Swat Valley’s continuing agony

Unlike Malala Yousafzai, many other innocent victims of Pakistani Taliban violence are suffering out of sight.

It was 2009 and the Swat Valley was on fire. My team and I were able to drive to the area but not without an armed escort.

The threat of an all-out war was imminent and military helicopters were flying low over the rooftops of Mingora city, ready to take on the Taliban who were now in virtual control.

The people of Mingora were confined mostly to their homes and ventured out only to replenish dwindling supplies of everyday essentials.

Those who could get out in time had already packed their bags and left their homes.

As the night thickened the valley plunged into darkness.

The calm of the night was broken by the rattle of sporadic gunfire or the sounds of explosives as the local Taliban rigged school buildings with powerful explosives and blew them.

The authority of the state had collapsed, the army was under siege and the people of Swat were held hostage by the Swat Taliban.

Mullah Radio’s reign

Ironically, not long ago, Swat had welcomed the Taliban in the hope that they would dispense the justice that the Pakistan government had failed to deliver for decades.

The man in charge of this valley was Mullah Fazlullah, nicknamed Mullah Radio because he read out his fatwas, or religious edicts, on the FM airwaves asking people to adhere to a strict code that discouraged secular Western-style education and forbade little girls to go to school.

Fazlullah warned musicians and barbers to close shop and his men killed their opponents who were dumped near the Green Square that soon earned the nickname Butcher’s Square.

For the well educated and ordinary citizens of this valley, it was a direct threat to their way of life. How could anyone even think of denying their daughters the right to education?

However, no one was going to take the risk of sending their daughters to school because they knew the consequences of open defiance was a death sentence.

Some dared to speak out though, including Malala Yousafzai, then aged only 11.

She saw her school shut down because of the threats from the Swat Taliban. For her it became a cause worth fighting for and her cause soon caught the attention of the global media.

Reversal of fortune

As the Pakistani military sent in fresh troops to break the siege of Swat, two million inhabitants of the valley were forced to flee their towns and villages to seek refuge with friends and relatives and in camps set up for them in the plains under a blistering hot summer sun.

The people were traumatised and did not trust the Taliban or their own military as the fighting escalated – and it became difficult to distinguish friend from foe.

Within months the valley was under the control of the army and the population was allowed to come back to a battered Swat that bore the scars of recent fighting.

The retreating Taliban had blown away key bridges to delay or slow down the army’s advance.

They crossed into Dir and then into Afghanistan’s Kunar province, taking advantage of the heavily forested areas to stay out of sight.

Even though the military was now in control, Fazlullah’s assasins still lurked in the streets of Mingora, looking for a chance to get their target. According to some reports, Fazlullah himself gave the orders for Malala’s death.

It therefore did not come as a surprise when 14-year-old Malala, who had survived the conflict, was last week shot in the head on her way home. It appears her assassin knew her routine and had carefully planned the attack.

Beacon of hope

Malala had after all become a beacon of hope for many other young, intelligent girls aspiring to be doctors, engineers and teachers. Her bold ideas even raised eyebrows in some circles where politics was the domain of the rich oligarchs.

It even raised questions about the ambition of a young girl who did not belong to any known political dynasty.

Malala was rushed in critical condition by a military helicopter to Peshawar, the provincial capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There the doctors decided to carry out a delicate operation, taking out the 9mm bullet from her skull which had caused so many problems.

With the bullet out the doctors hoped to stabilise her so that she could be airlifted, for the second time, to a state-of-the art military hospital in Rawalpindi.

But her condition has not been improving and on Monday she was flown to the UK for specialist treatment courtesy of the United Arab Emirates’ royal family.

In a country where people are being killed on a daily basis, Malala is lucky to have got so much help. But there are other innocent victims many of whom will never be seen or heard again.