Nov 8, 2009

Back to NORMAL?

What does Swat look like after the operation…

By Aoun Sahi

Life seems busy at the Green Chowk in Mingora city. Two policemen standing near the traffic light installed in the centre of the intersection are busy managing traffic, passing through remains of destroyed buildings and billboards.

"Only three months ago, there was nothing routine about this potholed chowk. For more than two years, this place was used by the Taliban to spread the terror. This Green Chowk came to be known as Khooni (Bloody) Chowk. They used to slaughter their opponents at this place. At least 40 people including a female dancer were killed here; many of the bodies were found hanged to that light pole," tells says Muhammad Ismail, owner of a butcher shop in green chowk.

"This place was Taliban's headquarter in Mingora city; all the destroyed shopping plazas around the chowk were occupied by them. Army got these vacated from them forcefully," he says pointing at the remains of many destroyed buildings. "Army operation has given confidence to the people of Swat valley. They are happy to get rid of the Taliban. People have started coming back to normal life, forgetting the terrible past."

Only a few kilometers from Green Chowk, Swat Cinema has reopened after a gap of 18 months. "Today we are going to watch a film on the big screen after a gap of two years. It is very exciting," says 25 years old Syed Alam who along with three of his friends has covered 35 kilometers to watch the movie in the Swat cinema in Mingora city. He belongs to Matta, the stronghold of Taliban. "They were in total control of the area from early 2007 to April 2009 when the military started an operation against them." Alam could not even dare watch a movie or listen to music on his DVD players during Taliban days. "Those were horrific days; the minimum punishment for watching a movie or listening to music was public lashing."

The cinema was closed by Taliban forcibly in March 2008 was reopened on August 14 this year. Muhammad Khaliq, manager of the cinema, tells TNS smilingly that closing cinema was not a tough decision to make as the management had no other option. "Dozens of Taliban armed with AK47 and other sophisticated arms came and ordered us to close the cinema otherwise they were going to bomb it. It was not only a threat as they had been bombing CD selling shops claiming music and movies." According to him Swat has always been a centre of art and culture and they love such activities. "When we reopened the cinema, only a few watched the first show of the film but today more than 200 have already bought the ticket."

Muhammad Usman Khyali, owner of a music CD shop in the Mingora city, tells TNS, "CD shops full of Pashto and Indian films and music have once again become favorite spots for youngsters. They come and enjoy freedom, they also reserve the right to sing and laugh."

Khyali who is also a poet says that Taliban spread their influence gradually in the valley. "In 2004, Mullah Fazlullah started broadcasting sermons from his own FM radio station. Initially, he used to discuss the basic beliefs of Islam. He managed to win a lot of support especially of many local housewives. But by the end of 2006 Fazlullah's message started becoming more hardline. He declared polio vaccination a conspiracy, movies and music as anti-Sharia, and stopped women from going to school or market. It was utter terrorism in the name of religion."

Omer Ali, a 28 year old barber of Mingora, seems very relaxed now. "My business is blooming every passing day. Some people are still resistant to get their beards shaved because they think that Taliban might make a comeback after the army will leave the area".

Administration of the area does not agree that Taliban can make a comeback. "This menace has been rooted out by the Pakistan army completely. Taliban are finished now, we have rule of law once again in the valley" Anwar Hayat Khan, Tehsil Nazim Swat tells TNS. According to him Swat is the largest tehsil of the NWFP. "It comprises on 58 union councils; we used to have traditional Jirga system to govern the area. Taliban first targeted this system to destabilise the administration but we kept on serving people until April 2009 when the government ordered us to leave the area. We came back in July and found the whole infrastructure of the city completely destroyed. We have made a fresh start. Things have started getting normal. Everybody is happy in the valley over the fall of Taliban."

People have made a fresh start as the terrible past is over but there are some for whom making a fresh start and forgetting the past is not that easy. "So far 52 orphans belonging to war-affected families have joined us during the last three months," Haji Muhammad Ali, director of Khapul Kor Foundation Mingora, that runs an orphanage, tells TNS. "They are still in shock as their parents were killed in front of them. They faint or start crying all of a sudden. We are trying to console them but it is very tough task to get them back to life. We are trying to hire a psychologist for the purpose and hopefully in one year or so, we will be able to get them back to normal life," says Ali.

The Foundation is in a process to do a survey of Tehsil Swat to find out the families lost their heads during the war to identify the real number of children lost their father, mother or both. "We have completed a survey of 22 out of 58 union councils of tehsil Swat and found 123 such families and more than 500 affected children. The total number of such families can cross the 500 mark in the whole valley. We fear that this war has made more than 2000 orphans in the valley," he says.

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