Our Beacon Forum

Swat valley: life under sharia
Date: Saturday, 14 March 2009, 2:38 pm

Swat valley: life under sharia

The arrival of Taliban militants in Pakistan's Swat valley has sparked a rapid decline in civil rights. Schools have been destroyed, entertainment banned and opponents of the regime beheaded. Thousands have fled and are living in temporary camps in safer areas of the country. Mohammad Ashfaq Yusufazai, 40, a journalist who has been covering the area despite the many threats to his safety, describes the effects of religious extremism on the ordinary people who live there

Lead article photo

Pakistani Christians pray for civilians in Swat. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

The Swat valley was once a flourishing tourist paradise; people from all over the country came to see its mountains and crystal streams. The local people are mostly non-tribal and governed by a peaceful provincial government. It was a calm place, but that was before the Taliban established itself here in August 2007.

Driven out of Afghanistan by the US and allied forces, Taliban foot soldiers sneaked into Pakistan. Pakistan shares a 2,400km-long border with Afghanistan so it was easy for them to seek refuge here.

I am based in Peshawar, but as a reporter I often have to travel to the Swat valley to cover stories on the Taliban's steadily increasing grip.

I also go to Afghanistan, where I once had a personal encounter with the Taliban. I was in a taxi in Kabul when the car was stopped by a group of men. They said they worked for the "prevention of vices and promotion of virtues". They wanted to know why we were driving during prayer time. The driver was dragged out of the car and brutally beaten, while I looked on helplessly. Eventually I managed to explain to a senior officer that we weren't praying because we were in a hurry to get to the football stadium to cover the executions and amputations that were taking place there. Strangely, he apologised for the folly of the junior policemen and let us go.

To my amazement, afterwards the driver seemed happy. He smiled and said, "I'm lucky. Had you not been with me they would have broken my hands or my ribs and thrown me in jail."

Now the Taliban are calling the shots in the Swat valley, too, as well as gaining ground in Peshawar. I'm aware of the risks to my safety when I travel there, and there are times when I keep my trip a secret from my family just to avoid unnecessary tension at home. I must confess that whenever I set out to the valley I'm not sure if I'll return alive, and have heard from other reporters in Swat that they feel the same.

The killing of the reporter Musa Khan Khel on 18 February has made us feel more vulnerable and miserable. Last year about nine journalists were killed in the conflict area – four of them in Swat. The killers are all still free, and they're untraceable.

It's not just the Taliban I feel harassed by but also the Pakistan military. If I write about the civilian casualties of an army operation against Taliban militants, for instance, the army officers get angry with me. I am often caught between them and the militants. As a journalist I have to be impartial, but the army and Taliban both expect me to follow their respective lines. I'm always offending one or other of them, but I can’t help it.

I once had a very close brush with death. One Sunday morning I was interviewing a local Taliban leader, when in the middle of the interview three armed militants entered the room. One of them whispered something in the leader's ear and I saw him become enraged. He turned back to me and accused me of writing critically about the Taliban. He said I was a supporter of the US and an impediment to the advance of Islam. Suddenly all of them were pointing assault rifles at me.

It turned out they were angry about a report in a local newspaper portraying the Taliban as having kidnapped people and demanded ransom money. Somehow I managed to convince the leader that it was nothing to do with me. I believe my fast-talking saved my life.

Working under threat has become an everyday part of my life. I have to do it to support my family back home. But it's the civilians in the Swat valley who are living every day with the consequences of Taliban occupation.

By imposing sharia law in Swat the Taliban are doing the same as they did to the people of Afghanistan. They are against education so they destroy schools, they even close shops selling music and films.

The Swat valley used to have a reputation for producing talented artists and dancers. But last December a female dancer called Shabana, who had defied Taliban laws to continue performing at weddings and public events, was killed. Her body was found in a town square, littered with broken CDs, money and pictures from her albums. A member of the Taliban admitted to the killing on the radio – apparently it was done as a warning to others not to defy their ban on un-Islamic vices.

Men are now afraid to shave and most of the hairdressing salons in town are closed. Women keep covered up by their burqas. Everyone is afraid of the cruel punishments, such as beheading or limb amputation.

Most of the people in Swat are now leaving the valley. There are about 400,000 displaced Swat residents living in camps established by the UN and central Pakistan government. They live in miserable conditions with up to 12 people crammed into a tiny tent and no water or toilets. These are the same people who before the arrival of the Taliban were living in comfortable conditions and enjoying life. It is a real tragedy.

The recent agreement between the Taliban and the government that allows sharia law to come into force in the valley is more bad news for the peaceful people of Swat. They know it can only make the repression worse. But they face a dilemma. On one hand they don’t want Taliban rule, but on the other they're not happy with the number of innocent lives being lost to US air strikes and other operations by the Pakistan army. But with Taliban influence spreading to other parts of Pakistan, the future is looking bleak for all of us