Last August, while visiting a skill-building center in Pirwadhai (outside of Rawalpindi), I met a group of women from Swat Valley. Following the Pakistan military’s operation against the Taliban in Swat, these women and their families had been displaced from their homes, choosing to live with host families rather than in relief camps, falling through the aid cracks as a result.
Prior to the operations, there were numerous stories detailing the deteriorating situation in Swat Valley, from the bombings of girls’ schools to the rising influence of the Taliban. The women I met last year mirrored the fear encapsulated in those pieces. One mother told me how her 16 year old daughter had not been to school in the past two years because of the bombings. Another woman related her fear that someone – militant or soldier – would bang on her door in the middle of the night. These women, bound by their collective plight, were also connected by another fear – they were all afraid to go home.
It’s been over a year since I met those women on that dusty afternoon in Pirwadhai, and although Swat has since slipped from the news headlines, I felt it was worth updating readers on the current situation in the region. Last month, the NY Times‘ Adam Ellick, who has done several pieces on the situation [chronicling one girl's journey in Swat to the camps and back home], noted that people felt a surge of optimism after the military declared last year that they had cleared the area of the Taliban. However, he noted, “more than a year after millions of residents returned home, the absence of virtually any government follow-through has turned that hope into despair.” The government has yet to rebuild any of the 150 schools destroyed by the Taliban. Ellick reported,
Running water, electricity and school supplies are widely absent. The floods that ravaged the country this summer, and hit Swat especially hard, have only compounded the hardships and diverted money and attention away from reconstructing war-torn areas.
The government, he argued, may have cleared this area of the Taliban, but their lack attention in rebuilding this area means “they are losing a bigger battle” – with Swat’s youth and schoolchildren. Jamaluddin, a 17 year old student, told the NYT, “Our youth will end up as Taliban. Our Pakistan will not progress because of lack of education…I don’t have any more faith to become a doctor. I don’t even believe I’ll become a bus conductor.”
The government, for their part, have defended this lack of progress, “saying that hiring engineers and architects to ensure that schools would be safe from earthquakes was a time-consuming process that was delayed two months by the floods.”
In its coverage, the Associated Press spoke with Saira Bibi, who was publicly flogged by the Taliban last year [see this past post for more about another woman whose public flogging was caught on cell phone], and echoed much of Ellick’s reporting. Although life is “starting to resemble normal in Swat,” the AP noted,
But not everything is as it was. Soldiers now stand on street corners and at checkpoints. The jagged mountain trail leading to Bibi’s village of Ashar Band is strewn with the rubble of damaged buildings. Some 300 schools the Taliban burned in the region have not yet been rebuilt. Occasional attacks — a raid on a checkpoint last month wounded one soldier — remind residents that militancy is still a threat.
One positive is that people like Saira Bibi are coming forward with their stories, sharing the brutality they suffered under Taliban control in Swat. These stories are significant because they provide a humanized perspective of life under the Taliban, a painful reminder of what women, children, and families endured, and what could occur again if we do not pay closer attention. Regardless of whether Swat is a headline tomorrow, or the region is a distant cry from Pakistan’s major cities, these stories show how important it is to restore dignity and honestly help rebuild lives.