The illuminated seat of Buddhist learning and the traditional centre of governance, Saidu Sharif is a small town in the Swat Valley of North Western Pakistan. Being home to the tomb of Akhund of Swat and palaces of the rulers of Swat, Saidu played a vital role in the spiritual growth and socio-political awakening of the people of the Himalayan region.
But that seems like a long time ago.
When Swat State merged into Pakistan in 1969, the old historic buildings built by the Walis of Swat were transformed into official residences and offices. However, the new inhabitants failed to address the people’s concerns and resolve their issues. Corruption, inefficiency and absence of a speedy judicial system reversed the development initiatives launched by Mian Gul Abdul Haq Jehanzeb, the last Wali of Swat.
The Pakistani state’s indifference to the problems of its people coupled with the changing realities in neighbouring tribal areas and Afghanistan brought more complications for the inhabitants of the Swat Valley. Class tensions between local landlords and their peasants, and links between intelligence agencies and militant commanders for protecting Pakistan’s geo-strategic interests in the Pak-India-Afghan region created a situation where extremist groups got the upper hand.
In the 1990s, the Movement for the Enforcement of Shariah (TNSM) of Maulana Sufi Muhammad was launched on the pretext to provide justice to the people, however the movement eventually turned militant and in 2007 gave birth to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Swat under the leadership of Mullah Fazlullah, the son in law of Sufi Muhammad.
On the basis of their global jihadist agenda, Taliban militants destroyed the social, educational and cultural institutions of the Yousafzai Pashtuns and halted economic activities in Swat Valley, rich in natural and mineral resources.
With the emergence of the Taliban, society lost its ideological and historical foundations: rare Buddhist carvings; traditional centres of Pashtuns gatherings (Hujras); historical buildings (schools, colleges, police stations, hotels) built by the Wali of Swat were bombed; and traditional singers, dancers and musicians were killed or forced to flee the valley. In October 2007, conflict between Pakistan security forces and Taliban militants displaced more than 3 million people from Malakand of which Swat is a district.
The Pakistan military and government ministers termed the operation successful and claimed that the area has been cleared of Taliban fighters. However, locals complain that the security situation is still fragile, the reconstruction efforts are too slow to be termed satisfactory and the trauma of war and migration still looms large on the faces and minds of Swati women and children.
The problem is not with the people. They cooperated with each and every step of the military action: they left their homes on short notice, spent months in the scorching heat in the plains of Mardan and Peshawar, lost their children and aged family members while fleeing the valley, faced indefinite curfews and suffered humiliation at security check posts. And when they returned home, they found their houses destroyed and looted – God knows by whom.
What they expected were the trials of militant commanders who played with their lives and properties. However the State has yet to bring these Taliban leaders to justice. Muslim Khan, the multi-lingual Taliban spokesman who accepted responsibility for almost all the suicide bombings and murder of Taliban dissidents, is in the custody of security forces, but his trial has yet to begin. After security authorities’ conflicting reports about the whereabouts of Mullah Fazlullah, he resurfaced in a video in 2010 addressing a group of suicide bombers and threatening the Swati people and state authorities of dire consequences.
Any delays in the prosecution of arrested terrorists generate serious security concerns among the people of the whole province. According to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, terrorist activities in the province have increased because courts “honourably” exonerate 98% of the terrorists that faced trial.
Locals have also showed their frustration over flaws in rehabilitation and reconstruction activities taking place in Swat. Through local newspapers, Jirga gatherings and private meetings, they complain that local communities are not their fair share in the decision-making process. While on the surface it is government and non-governmental organisations that carry the activities, the truth is that behind the screen, senior military officials dictate decisions and keep accounts of the money allocated to the reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. The military’s claim that it will play a main role in the development process is similar to trumpeted claims that it played a role in defeating the terrorists! Therefore, the civilian organisations have no option but to follow them.
Mussarat Ahmadzeb, a member of the royal family of Swat and an eminent philanthropist, says she wanted to build a school but the administration did not allow her, adding, “Mere tall claims and lies can not reconstruct Swat.”
Moreover, there is no coordination between different national, international and governmental organisations working in Swat. Every organisation pursues its own vision and agenda with no or little care for the genuine needs of the local communities. An official of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) confided to this scribe that USAID has given $39 million for the reconstruction of schools in Swat but due to bureaucratic hurdles the transfer of money from centre to the province has been delayed.
Swat is a district of great strategic and commercial interest for Pakistan. It is located midway between the proposed highway linking Karakoram highway to central Asia via Luwari pass between the districts of Chitral and Upper Dir. It has natural resources that can be exploited for generating economic activities for the impoverished people. Swati people are more educated and skilled as compared to people in the tribal areas. Therefore it is vital to take them onboard and utilize their potential.
Merely focusing on the construction of military bases (cantonments), ignoring the genuine problems of the people and denying them the right to express themselves without fear will further complicate the issues of militancy, poverty and under-development in the region.
Shaheen Buneri is working as broadcaster for RFE/RL Mashaal Radio in Prague.