Azam Khan, 20, vividly remembers the blood soaked lifeless body of his uncle hung upside down at the city center in Swat, a scenic valley in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
Like Khan’s uncle, till a decade ago, scores of people were executed almost daily at this city square by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants — earning it a sobriquet of Khooni Chowk (bloody square).
A decade later, with the state executing control over Mingora city, headquarter of Swat district, the bloody square is bubbling with life and rechristened as Green Square.
Though dreaded stories associated with the square are still haunting inhabitants, it has turned into a business hub for the entire Malakand Division – a cluster of seven administrative districts.
Khan, then a 10-year old boy, when the TTP militants would roam freely, brandishing arms, wakes up from the memories of the terrible nightmare years that plagued the region between 2007 and 2009.
“That was a shocking day for our family when militants killed my uncle without any sin and hung his dead body in the chowk,” Khan told Anadolu Agency.
They had left a letter pinned to his body, warning locals not to dispose it before the night falls. Executing people publicly was a norm when they controlled the valley. