Stories from Swat
Stories from Swat
The storytelling skills of the locals and the times they
portray gives tourists yet another reason to visit the
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
As I sit upright in the front seat of the jeep and enjoy the sight of the crystal clear Swat River near Fizaghat in Mingora, my attention is caught by a demolished structure on the roadside. Not fully razed to the ground, it stands there half erect with its roof caved in. I can also see warped steel rods protruding from the debris.
What possibly could have caused this destruction? I wonder. Before I could ask the driver, he speaks up. “This was a restaurant owned by a person called Haji Sahib Kabari. He once hosted and feasted the Taliban here. The security forces came to know about it. They raided the place and demolished it. The whereabouts of Haji Sahib are not known to date,” he adds.
What’s mentioned above is just one of the recollections of Swat’s locals that they share with the visitors. There are countless stories about events leading to the rise of militancy in the area, the locals’ response to the upheaval and the sacrifices they made and the process leading to the restoration of peace in the valley.
And the remnants of the tumultuous era — the debris of the demolished restaurant, for example, add value and credibility to their narratives. There is a perception among many that the destruction has been left there intentionally — as a warning message to militants and their supporters.
During my four-day stay in the valley, one thing was obvious: the locals have mastered the art of storytelling. They recreated the past dramatically; in fact, they terrified me — are these men posing as peaceful locals? I could feel shivers down my spine.
Since the end of the operation in Swat, the site of Maulana Fazlullah’s madrassa, ‘Imam Dheri’, has become a favourite tourist destination. Situated on the riverside, opposite the fish mongers’ huts in Fizaghat, the madrassa accused of promoting militancy and its brand of Islam was demolished by the armed forces during the operation. One can see the structure from a distance… while nibbling crispy Swati fish at these huts — or, if you dare, crossing the gushing river via a pulley-driven doli, operated by young boys, for a closer look.
Local Swatis disassociate themselves from the extremist forces. They seem as clueless about how these militants intruded their space as a person sitting anywhere else in the country and beyond. They strike a chord with you the moment they seek your sympathy. They question why they are left to suffer for the sins of others and not helped to stand back on their feet.
How can I help you? I asked. Simply by showing the real picture of Swat to people outside Swat, was the common plea. “Report a gunshot only if you hear one. You must report accurately. Generally, media persons go back to their cities and draw a very negative picture of law and order here,” says Niaz Ali, a social worker in Madyan, whose contention is that perceptions of fear among local tourists are out of place.
He agrees it’s unrealistic to expect foreign tourists in Swat. In fact, he says, all of Pakistan is out of bounds for them. But he fails to understand why local tourists should stay away from Swat — “It’s strange. Trains, buses and flights to Karachi — which is bathing in blood — go full but the number of tourists heading to the peaceful Swat is far less than desired.”
He says they had braved the longest curfew in the history of the country, spanning 111 days, and fed themselves and their families on potatoes alone — but not left the area.
The tales of courage and resilience of Swat’s locals are many. The way they are struggling to rebuild their lives after the military operation and devastating floods is undoubtedly heart rendering. Take the case of Falak Naz Khatoon, a granddaughter of Wali-e-Swat: Her husband was killed in a targeted bomb blast in the valley and her house in Saidu Sharif remained in the line of fire for long. With Pakistan Army troop stationed on a post on one side of her house and militants on the other, her family would wake up every day to find their lawn full of shrapnels. All night long they would hear the deafening noise of gunfire and could sleep only during the intervals.
I was anxious to know why did she not leave the place for good and decided to stay where her roots were. Rather, she took up the task of renovating her family-owned White Palace Hotel hoping things would improve in days to follow.
Built in 1941, by the first King of Swat Valley, it was his residential palace, which was converted into a hotel later on. Today, she works hand-in-hand with the USAID team working on a multi-million project to revive the hotel industry of Swat.
The sights and tales of emerald mines that remained in the custody of Taliban, the destroyed Malam Jabba ski resort and the PTDC motels there, the barber shops, video centres and TV shops that faced the wrath of Taliban, interest the tourists a lot — all for the excellent storytelling skills of the locals and the era they portray. It adds a new dimension to the pristine valley; yet another reason for tourists to venture here. Swatis deserve a chance after what they have been through in the recent past.
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