MINGORA: A year after Pakistan launched a major operation to evict the Taliban from Swat Valley, markets are bustling and girls are back at school, but the root causes of the conflict still fester.
For two years the Taliban paralysed much of the valley by promoting a repressive brand of Islamic law, opposing secular girls’ education and beheading opponents until the government ordered in thousands of troops.
At only 125 kilometres (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, its mountains were once a weekend getaway and ski resort.
As the offensive began, around two million people fled the district but a year later many are back, trying to rebuild their lives.
“Normalcy has returned… All segments of society are open and functioning,” said Qazi Jamil, the new chief of 15,000 police serving three million people in the wider Malakand region, which includes Swat.
Girls in white headscarves walk to school, laden with books. Markets are cluttered with chickens, oranges and vegetables. Shutters are painted with the green and white Pakistani flag to signal opposition to the Taliban.
But threats and tensions remain. On February 22, the same day Jamil arrived to take up his new job, a suicide bomber killed nine people.
“The element of threat is still there unfortunately,” said Jamil.
“There are so many different small groups, alleys and streets it’s extremely difficult to plug each and every loop. They are trying to sneak in.”
Keen to address the causes of the insurgency, the civil administration wants international donors to accelerate reconstruction and rehabilitation, and for police to take over from the army as quickly as possible.
“There is a need for a new social contract between the haves and the have-nots. There is a new friction on the rise,” said Naseem Akhtar, a senior official in the civil administration.
Without adequate services and reconstruction, the roots of what he calls the Taliban’s “class war” – a product of Pakistan’s feudal system, the huge disparity in wealth between the landowners and peasants – will continue to grow.
“We have a Herculean task of reconstruction and rehabilitation,” said Akhtar.
Police need to be recruited and trained. Jobs need to be created.
Conditions need to be made conducive to business. Out of 1,576 schools in Swat, the United Nations says 175 were destroyed and 226 damaged.
“Right now the donors’ response is poor. The international community should concentrate on providing funds,” Akhtar told AFP.
Under army supervision, schools are being repaired but none of those razed has been rebuilt, officials said.
Akhtar’s former school, Government High School 1, is a lunar scape of rubble bulldozed by the army with 10 tent classrooms offering boys an education that would enable them to work as clerks and businessmen.
Caretaker Saif-ur-Rehman says he no longer sleeps on the premises at night, despite his faith in the army, because he is too frightened after the night the militants came, blowing up the building and pointing a gun at his head.
“There are still some rumours that the Taliban might come and again capture the entire area,” he said.
Robert Wilson, USAID director in Pakistan, said the agency had set aside 36 million dollars for Swat, including 25 million to rebuild around 50 schools but conceded that not a single school had yet been fully rebuilt.
The perception that the displaced had already returned, plus earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, means less donor money is available, said Caitlin Brady, chairwoman of the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, a group of 35 leading international aid organisations.
“There are still 1.3 million people displaced (in the northwest) and people who have gone home still need assistance. We’re concerned that Pakistan is becoming a forgotten crisis,” said Brady.
The Central Hospital Saidu Sharif lacks equipment, specialised surgical staff, beds, updated X-ray and CT scanners, ventilators and a defibrillator.
“I was expecting so much, but so far it (the response) has not been very encouraging and there has not been much contribution as far as this hospital is concerned,” said Dr Lal Noor Afridi.
A few victims of the February attack are still on the surgical ward, like rickshaw driver Obeidullah who unwittingly drove himself and three passengers into the path of the suicide bomber, and is now looking for a new life.
“It was a warning to leave the rickshaw thing. I want no more risk,” said the 35-year-old, bandages layered over his chest. – AFP