Tag Archives: swat

Reporter’s Notebook: Swat After the Army

Some time in 2008, I met Lalaji (Khan Sahib) and his nephew, refugees from Swat who had fled to Brooklyn. Reading the Amnesty International report on the abuses of the Pakistan Army, their stories come back to me now, along with others I heard when I finally went to Swat in 2009 shortly after a Pakistani Army operation. So, I dug up my old notebooks and harddrives on Swat. What follows are fragments of notes and video, stories and lives.

A large version of this video, here.

By 2009, the Pakistan Army had decided on Operation Rah-e-Rast (Righteous Path), a move heralded by Pakistani liberals and the US. Both camps had been unsettled by the irenic tone of the secular, provincial Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government as it struck a peace deal in February with the militant turned questionable peacemaker, TNSM leader Sufi Muhammad. The deal quickly soured, and a feverish clamor for an army offensive took over.

Militants had been attacking civilians as early as 2003. Local ANP politicians were killed with impunity and their mutilated bodies left in public to serve as a warning. On several occasions, ill-trained policemen surrendered to the Taliban rather than defend their towns. By 2007, the TTP already controlled sections of Malakand division, the larger district of which Swat is a part.

Rah-e-Rast was to be purgative, clarifying. Approximately 20,000 regular Army troops were deployed to Swat to fight an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 militants. In mid-October finally, Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared, “Operation Rah-e-Rast in Swat was successful.”

It takes us over five hours to get to Swat from Islamabad.

After the war—if it can be called a war—Swat also has the startling runic quality of a Dali painting. Shots of fuschia flowers peek furtively throw a window in a crumbling lone brick wall standing mysteriously at the edge of a field. A few miles on, a soldier peers out of a sand sack fort by the side of a dappled road. Directly across him, a staircase plateaus to the open air like an unfinished thought. Driving through Swat is like that now, a series of questions, punctuated by the Army.

Checkpoints dot the road with increasing frequency as we near the capital, Mingora. The soldiers are by turns surprisingly hospitable and gruff. At one checkpoint, we’re offered tea. At another, a soldier speaks roughly to my guide and demands to see the medicines in my bag: allergy pills.

The security is simultaneously high and thoroughly penetrable. At still another checkpoint, the soldier on guard dismisses our government issued ID cards demanding instead to see a business card for verification. The latter can be easily printed for less than a penny.

First Britain, now Pakistan: the army is here again.

Interview fragments

Zainab—not her real name—has three kids and a detached indifference to the aftermath the military’s offensive. The death of her husband by an army explosion as he was making his way home from Friday prayers has unutterably altered her life. She searches for words to explain the economic hardships she’s now handling. She relies on her extended family for material support.

A large version of this video, here.

We’re sitting on the carpeted floor of a bedroom in Matta, a town about 30 kilometres north of Swat’s capital, Mingora. Nearly twenty women around us. News that we were coming had somehow spread, and neighborhood women kept gathering till the room became overstuffed with women and stories. They’re actually gracious that we’ve made it out this far. Not many journalists pass through here, they say. I feel silly being thanked simply for showing up.

Matta had been a militant stronghold, intermittently, since 2003 when the Taliban set up its own courts. Criminals terrorized the local residents here, butchering those that defied—or seemed to defy—the militants’ law. They were barbarous, pitiless and unrepentantly bloodthirsty.

Begum Iqbal is unreservedly glad the army came. She’s chatty, decisive in her opinions and the wife of an Urdu language professor. “It was good for us,” she tells me. “If the army weren’t here, the Taliban would be.” Her opinion is in the sheer minority in the room.

Eighteen year old Shabano—not her real name—cuts her off saying, “I don’t agree.” I turn towards her, and she looks surprised at herself for having expressed her opinion so boldly, and that too, over an elder.

“All the poor people stayed. The rich left.” She speaks nervously, her voice slightly high-pitched. “My married brothers left, but the rest of us were here. There was no food. The rations ran out. My school was destroyed.” She pauses.

“You don’t know what we went through. I don’t like talking about it.” She stops.

The casual attacks, the “collateral damage,”coupled with the merciless beatings and the torture of suspects I hear about do not look like an army trying to protect its citizenry. It looks like collective punishment. For Swatis, that has often meant that neither the government nor the army have provided support. In fact, they speak of collusion.

“There would be a soldier here and a Talib here,” says Mehnaz putting her forefingers next to each other, “but the soldier would do nothing.” She hails from a small village in Swat. I initially met her in a Pashtun neighbourhood in Karachi where she had fled after the army offensive began along with her two young children and extended family. “The Talib would leave the area, and then they would begin bombing.”

In one notable incident in 2008, the openly pro-Taliban commissioner of Malakand, Mohammad Syed Javed reprimanded and disarmed residents of Buner who had organized themselves into a militia against Taliban incursions into their town. The commissioner forced the Buneris to apologize to the militants during a meeting at his house.

“What can I say? The government doesn’t ask us anything,” said Asfand Ali when I prodded him about his opinion on the recent operation. His brother and father were killed when a mortar fell on their house.

“Whatever they do is just fine. They killed a lot of innocent people.” A ghost of a smile flickers across his face. “They can do whatever they want. It’s the government.”

Originally published at Tanqeed

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Noted: News & Views Roundup

  1. Pakistan’s Parliament has passed the 18th Amendment. Woohoo!
  2. “The journalist enjoys good standing in his community. He is even likely to be held in awe.” —Studies in Crap
  3. Why is the Active Liberty Institute, a partner of Clinton’s Global Initiative, hosting former Pakistan overlord Pervez Musharraf to talk about curbing extremism and for that matter, why are they charging $50 for students?
  4. The UN has released its report on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. There were 47 suicide attacks in 2007 with 35 of them taking place after Musharraf’s Red Mosque fiasco.
  5. My friend and reporter, Fahad, has an excellent post about his experiences covering war-torn Swat and surrounding regions. It’s a must read.
  6. Matti Tabbi tears David Brooks a new one after Brooks uses the recent Duke basketball win to explain why he roots for the rich and against the poor.  An excerpt:

If I had to do even five hours of that work today I’d bawl my fucking eyes out for a month straight. I’m not complaining about my current good luck at all, but I would wet myself with shame if I ever heard it said that I work even half as hard as the average diner waitress.

Read it.

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Swat in Pictures

CopA friend, Moneeza Ahmed, and I recently travelled to see what Swat looks like after the war. Below are a few of the quick photos we took. Click on each to see the caption. I’ll be posting more stuff/ impressions in a few days.

Operation Rah-e-Rast is the fourth Army offensive in Swat in the last 2 years. The Army and the Pakistani liberals who supported the war swear that this time, it’s for real. This time, the Army gets it. But, in Swat, that’s not true judging by the way it ran its offensive. And the goverment has yet to make serious rehabilitation or reconstruction efforts. The only thing that moves quickly is business of killing. The Army has moved on to Waziristan and is repeating its cavalierly ruthless policies there.  I spoke with an aid worker in Dera Ismail Khan recently. That’s where most of the civilians have fled. No governmental or state institution has yet put up much needed refugee camps. It is also now likely that once Waziristan is over, Balochistan will be next. Under the pretext of hunting down militants, the government may try to wipe out the Balochistan insurgency which stems from their very legitimate demands for rights and access to their resources.

Swat, meanwhile, has been forgotten. Without reconstruction, it’s possible that militants could have the opportunity to return, as they have done every other time. But who gives a shit, right? I mean, Swat is so yesterday.

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Faith. Unity. Brutality.

[screen grab]“You don’t want me to chop off your hands and feet,” says the Army officer to a Pashtun.  This horror-flick statement is part of a 10-minute video that, if authentic, would be the first time that proof of the brutality of the Pakistani Army will have been captured on tape. The footage shows Pakistani soldiers interrogating and then beating Pashtun men suspected of harbouring the Taliban. The soldiers kick, whip and thrash their victims who scream and agonize on the ground.

Authentic or not, the ruthlessness shown in the video is already real for the Pakistani media so much so that hardly a local media outlet dared report on it. Being beaten or having your hands chopped off is rather unpleasant business after all, and few reporters are willing to risk that for a story. The fear is pervasive, and the near pitch-perfect silence speaks volumes about the army whether the video is a real or a fake.

It was the BBC that first carried the story on October 1st after the video had been making rounds on Facebook. That was followed by a piece in the Guardian. Under pressure from stories being carried in the foreign press, the English language dailies, Dawn and the Daily Times finally ran pieces today available here, here and here.

