankhel: “We were nine siblings. On Musa Khankhel’s first death anniversary another younger brother of ours got electrocuted and died. My father passed away last year. We are now seven siblings alive, along with our mother. To this day, we do not know who martyred our brother and why.
“At that time there were two sides in Swat, the Taliban and the security forces; a journalist has to report on both. If a journalist is killed in such a situation who should be suspected? I can’t say much more.”
Isa maintains his family didn’t have any enmity with anyone.
“It is very difficult to speak and write the truth in this country. Whoever does it loses his life. And this is what we saw in the ‘war on terror’, when many of our journalist friends gave their lives in the line of telling the truth.”
Isa Khankhel adds: “Only the provincial government gave us Rs300,000 following the martyrdom of my brother. Apart from this, there has been no progress on the promises that were made, including the announcement of a plot in Islamabad by former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. No one has contacted us yet in that regard.”
He reveals the family commemorates his Musa’s death anniversary on their own every year, and neither the government, nor the district administration, has provided any assistance.
“At Landaki, where the borders of Swat begin, I have put up a signboard with a picture of my martyred brother Musa Khankhel so that people know that this journalist gave his life for peace in Swat. But, sadly, the signboard was taken down several times by unknown people. I reinstalled it recently and someone removed it again.
“Whenever there is a VIP movement, when high ranking civil and military officers visit Swat, the board is removed by unknown individuals. It’s evident that some people aren’t even willing to acknowledge my brother’s martyrdom, let alone provide us aid.”
The security situation in the Swat Valley of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa began to deteriorate in 2007 when Taliban fighters launched attacks on the army and police. At the time, the province was governed by a coalition of religious parties Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. Initially, the government showed leniency in dealing with the Taliban, which boosted the militants’ morale and led to a spate of attacks on police stations and government buildings. Meanwhile, for the first time, an army division was deployed in Swat by the government and operations were launched under the name ‘Operation Rah-e-Haq’.
The army expelled militants from about 70% of Swat in just a few weeks, and pushed them to the mountainous region of Gat Shawar Puchar. However, gradually, the security forces’ action softened, which allowed the Taliban to regroup. After a while they became active again and resumed terror raids.
These fluctuations in security operations lasted almost two years. During this time, sometimes the security action was on the rise, and sometimes the activities of the militants intensified. These maneuvers, called ‘friendly operations’, strengthened the extremists instead of weakening them.
The country held general elections in 2008, which resulted in a PPP government at the centre and a coalition government of the nationalist ANP and the PPP in the then NWFP.
The new coalition government, under the slogan of peace, called for resolving all issues through dialogue. In 2009, a peace agreement was reached between the Taliban in Swat and the government. But the situation in the valley began to deteriorate further. Violating the agreement, the Taliban began advancing from the valley towards Buner and Shangla districts, aggravating the law and order situation and creating a climate of fear.
There came a time when the Taliban had practically taken over 70% of the territory near Swat. In Mingora, the Taliban killed their opponents in broad daylight and hung their bodies on the streets for hours. As the Taliban moved towards Buner, an impression spread across the country that the militants were a few hours away from Islamabad and could seize the capital any moment.
Lava Under The Feet
An emergency parliamentary session was convened and effective action was decided against the extremists in Malakand division. In May 2009, a major military operation called ‘Rah-e-Rast’ was launched across the division, which proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the militants. However, the largest displacement in history accompanied the operation, with more than 2 million people from the area left homeless. The people of Malakand bore innumerable predicaments, in scorching heat, at the time.
Ghulam Farooq, the editor-in-chief of Swat’s local Daily Shamal, says he has faced many difficulties in life, but he will never forget the painful three months when the locals left their homes and were forced to seek refuge in other cities.
“We lived in Abbottabad for three months. It was a very difficult time. Even today, the thought of that time is haunting. In those days it was very difficult to find a house in Abbottabad. The DC [Deputy Commissioner] had issued an order not to rent houses to the people of Swat. Then, after a lot of struggle, we rented a small house with the help of a friend.
“From 2007 to 2014 Swat had become a hub of gruesome disasters. First, the people made great sacrifices owing to terrorism, then they faced difficulties in migration. The situation had not improved in the slightest when the disastrous 2010 floods struck. The catastrophic earthquake that followed undid whatever little remained.”
Farooq recalls how calamity upon calamity was tormenting the people of Swat. “But even more unfortunate is the fact that the more people of Swat sacrificed for Pakistan’s survival the more they were shunned and humiliated by the government.”
