By Zubair Torwali
The Swat Valley, in the north western province now named Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of the East: even in the picturesque mountainous region of north Pakistan, Swat is remarkable for its natural beauty. There was a time when the region was visited by foreign tourists and Pakistanis alike.
In 2002, a Swiss tourist declared, “Swat is more beautiful than Switzerland, but there is no Gul Khan in my homeland.” Gul Khan was the security guard tasked with the duty of escorting the tourist. It was soon after the 9/11, and foreigners had to be protected. The Swiss visitor had quickly grown tired of Gul Khan and his gun.
But to a resident like me — born, raised and based here — Swat was no less than a Paradise. The holy scriptures depict Paradise as being beautifully blessed with clear water streams, peace, serenity, abundant fruits, and fine weather. All those things were present in Swat.
The entire Valley is divided along the zigzag bed of the Swat River. The river water usually gleams emerald blue. By the bank of the river, there are lush green fields are full of orchards containing apples, peaches, plums, and pears. Beyond the fields, hills rise green and proud beside the Swat River. As you travel up the Swat Valley, it gradually narrows down until the road is only a few feet from the river. This narrow valley starts from Madyan, the gateway to the Kohistan of Swat (Swat-Kohistan), perhaps the best-known area of the Swat Valley. Many Urdu and Pashto poets have used the metaphor of crown jewel for this part of Swat’s beauty. Swat-Kohistan offers much to lure the traveller into its lap. There are gleaming snow-tipped peaks, azure lakes, green pastures. gushing streams, and thick pine forests. The cold breeze lulls you into a dream of Paradise.
Whenever I have to travel back to sweet Swat from Peshawar or Islamabad, I schedule my journey to make sure I take my drive from Mingora to my home town, Bahrain, around an hour before sunset. This journey, especially in spring and summer, always induces the muse in me. It is a rare experience to travel between the orchards and along the green fields with the sun on its way to hide behind the hills in the west. I have never grown tired of seeing the valleys again and again. Each time, I feel as if I am new to the place, although I have by now spent more than three decades of my life here.
Before the worst ever militant insurgency in Swat, peace was the norm. I feel nostalgic when I remember driving in the moonlight with the car’s headlights turned off.
There was no fear in going home in the dead of the night. One could sleep safely under the blue sky.
Swat Valley was once a popular tourist destination. We had many friends from around the world: pilgrims from China, anthropological and environmental researchers, ethnographers and tourists from across the globe, as well as the rest of Pakistan.
To my misfortune, I could not remain neutral. I decided to take the side of humanity and civilization. In my meagre capacity, I tried to awaken the world’s conscience by writing newspaper articles. This put my life in danger and I had to leave Swat. In April 2009, after the notorious peace deal the government signed with the Taliban, I was urged by friends to leave Swat and I finally realised that there was a serious threat to my life. I agreed to leave, but the question was how, as I had to travel 100 kilometres inside Swat to run for my life. The main highway was controlled by the Taliban, and they were checking every vehicle. My mom came to my rescue: she accompanied me, veiled in the way the Taliban wanted. She carried my laptop, as even having a laptop was reason enough to get you killed by the Taliban. That way, I made it to Islamabad and shuttled between the capital and Peshawar for almost 7 months.
Si Sawat is a tourist district in Thailand, about 250 kilometres from Bangkok. In October 2010, just a couple of months after the devastating floods in Pakistan (which originated mainly in Swat), I visited Thailand on an educational tour. My companions were awestruck at the beauty of Si Sawat, but to me, it was no match for the Swat Valley of Pakistan. Back at my hotel, I cried thinking of my Swat: its beauty, history, peace and serenity, all of which had fallen victim to religious extremism. During my rafting in a small muddy stream in Thailand, I couldn’t help remembering the emerald Swat River and its tributaries from the sub-valleys.
The people of Swat, diverse in beliefs as they are, have never been fanatics. Only rarely in human history have people gathered and selected their own ruler. In Swat, this happened soon after the era of anarchy locally referred to as Yaghistan — lawlessness. In 1917, the people of Swat assembled in the ground where Swat’s prestigious Jehanzeb College now stands, and chose Miangul Abdul Wadood as their king.
And then a time came when an ordinary Swati was feared by the rest of Pakistan. “You bar your women at home and torture them. You blast schools and markets. You people are against education for women and live a life of barbarism,” a female colleague in Islamabad admonished me in 2008. By then, Swat had become notorious for all kinds of extremism. Similarly, a taxi driver in Islamabad refused to transport us when we told him where we came from. Even today, Swat has a reputation as a Taliban stronghold among people from big metropolises. Early this summer, I was rebuffed by faculty training colleagues at one of Pakistan’s elite universities — the Lahore University of Management Sciences, in the provincial capital of Pakistan’s largest populated province, Punjab. Due either to my naivety or Swati hospitality, I invited these friends to Swat; their abrupt response was, “Do you want us to be killed?”
Now Swat is considerably more peaceful, but the fear of targeted killings and ambushes by the Taliban still prevails here. The peace is forced but fragile, and depends very much on the presence and alertness of the military.
Amidst the widespread fear of the Taliban regrouping, I find it hard to convince myself of brighter hopes for Swat. Until peace is restored in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which border Afghanistan, there can be no guarantee of lasting peace in Swat. Given the growing confusion regarding terrorism and its root causes in our national political discourse, I am not sure if my Paradise on Earth can ever be regained.
Zubair Torwali is a social, developmental, culture and literary activist born and raised in Bahrain, Swat. He has been contributing to major Pakistani English dailies for the last seven years. He is a human rights advocate and has recently been recognised by Human Rights Watch for his commitment to freedom of expression in an age of intense turmoil in Swat.