Compare that to the coverage of the Taliban flogging video in April this year. Within a week, numerous articles had already been published. Justifiably horrified progressive Pakistanis took to protesting the Taliban in Karachi and Lahore. Then newly reinstated Chief Justice took suo moto action the same day calling the case to court. As a result, the man beating the girl in the video was arrested a day ago.

It’s one thing to criticize mullahs, militants or politicians like President Asif Ali Zardari, say local journalists, but quite another to probe “the establishment,” the term in Pakistan for the nexus of military and security agencies that run intrigues, kidnappings, undercover operations, and lately, the American war on terror.

Democracy may be transient in Pakistan, but the establishment is well…established. Cameramen know the areas that are off-limits for filming in the heart of Pakistan’s cities; reporters know which stories should go unrecorded. Otherwise, as one reporter explained it to me, “Accidents happen.” You may be hit by a car, or a container might fall on you. Or, you may disappear and a few hours later your brother will find your mangled body.

That’s what happened with Musa Khan Khel, the 28-year-old Geo Television reporter who was killed in Swat the day the Swat peace deal was signed with Sufi Muhammad. Only a few days earlier, Khel had told his reportedly told his employers, “I have been receiving death threats from a powerful force. They are after me. They want to kill me.”

Khan Khel never specified who “they” were. Veteran reporter and Khan Khel’s friend, Imtiaz Ali says he doesn’t know either, but  “The Taliban proudly declare when they’ve done something.” In this case however, they came to offer condolences to Khan Khel’s family after his death.

It is known that Khan Khel was on tenuous terms with the Pakistan Army officials and often barred from official press conferences in Swat, the region he was covering as a result.  He set out on the morning of his death to report with his brother. They were banned from covering senior minister Bashir Bilour’s press conference that day announcing the Swat deal between the government and local militants.

Khan Khel stated this fact in the last report he filed. It would run in The News a day after his death.

The Army is everywhere. When I was a child, we would watch a television show about young dashing Rashid, an Air force pilot who does kamikaze rather than be caught and divulge his secrets to the enemy. I wanted to be him. At six years old, didn’t we all?

Karachi monument

Karachi monument

Now, returning after 19 years, the symbols are everywhere. Unity. Faith. Discipline. The Army motto haunts the country in oversized and often fairly ugly sculptures. A sculpture of Jinnah along with the army motto lay carved on a grassy hill in Islamabad. Three phallic marble swords pierce the sky in Karachi. At their hilts, the army motto. In Lahore at the Wagah border between Pakistan and India, thousands throng to watch the Army ritual on Independence Day. There is no room for everyone inside the enclosure. The crowd runs thick. It surges forward. Soldiers on horseback lathi-charge, beating at random. A man screams in the crush trying to turn his car back around in the human sea. His daughter is bleeding from her head. He needs to get out.

We all need to get out. In its latest operation in Swat, the Pakistan Army has already been accused of human rights violations by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). After being so unceremoniously tossed out of their homes and livelihoods, the nearly 3 million internally displaced Swatis are being handed 500Rs per adult head and returned on buses, packed off for journeys scheduled to be as long 35 hours, which if one is familiar with “Pakistan standard time” actually means more like 45 hours. One bus fell into a ditch this week. Fifteen people were killed.

Islamabad monument

Islamabad monument

The public indignities which the Pashtuns have suffered are the result of the “army better than the Taliban” mentality. But for whom exactly? Caught in that abysmally narrow-minded refrain are all the calumnies, indignities, horror and violence of what has happened in Swat. In the name of destroying the Taliban, the Pakistani elite cheered on an army that razed villages and collectively punished Pashtuns. That is what is going on in that video: collective punishment. And the groundwork for what is geographically and mentally in the periphery was laid in the heartland of Pakistan. Stories of the “Talibanization” of Karachi smack of cold racism against the immigrant Pashtun population against whom the MQM, the party that rules Karachi, has long held a grudge. They are the underclass in Pakistan, our cooks, our car drivers, our chaukidars.

And what will follow in Waziristan?

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IDP Crisis by the Numbers


  • $100 million -the amount pledged by the US to help with the IDP crisis in Pakistan.
  • $800 million -amount to be used by the US to renovate its embassy in Islamabad and upgrade security at its offices.
  • 3 million -number of total IDPs

A great slideshow of Swat refugees over at Global Post

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