February issue 2009
Voices from Swat
“I have been out of work since last September and have not received my salary since November,” says 28-year-old Sabiha Khan*, a teacher in Swat. Sabiha is just one of the many women in the Frontier who have been forced to leave work after the Taliban took over. Women belonging to other professions have suffered the same fate.
They carry with them their letter of resignation, an acceptance letter from their previous organisation, as well as copies of announcements in the local newspaper which state that they have resigned of their own free will from their workplace, and will stay home as prescribed by Islam.
Unmarried and the only breadwinner of the family after her father’s death, Sabiha fears that her two younger sisters will have to discontinue their studies, not just because of the recent ban on girls’ education by the local Taliban, but because they have no means to pay for their tuitions. Prospects of her teenage brother resuming school after the winter vacations, too, seem bleak.
According to Ziauddin Yusufzai, chairman of the Private Schools’ Association (PSA) of Swat, 1,000 female teachers from the private sector and 2,500 from the public sector have been put out of work as a result of the ban. Although sympathetic towards women like Sabiha who are supporting their families, he questions, “How can we pay the teachers their salaries when there are no students to pay the fees?”
And as peace eludes Swat, a sense of alienation increases among the locals. “Everybody in Pakistan knows what is happening to us but nobody seems to care or come to our aid,” says Sadia Jan*, an 18-year-old student, unsure of whether she will be allowed to sit for her intermediate board examinations in April this year. And the problem doesn’t end there. “Even if we are allowed to sit for the board examinations, I do not know how I will score enough to be able to sit for the college admissions test as our course remains incomplete,” she adds.
The Taliban takeover is proving to be an embarrassment for the present PPP-led government. Neither the government nor the military has succeeded in ending the insurgency, which is fast enveloping the adjoining areas.
For its part, the government doles out daily doses of hollow promises and cantankerous statements. The rhetoric that “Pakistan will not be allowed to become a Taliban state” and that “the situation in Swat will improve in two weeks” doesn’t seem to convince anyone, especially the local Swatis, who only believe what they hear on Maulana Fazlullah’s FM radio. They listen to him every evening without fail, to know where they stand.
The sound of bomb blasts, mortar shelling and dead bodies displayed at crossings, to set an example for others to not defy the Taliban, has drummed fear in the people of Swat.
“Who can forget the kind of end Pir Samiullah met at the hands of the Taliban?” asks Zaman Khan, a local businessman. “He openly opposed them and his tribe supported the government. But after he was killed and buried, the militants dug up his body and hung it in full public view. Nobody, not even the security forces dared to remove it,” he recalls.
On January 25, the Swat Taliban announced a list of 43 ‘wanted’ people, including enemies of the Taliban — among them legislators and nazims, members of political parties, some local influentials and leaders — who Maulana Fazlullah announced, would be arrested or killed.
Such acts have instilled fear in the people and nobody wants to speak against the Taliban. And those who do, request anonymity. Trauma has permeated every aspect of the lives of the residents of Swat.
Once happy-go-lucky, Sabiha now spends most of her time in tears, her placid nature replaced by irritability. With her savings running out fast and burdened with the fear of being unable to make ends meet in the near future, she is considering moving to Islamabad or Peshawar for employment.
“The only problem,” says Sabiha, “is that the male members of my family, including my brother-in-law, who has supported us a lot, are dead set against the idea of my moving out of Swat to look for work.”
According to Muslim Khan, spokesperson for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), such women need not worry: “We are formulating a plan to take care of the widows, the orphans and those women who are the sole breadwinners of their families.”
He added that the lady health workers were never asked to discontinue their work, provided that they offered health services in their own villages and if they were “properly clad in keeping with the Shariah.” Female doctors, too, could continue working, given that they provided their services only to women. However, in the case of an emergency, he remarked: “Until the Taliban do not build separate hospitals, female nurses and doctors will be allowed to attend to males.”
Yet, this does not act as an assurance and a growing number of residents are thinking of leaving the valley. “If my daughters cannot go to school,” says Zaman, “there is no reason for me to continue living here.” However, the thought of moving has already brought on many sleepless nights.
And while the ban pertains only to female education, Ismail, principal of Excelsior School — a private school which was bombed four months ago — is still nervous about re-opening the school. As a precaution, Ismail has taken permission to re-open the Excelsior School for boys in Mingora on new premises, which he plans to do on February 1.
Despite assurances from the government that the schools and the students will be provided security when they open after the winter vacations, Yusufzai says: “We will not open schools till we hear an announcement on Maulana Fazlullah’s FM radio that we can do so. I know that even the parents will not send their girls without consent from the TTP.”
The PSA has stated that they will open schools only if there is “complete peace in Swat and not just in parts” of it. The lack of trust in the security forces can be gauged from the fact that schools have been a regular target of the Taliban. “Under such circumstances, how can we muster the confidence in them to provide us with protection?” asks Yusufzai.
The people’s discontent with the government and their insecurity, despite the presence of security forces, is clear. “The army just looks on as the militants go about their business, destroying the infrastructure,” says a local. “A lot of the civilians have died because of such attacks by militants. As for the police, they cannot tackle this insurgency. A large number have either gone on leave or have resigned from duty, fearing for their lives. As for the civilian government, there is a complete vacuum on that front.”
However, Zaman reminds us that under the rule of the Khans and the Maliks, things weren’t much different. “It’s all about who has control. People say the Taliban are cruel, but the fact is that earlier when the Khans and the Maliks were in power, they brooked no defiance. It is the common man who has suffered under both. All the rich and the powerful have already left, so have the politicians. Even among the army, only the poor soldiers are killed, never a colonel or a major. We have to bear the brunt of the anger of the army, as well as the Taliban, and it’s our daughters who are missing out on education. The Maliks and the Khans are still sending their daughters to school, either in other parts of the country, or abroad,” he laments.
But there are some who are hopeful. Sher Khan, chairman of the Swat Aman (peace) Committee, despite having lost 10 very close friends, has not given up hope that things will change for the better. “While the militants may have killed around 120 innocent people this year, the death toll of militants killed by the army is close to 1,400.”
“I’m not in favour of the imposition of the Taliban-style Shariah,” he says, “but we must acknowledge the reality that there are parallel states running Swat. In a large part of Swat, the Taliban have already enforced their version of the Shariah. And I know the local people are happy with their form of Qazi courts where speedy justice is provided.” Sher Khan feels that the Shariah should be enforced on a “trial basis,” as that is what the people of Malakand have been demanding for years.
Similar sentiments are expressed by Dr Usman Ali, secretary of the Swat Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education. “For the sake of peace and to stop the insane from killing innocent people, the government should impose Shariah. They should also negotiate with the Taliban and maybe the problem can be resolved.”
The urgent need to restart a dialogue with the Taliban was also a concern expressed by Rahimdad Khan, a PPP parliamentarian. Perhaps, as felt by some of the locals, the handling of the issue now needs a change in direction, as not all battles can be fought with guns, especially not one for peace.