In the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, on the bank of the river that courses through the Swat Valley, boys play soccer in a dusty field. When the Pakistani Taliban occupied this valley a decade ago, loyalists trudged to the same riverbank with their own television sets, setting them ablaze in a fiery rejection of Western culture.
But the Taliban embraced other broadcast technology, when it was useful. Yards away, tucked into the low-slung village of Imam Dherai, lies the rubble of a pirate radio station where a preacher, Fazal Hayat, known as Maulana Fazlullah, broadcast his vision of an Islamic utopia in the Swat Valley. Residents nicknamed the charismatic preacher “Mullah Radio.” And that is how militants began inching across the Swat Valley in 2004: over the airwaves.
Women donated jewelry to Mullah Radio, who used the donations to help fund a network of religious hardliners. Men offered labor and money to build a seminary and a mosque.
Fazlullah promised Islamic law in Swat; residents — chafing under what they said was a sluggish, corrupt and inept state system — said they were enamored by his promises of swift justice. Young men joined him.
Fearing his messianic influence on their elderly mother, one family sabotaged their radio. “Mother kept asking me to repair it,” Iqbal Isakhel, a lawyer who opposed the militants, said with a laugh. “I didn’t.”
In 2007, Fazlullah led militants in an uprising to avenge a high-profile military operation against a radical mosque in Islamabad. The militants captured key towns in Swat and killed local leaders. Government officials went into hiding.
The militants used the radio station to announce who would be arrested or killed for infractions like adultery and homosexuality that violated their harsh rule. Men and women were whipped in the main square of the valley’s largest town, and sometimes the Taliban left bodies hanging off a street light, pinned with notes detailing the peoples’ alleged crimes. Girls’ schools were targeted in attacks.
The Taliban, based in Imam Dherai, took control of the entire Swat Valley and held power until the Pakistani military retook the area in 2009. But nearly a decade later, the soldiers remain. Military checkpoints dot the roads. Residents say soldiers occupy government buildings in their towns and villages. And they say the military has overstayed its welcome.
“A black chapter”
When a Pakistani airstrike crushed the radio station in 2009, many residents said they cheered. Fazlullah escaped, and now leads the Pakistani Taliban, who remain violently opposed to the Pakistani state.
“It’s a black chapter of our history,” Waris, a 22-year-old Swat Valley resident, said with a sigh. “We prefer to forget it.” He requested NPR only use his first name because he still fears the Taliban.
Still, he pointed out, “There is also our Malala Yousafzai.”
Pakistan’s Nobel Peace laureate, who recently returned to Swat for the first time since she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012, was born and raised here. As a child, she defied the Taliban by calling for girls’ education.
Fawad, a 28-year-old activist, said the army routinely points to Swat as a success story. He preferred not to use his full name, to avoid possible repercussions from the military.
“As they are saying, we have established peace in Swat,” Fawad said. “We want them to give full authority to civilian government — to police and local government.”
But security problems remain. On Feb. 3, a suicide bomber with the Pakistani Taliban — the same branch that once ruled Swat — attacked soldiers, killing 11.
And so, says Shahid Latif, a retired air vice marshal, the military must remain as well. He said it is unlikely that the army will ever leave Swat, because police aren’t trained properly to deal with the region’s security complexities.
“Perhaps some kind of presence of the army, in my opinion, is going to stay there permanently,” he said.
Pakistan’s army spokesperson declined NPR’s repeated requests for interviews.
The “paradise of Pakistan”
Across the river from Imam Dherai is the blaring, blinking Swat Wonderland Amusement Park. It opened two summers ago. It is best reached by crossing the Swat River in a dinky, two-seat chairlift. It is manned by soldiers: they took it over because it was symbolically tied to the Taliban’s rule of Swat. Before he was Mullah Radio, Fazlullah was the chairlift operator.
At the park, young women shrieked as they swung wildly on a carousel. They pressed their veils to their faces, worried they’d fly away.
Iqbal Asad, 26, a dental assistant, brought his two-year-old nephew Sahil Khan for a fun day. This, he said, gesturing to rides, showed “life is going well here.”
“Swat — it’s called the paradise of Pakistan,” he said. “It’s the Switzerland of Pakistan.”
Foreign tourism was once a mainstay of the local economy and residents hope to revive it, but they’ve hit some obstacles.
In 2016, a company opened a ski resort. Workers are widening the perilous mountain route where cars inch along crumbly tracks over steep gorges.
Traffic was also slowed by soldiers checking IDs. For foreigners, they wanted to see the military permission slips that must be obtained to enter Swat. Kalimullah, a tour guide who only uses one name, said the army’s permission was often a stumbling block for foreign tour groups who wanted to visit, though domestic tourists are arriving.
At the ski resort, Pakistani tourists tumbled out of small vans, gleefully posing for selfies. Children hurled themselves in melting spring snow, flinging icy balls around a stout snowman.
There was more checking to cross a military zone that lies along the route to another tourist attraction: a 7th century rock-face carving of a Buddha above the village of Jahanabad. It was restored by a team of Italian archaeologists in 2016, nine years after the Taliban badly damaged the face with explosives.
A soldier took down all the visitors’ details, and then provided a mandatory escort of two soldiers.
Kalimullah said the presence of soldiers tended to frighten foreign tourists. He said he was grateful that the army had bought peace to Swat, but escorting tourists — “it is work of police.”
“I think [the] army should go back,” he said. “This is not work of army.”
Down in the valley, Fawad said some residents did not feel safe around the army. “We don’t see ourselves as secure,” he said.
In his hometown, he said soldiers occupied government buildings, including the girls’ school, the agricultural office, several hostels – and a relative’s house.
Referring to the army, he said, “They are not leaving.”
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