He adds even though peace has been established in Swat, it seems temporary. He interprets it as putting one’s foot on an opening in the earth for a while, and then watching the lava erupt again when the foot is removed. This is what he predicts in the days to come.
“One of my own brothers was martyred in a bomb blast. The office of my newspaper Daily Shamal was raided thrice. What was our fault? That we used to write the truth? We were severely punished for that.”
According to Ghulam Farooq, the local media has been pulverised by the Swat operation. Where more than a dozen newspapers and magazines used to be published there, only a few remain today. He says journalists are living in constant fear, and continue to face threats, which prevents them from working independently.
A Backbone To Pick
Amid the human losses, the war on terror did irreparable damage to the local economy as well. Tourism employs most of the district’s population, but the operations have left the industry in dire straits, costing local traders billions of rupees.
Abdur Rahim is the president of the Swat Traders Association, which consists of 21 small and large traders’ organisations at the district level with more than 24,000 affiliated traders. He says the traders and people of Swat fought a massive battle for the sake of Pakistan, and did not spare their lives or property for it, but unfortunately the sacrifices were neither compensated nor appreciated. On the contrary, he reiterates, the government’s attitude betrays a refusal to even acknowledge them.
“At first the scourge of extremism engulfed us. Then once the operation started, trade across Malakand came to a standstill. Many of our traders sacrificed their lives. Innumerable shops were targeted and destroyed in mortar bombing. We are yet to overcome the irreparable damage to tourism and the hotel industry—the backbone of our local economy.”
He says during the Talibanisation, traders used to receive daily extortion calls, due to which many left the area.
Rahim recalls: “We suffered a lot of humiliation and disgrace during the migration. The people of Swat have been prosperous for many years, but the migration financially crippled us. We used to line up awaiting help as beggars. We never thought that anything like this would happen to us, but unfortunately the masses in Swat weren’t compensated for their sufferings and sacrifices.”
Abdul Rahim agrees the security situation in Swat has improved but he too believes it to be temporary. He points to recent targeted killings in Swat as evidence that sustained peace is yet to be achieved.
“There is still a sense of fear among the people. Calls for extortion from traders are still coming from Afghanistan. Security agencies are cooperating and action is being taken, but such incidents create panic among the people, and hence need to be curtailed.”
A Forlorn Wait
The sacrifices of the army and police personnel in restoring peace in Swat cannot be denied. Fighting on the front lines, these personnel not only eliminated terrorists, but also gave full support to the people, playing a crucial role in resettling them in their respective areas.
These include officials who were abducted by the Taliban years ago, but their whereabouts remain unknown. The families of such officials still hope that one day their loved ones will miraculously return home.
Among them is Omar Rehman’s family.
Rehman was a cop in Swat’s Kanju area who has been missing for the past 12 years. Rehman’s elder brother, Noor Haleem Gul, recalls the year 2009 when Swat was under Taliban control. Dozens of armed Taliban surrounded his house from all sides and forced their way in. They kidnapped Rehman at gunpoint.
“My brother’s fault was that he was working in the police department. He had already been threatened by the Taliban to leave the police. Omar Rehman quit his police job for eight months because of these threats, but when things improved, he returned to duty. He was abducted shortly afterwards,” reveals Gul.
Missing police personnel Omar Rehman has five children, the youngest of whom, Usman, was born after his father’s abduction. Usman has never met his father.
Omar Rehman’s 17-year-old daughter Laiba recalls her father’s abduction: “I was sleeping when all of a sudden there was a lot of noise in the house. I woke up and saw my mother screaming. Some armed men grabbed my father and took him away.”
When Laiba began talking about her father’s abduction, she could not control her emotions and started crying loudly. Laiba was pacified only after being consoled by her uncle.
Omar Rehman’s children have been longing for a glimpse of their father for many years and are still hoping that one day their father may return home.
Noor Haleem Gul says his sister-in-law, nephews, and nieces have received a police package and are also getting a monthly pension. Occasionally, some police officers do visit their place as well. However, the family hasn’t been given any awards or jobs from the police.
The Poet And The Protector
Professor Ahmed Farid, known as Ahmed Fawad, is an intellectual from Swat. He is also a poet of Urdu and Pashto and has written four poetry books. He has also translated Professor Sultan-i-Rome’s famous English book ‘Swat State’, on the history of Swat, into Urdu.
