Three hours’ drive north of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, the flat highway gives way to the windy roads that weave through the Hindu Kush mountains. At the mouth of the Swat valley lies the town of Qambar. A desolate unmanned police station is the only sign that the government’s writ was once established here.
Further down the road, a middle school for girls is reduced to rubble. There, I meet two nine-year-olds, Ruksar and Zarlash, who want to tell me what happened.
‘It’s completely unfair, our school was destroyed,’ says Zarlash, who believes that she may never fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor.
Both girls lie awake at night listening to mortars fly overhead. Since the Taliban started patrolling their neighborhood, the girls have been forbidden by their parents from going out. They feel trapped.
‘The Taliban walk around with their faces covered. They terrorise the neighborhoods and force us to wear burqas. We are so afraid,’ says Ruksar.
Their father Fazal, an English teacher, is worried about their future. ‘All of the girls in the region are having great injustices done to them. They had big dreams, their education was a beacon of light, now that light is being snatched from them.’
Fazal’s savings are running out because the college he taught at has been closed for months. ‘You’ll find thousands of children in this region who cannot continue their education and will continue to sit at home, unaware of what’s happening in the world around them,’ he tells me.
The valley of Swat in the north of Pakistan was once home to the country’s only ski resort. When the Taliban arrived in 2007, they destroyed it. It was seen as a sign of Pakistan’s ‘western’ past; a place where men and women interacted with each other. That was the first step of their brutal campaign.
Swat, once considered the Switzerland of the East, where Pakistanis spent idyllic summers and winters, is being slowly and systematically destroyed.
In the past two years, the Taliban have blown up over 200 girls’ schools, beheaded 50 government officials, bombed countless police checkpoints, executed women they deemed immoral, publicly lashed those who disobeyed them and cut up the bodies of people they thought were spies, leaving them in the centre of the valley for the residents to see.
By some estimates, the Taliban control more than 70 per cent of the valley. When the Pakistani army began its campaign against the militants in the lawless tribal areas near the Afghan border, many of the militants fled to other areas within the country. Some arrived in Swat and were given refuge by extremist preachers who encouraged the militants to implement their fundamentalist ideology.
Now by some estimates there are as many as 4000 well armed Taliban fighters operating in the valley. What is most frightening about this development is that Swat is not part of Pakistan’s tribal areas, long considered out of the grasp of the government; it is very much part of Pakistan proper.
Four Pakistani army brigades, up to 16,000 soldiers, are deployed in this 200 mile long valley. They are not enough to stop the Taliban. Over 1500 people have been killed here and almost 400,000 have fled their homes in the last 18 months. The army is fighting an enemy that blends in with the locals during the day and attacks at night.
Three weeks after I left, the Pakistani government signed a peace deal with the Taliban. Shariah law now prevails over the valley. Women are forbidden from working, girls colleges are still closed and – more importantly – the Taliban now have a new safe haven from where they can strike into the heart of Pakistan.