February issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Published 15 years ago

I concluded my search for the killers after meeting the man whose name I cannot mention. I am now clear about the people who turned my paradise into a living hell, the devastators of my beautiful valley. But I will not name them. Everyone knows the killers in my homeland, but naming them is tantamount to putting one’s life on the line.

I was desperately seeking the culprits who had turned my beautiful valley of peace into a battlefield. I cannot forget the picturesque Swat in times of peace. I have seen newly-married couples, from the Punjab and every other region of the world, enjoying their honeymoon in the forests and on the mountains of Kalam, Matiltan and Malam Jabba. I remember groups of students from the universities of Pakistan, camping, dancing and singing on the banks of the River Swat. But pin-drop silence has descended on the valley now — silence that is occasionally broken by the sound of heavy artillery fire and the cries of innocent people that resound in the valley. Singing and dancing is banned. Bombing, slaughtering and shooting, however, prevail.

The political leadership has been on the run for the past one year or so. And Swat’s residents cower with fear of the very well-known ‘unknown masked killers.’ Hundreds of thousands of people have abandoned their homes and taken refuge elsewhere. Thousands of people have watched humans being slaughtered like animals, on CDs openly available in the video shops of Mingora city. The well-known Sangota Public School is now a mound of debris. And the magnificent building of the Excelsior College Swat is no more. Hundreds of schools, constructed after years of effort and with millions of rupees, have been reduced to ashes in the blink of an eye. Around 1,500 people, who were leading a joyous life till a year ago, have been killed brutally. My friend Faizullah Khan is dead. He was one of the handsomest men in the world. Sikandar, Habibullah, Siraj, Bilal — how many more names do I identify on that list of 1,500?

I was looking for their assassins. I wanted to beseech them not to kill us in this brutal manner. I wanted to plead with them to stop stalking us. Please make money through corruption if you must. Kill my children through substandard and fake medicines in hospitals. Please enslave my generations through a class-based education system. Ridicule my religion, civilisation, culture and language. Insult my values. Make my daughters dance before you in the name of gender equality. But for God’s sake, for America and the army’s sake, for the sake of whatever God you believe in, forgive us and stop killing us this way.

I went to the mountains to see the Taliban. I saw them. I met one of the most wanted men in the Taliban ranks. I travelled for many hours. I came across many kinds of people. Along the way, I saw the army’s installations, checkposts, destroyed bridges; disappointed, frightened and frustrated people; the wilderness full of people and the bazaars totally deserted. It was a painful experience. I could never imagine that this would happen to the land of my childhood dreams. The schools had either been destroyed by the Taliban or occupied by the army. Roads were blocked with barriers, and gardens were converted into temporary accessways. Fruits were rotting on the trees. I don’t remember seeing any birds. The people in uniform spoke to me as if they were speaking to an enemy on the battlefield. Their guns were pointed at me. They were shouting at me. I was a suspect in my own country: I was being viewed as a suicide bomber. I was checked and rechecked, but finally I made it to my destination. People who are determined to make it cannot be stopped. Interestingly, there is no one to stop such travellers, despite the huge military installations, the checking and the rechecking.

I reached the most wanted man — finally. I was amazed to see that he was neither in a bunker nor was he armed. He had only three cell phones through which he controlled the entire city. I sat with him for hours in an open field of a bustling village. Someone from an adjacent home sent tea for me, the guest, in keeping with local tradition. Children from the village kept gazing at the guest from Islamabad with great curiosity. I was amazed to see there were no armed men. It was almost as if I was among the people of the village and not among the Taliban. These were the people I was worried about in Islamabad; the killers, the wild people, the agents of RAW, the enemies of the nation and the cause of all evil on the surface of the earth. Were all those statements about them untrue? I continued to investigate.

I asked the man, “Are you planted and moved around by the agencies?”

“We are fighting the agencies,” he replied.

“You do not need to fight if you are truly a Muslim,” I replied. “Sixty-one years are more than enough for a peaceful struggle,” he went on. “But innocent people are being killed in your fight,” I remarked. “Killing is part of the fight and this fight has been imposed on us,” he said. “How are the schools at fault?” “They are being used by the army as bunkers against the Taliban,” he insisted. “What is the connection between the anti-polio vaccine and Islam, and your fight?” “We don’t want the polio drops granted in charity by the enemy.”

“The ordinary man is quaking with fear at the mention of the word Taliban,” I said. “This is the fault of the media,” he said. “The entire world says you are terrorists.” “Yes, for the enemy, but not for friends,” he replied.

“What do you hope to achieve through this bloodshed and killings?” I asked. “We want the implementation of the Shariah that will make every sphere of life transparent,” he countered. “We are fed up with this prolonged violence, bloodshed and fighting. When will it be over?” I asked. “When Shariat is enforced, when the military operation is halted, when the Taliban prisoners are released and when the damage to public property is compensated for by the government,” he replied.

I had many questions but no argument to defend the system we are living in. I cannot support the slaughter of human beings, the ban on education, the bombing of schools, capital punishment for barbers and taking the law into one’s own hands. But, at the same time, I cannot support the military operation and the bombing of people for demanding the enforcement of Islamic law. I have a hundred issues with the Taliban, but I cannot defend the system they are fighting against.

Currently, there is an absolute vacuum on the political, social and governmental level in Swat. This vacuum is being filled by forces active in the field. Politicians are on the run. Intellectuals are silent. Civil society is in a state of suspension. Only the Taliban and the army are in the field. We are not in a position to decide our future. We don’t have a sense of society, nor the courage to move forward and the selflessness to bind together for collective aims. We will continue to suffer. I am sorry for being the harbinger of bad news.

Ehsan Haqqani is an Islamabad-based journalist who hails from Mingora city of district Swat.

Related article: “I may not go to school again”