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Battle for a Taliban Town of Terror


By Ali Rizvi

Originally posted at theCurrent Affairs.com

Initially welcomed, the mullahs controlled Mingora with burnings and beheadings. Now the Pakistani army is attempting to expel them. In a darkened room in Peshawar, far from prying eyes, a medical student from the Swat valley opens his laptop and begins a slideshow of terror. Over the past three years, the 22-year-old has secretly catalogued the horrors of life in Swat under the Taliban. The burning down of schools, bodies hanging upside down, public lashings and decapitated heads with dollars stuffed in their nostrils and notes reading, “This is what happens to spies,” were all captured on his mobile phone at great personal risk.

“I’m training to be a doctor; our mission is to prolong life and in front of me are these people who care nothing for human life,” he explained as, with each click of the mouse, he revealed more bodies in pools of blood. All the images were too gruesome to publish.

It was the first detailed account from inside Mingora, the capital of Swat, where fierce fighting went on last night as Pakistani troops tried to drive out Taliban forces.
Army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas warned that the operation could be “painfully slow”, because between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians are trapped there. The army’s four-week Swat offensive has already sent 1.7m refugees flooding down to the plains.

The student has been e-mailing The Sunday Times for more than a year, his messages becoming ever more despairing until eventually he left Swat two weeks ago when the electricity and water were cut off. “The health situation is very bad. There are only three doctors in the main district hospital,” he wrote. “I am also in severely depressed state. Keep praying.”

Using his grisly photographic archive, he described how the Taliban leaders Sufi Muhammad and his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah won public support with the complicity of the authorities before spreading their reign of terror.

Fazlullah at first gained fame in Swat through his FM radio station, which earned him the nickname “Radio Mullah”. His emotional broadcasts calling for an Islamic justice system and railing against corruption were so popular that locals came forward to donate money, jewellery and watches. They also presented cement, iron and wood for building his headquarters on the banks of the Swat river.

“Every night they would broadcast, ‘This person gave x, that person gave y and they are good Muslims.’ Those who did not help were told they would go to hell.”

So organised was the group that it even had its own china, imprinted with the movement’s black and white flag. Banners were hung on markets warning that women were not allowed to shop.

The student’s account was corroborated by Ziauddin Yusufzai, who ran two schools in Swat and was spokesman for the private school association until he fled the bombing three weeks ago.

“Once, my wife went shopping in a market popular with women and a man with long hair and a gun came and terrorised them and shouted, ‘Haven’t we warned you women not to come to shops? Next time we’ll kill you’.”

He, too, admits that Fazlullah won popularity early on. “Fazlullah used his radio to spread venomous propaganda,” he said. “He was winning the support of many people. The whole town would go to Friday prayers and he would arrive on a horse, his long hair flowing, as if he were the prophet.”

Fazlullah’s call for the restoration of Islamic law was broadly supported. The Taliban were also seen by many as a class movement — occupying the homes of wealthy residents. Yusufzai estimates that by the end of 2007 the Taliban controlled 30% of Swat.

Two army operations intended to remove the Taliban merely tightened their grip. “The army would tell people to leave their villages, but instead of clearing them of militants it seemed they were cleared for militants,” said Yusufzai.

In two years the Taliban burnt down more than 200 of Swat’s 1,500 schools. Residents were told that if they were good Muslims they would stop their daughters going to school.

“Every evening he broadcast the names on the radio of girls who had stopped going to school — it would be, ‘Congratulations to Miss Kulsoom or Miss Shahnaz, who has quit school.’ Then he warned others if they continued with their education they would go to hell.”

Yusufzai said that some brave girls continued to attend his school, even in defiance of their parents. He scrapped the uniform to make it easier and let them leave their book bags at school.

In December, Fazlullah announced a deadline of January 15 for all girls to stop attending school. Yusufzai hoped that they would be able to reopen when the government signed a peace deal in February, agreeing to the Taliban demand for a system of Islamic courts. However, instead of laying down their arms, as they had promised, the Taliban moved into the neighbouring area of Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad, prompting American alarm that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could fall into Taliban hands.

It was the combination of international pressure and the militants’ proximity to the capital that finally persuaded the army to act.