Prof Ahmed says extremists have now been completely eliminated from the Swat Valley and the security forces undoubtedly played a major role in this. However, he maintains, the sacrifices of the people of Swat cannot be ignored.
“Many social changes have transpired in Swat’s society following the extremism and the operation. You will find people from every province and region of the country here. They engage in trade here as well, which wasn’t the case earlier. The rush has increased. People seem to lack patience, fighting over small things… Swat is a different place today.”
Prof Ahmed recalls how his village, Kabal, was obliterated by terrorism and operations. “People rebuilt their shops, houses, and private property. However, the sacrifices made by the people were not recognised. If the government believes that the people also played a role to help win the war, then that should have been appreciated. Paying Rs300,000 to someone whose house worth Rs20 million had been demolished is obviously not the way to do that.”
When law and order was restored after a successful military operation in Swat, the government and security forces set up anti-Taliban peace committees, constituted of the locals. ‘Village Defence Committees’ were formed across the district to monitor the militants and keep check on extremists.
The Taliban carried out numerous attacks on peace committee members in various areas, killing dozens of anti-Taliban personnel.
Fazal Wadood is the chairman of the Kuza Bandai committee and a former head of the union council. His brother, Buhur Karam, was the chairman of the peace committee in 2007, when he was killed in a militant attack along with his colleague, following which Wadood was given the responsibility.
“I have been attacked thrice by the Taliban, but Allah Almighty protects me. Peace has been restored in Swat to a large extent, but Village Defence Committees are still in place and functioning regularly,” he says.
When someone heads an anti-Taliban peace committee he is in constant danger, maintains Wadood. He says despite facing the same situation, he is making sacrifices for the sake of the country and the nation.
And Justice For None
During the reign of terror in Swat, in addition to security personnel, political leaders were targeted in extremist attacks. The most notable among these were ANP activists. As part of the government’s bid to resolve all issues through negotiations, instead of military action, the ANP-PPP coalition had implemented the Sharia-based justice system—the foremost demand of the extremists—under which local qazis had been appointed in courts across the district.
These courts had been set up following the implementation of the ‘Sharia Nizam-e-Adl Regulation’, which had been formally proclaimed by the government. The local qazis were actually judges, but were renamed accordingly at the request of Sufi Muhammad and the Taliban.
It may be recalled that even in the 90s Maulana Sufi Muhammad, along with thousands of his armed companions, had started a militant movement for the implementation of ‘Nizam-e-Adl’ in the entire Malakand division. The foot soldiers of the movement protested in the entire division for several days and jammed everything, which also resulted in deaths. Later, the then provincial government accepted the demand of Sufi Muhammad and implemented a Sharia-based justice system.
Following the ‘Sharia Nizam-e-Adl Regulation’ and the peace agreement, Swat was tranquil for a few days, but then suddenly the Taliban invaded and tried to seize the adjacent Buner district, accusing the government of violating the agreement.
This was the first time that ANP leaders in the provincial government openly began castigating the Taliban and condemning them as ‘terrorists’.
Following the operation, when the IDPs returned to their areas and conditions improved, the Taliban began a series of targeted killings of their opponents, with ANP workers being the first target. Several ANP workers, including ministers and MPAs, were killed. The ANP claims more than 600 activists and leaders have been killed in terrorist manoeuvres across the province.
Leading ANP Swat leader Dr Shamsher Ali Khan is among them. He was skilled in a Taliban suicide attack in 2010.
Shamsher had been elected to the provincial assembly from Swat on an ANP ticket in the 2008 general elections. His father, Abdul Rasheed Khan, was one of the founders of the ANP in Swat. He was known as ‘Dherai Baba’ in the area.
Rehmat Ali Khan won the by-election on the seat which became vacant after his elder brother Shamsher Ali Khan’s death. Rehmat is currently ANP’s Provincial Additional General Secretary.
“Where do I begin? Mountains of oppression fell on our family. A book can be written on it. My brother, nephew, and our police guard, were martyred. Another brother was seriously injured and has not recovered till date,” he says.
Rehmat adds when the operation started, the whole of Swat had been evacuated, but half of his family, including his father, remained in his village.
“One night more than a hundred Taliban surrounded our place and abducted my brother, nephew, and the two policemen guarding us. Later, our home was also bombed and destroyed.”
According to Rehmat, peace has now been restored in Swat, but targeted killings continue. “Military barracks have now been set up in Swat, but the Taliban operations have not been eradicated,” he adds.
“In fact such incidents normally take place where the presence of police and law enforcement agencies is high.”