Driving through the streets of Mingora, the main town in Pakistan's Swat Valley, is, for a journalist, a singularly surreal experience of temporally displaced violence. At every turn, residents will point out a seemingly innocent looking shop, an intersection of streets or a police checkpoint.
"This is where the first attack against a barber shop happened," Minhajuddin, a local journalist who has covered the conflict in his home for years, told me as we drove in on our first night. That was how it had started, he told me: in 2007, the local chapter of the Taliban, led by Maulana Fazlullah, began to patrol the streets of the main urban areas, telling barbers and owners of CD shops to shut their "un-Islamic" businesses.
By the time we had encountered that shop, he had already shown me where the first suicide attack in the district had occurred, the site of the first rocket attack in the valley, and the sites of individual attacks too numerous to recall. The tales of men being hanged for opposing the Taliban, journalists being killed for not covering them in a favourable light, and policemen being killed for attempting to maintain order soon begin to meld together.
In today's Mingora, the memory of these men lives on - in small banners commemorating the places where they were killed, in schools and police stations renamed in their honour, or simply in the hearts of the people who continue living.
The Pakistani army says that it has secured the valley now, after a long and bloody campaign to retake it from Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat (TTP-S) forces that lasted, in fits and starts, from 2008 to 2010. But for all the heavily armed soldiers at numerous checkpoints across the city, and the valley as a whole, attacks such as the one on Malala Yousafzai on the morning of October 9 continue to happen.
Yousafzai, who is still recovering from her near fatal injuries at a UK hospital, is a 15-year-old education rights activist who had become a symbol of young Swati girls' determination to get an education, despite Taliban edicts against "Western" (non-religious) education.
But the attack against Yousafzai was not an anomaly. Those who would publically stand against the Taliban have long been in the group's crosshairs. While in the valley, I spoke with the leaders of several anti-Taliban groups, all tribal elders, who had been personally targeted by the Taliban in a continuing, sustained campaign of targeted killings.
|Tribal elder Muhammed Sher Khan was attacked by the Taliban while offering Eid prayers [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
"Speaking the truth in this valley has become quite difficult - as far as I see it, there is still not peace in this valley […] the Taliban are still present, just less visible, and they make themselves known in attacks against people like Malala, and others," said Muhammad Sher Khan, a local tribal elder from the Peochar area of the valley. He rattled off a list of more than 10 elders who had been targeted in recent years in attacks similar to the one against Malala.
Sher Khan knows a thing or two about being targeted: Peochar was one of the main areas of TTP-S support in the valley. Many of the people of his village, he tells me, joined the Taliban as ‘fidayeen' fighters, with some going on to become suicide bombers. In December 2007, he was attacked by Taliban gunmen while offering Eid prayers in a local mosque. In the ensuing battle, he lost a finger on his left hand, and still bears the scars of the firefight across his abdomen.
For all the army presence and check posts, attacks such as that one continue to happen today.
"Swat's people are tired of check posts […] and I have not yet heard of a single incident where a terrorist was captured or stopped from carrying out an attack at a check post," he said.
That is because Taliban attackers, often coming in from neighbouring Dir district, or Kunar province in Afghanistan, seldom use main roads. It seems an obvious statement, but locals in Swat uniformly complained about how army check posts were all about optics, and not about security at all. The attackers come and go using mountain passes between the districts - the same mountain passes, incidentally, that journalists like Minhaj used to sneak back into the area to report on the army's operation there.
It is also not an accident that the Taliban are targeting tribal elders, many of whom are local feudal landlords and, as such, operate large agricultural estates. When the Taliban first came to power here, locals say, they used a strongly socialist rhetoric to enlist the support of people in poorer villages, telling them that once the old landowners were killed or driven off, their land would be equitably distributed amongst those who had nothing.
But the egalitarian promise was a lie. The result was simply a campaign of violently imposing certain values and a strict interpretation of Islam, while concentrating assets in the hands of the Taliban leadership. For two years, they terrorised the people of the valley - many of whom still feel that Sharia has a place in the local legal system, but outright reject the model introduced by the Taliban.
Those two years have left an indelible mark, it seems, on the people of Swat.
On a long drive back from a village in the upper areas of the valley one evening, as the sun set over the mountains, spilling the last of its rays across their jagged faces, I remember remarking to Minhaj about the stunning beauty of his home.
He nodded, but said nothing.
And then, after a time, he turned to me: "I know. But I cannot see the beauty in this place any more. I have ... simply seen too much happen here."