“They’re not going to salute a Mullah Omar, no way,” explained President Asif Ali Zardari in an interview with The Sunday Times. “It was fine when the militants were just tools but now the tools have come to threaten the masters. It’s a different fight.”

Rehman Malik, the interior minister, agreed: “We had a choice: either we hand over the country to the Taliban or we fight, and we have decided to fight. We will not stop now until we have cleared them all.”

The military offensive resulted in what Martin Mogwanja, the acting United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator, called “the most dramatic displacement in the world”. According to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, more than 1.7m have been made homeless in just three weeks. On Friday the UN appealed for £340m, while officials urgently tried to find new sites for camps.

On the tree-lined Charsadda road heading out of the northwestern Pakistani town of Mardan, police barriers now guard the walled entrances to one refugee camp after another, all of them full. On the right, families huddle under the trees, waiting for transportation to new camps, clutching the few belongings they managed to gather as they fled.

At the entrance to Shaikh Shehzad camp, Sher Mohammed stood with four women in tattered brown burqas, his mother, sisters and wife, and their 10 children. “We’ve been moving from camp to camp for three days, trying to find a place,” he said.

When the army’s offensive began, the family stayed in Mingora. “We didn’t want to lose our homes,” explained Mohammed. “The Taliban were on the top of the hills and the army advanced from below. There was also bombing from the skies. The children were terrified, crying day and night.”

A mortar landed on a neighbour’s home and killed 25 people, including children. “We could see bodies in the road but the army wouldn’t allow us out to collect them.” As soon as the curfew was relaxed last weekend, they left, crossing the mountains by foot. “We left everything; we’ve only got our lives,” he said. “We’ve been turned into beggars.”

Sher Mohammed’s family was moved 10 miles down the road to Palosa camp, which opened 12 days ago. It was already full. “All we want is a tent,” he begged.

Inside the tents, life is little better. For the mountain people of Swat the 45C heat on the plains is insufferable.

Many are angry with the army for using heavy-handed tactics. In one tent two brothers showed me a fragment of an artillery shell that wounded one of their children. Daulat and Sarbaz Khan were sitting outside their chemist shop in the village of Charbagh, a Taliban stronghold, when a shell was fired and destroyed the shop. As they ran another shell almost hit them.

“We’re simple villagers; we don’t know the plans of the government but in my view there must be a lot of other ways to eliminate Taliban than jet fighters and artillery shells,” said Daulat Khan. “Whole villages are being destroyed to find one Taliban.”

They are among many of the refugees who admit they had originally supported the Taliban and had gone to Fazlullah’s public meetings. “At the beginning people liked him,” said Daulat. “He said, ‘Support me and I’ll give you justice on your doorstep’, and we liked him for that.”

He claims people’s views changed as public floggings and beheadings grew more common. “We saw there was no limit to their cruelty — they were slaughtering people in the name of Islam.”

As we were speaking, there was the sound of a helicopter. Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmad, the army’s emergency co-ordinator, had just touched down from Buner, which he said was 80% clear.

“Swat is getting better by the day,” he said, though he admitted: “Mingora will be a tough nut to crack. It’s not just about getting it under control but also clearing all the mines they have laid.”

About 15,000 members of the security forces are fighting between 4,000 and 5,000 militants in Swat. The army says more than 1,000 militants and 50 soldiers have been killed, though the lack of media access to the area means it is impossible to verify those figures.

What does seem clear is that the army is finding the mission harder than expected. Journalists were initially told the operation would take 10-15 days. Another officer admitted the fighting had been tough. “Where are the Taliban getting all these sophisticated arms?” he wondered.

According to the interior minister, Fazlullah’s forces have been receiving help from Al-Qaeda. Malik said that among those captured in Swat were four Saudis, a Libyan and an Afghan, all currently under interrogation.

Officers briefed government officials that their forces had almost encircled Mingora. There were reports of street fighting last night.

“The battle for Mingora has started,” said Afrasiab Khattak, president of the Awami party, which controls the provincial government. “We hope Mingora will be cleared by June 1 and the whole of Swat in the next four to six weeks.”

Pakistani authorities, however, fear more bomb attacks like Friday’s blast in Peshawar. They are apparently being planned by Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban, who was blamed for the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. His aim is to deter the army from launching an offensive against his forces in Waziristan in the same way that they have been doing in Swat.

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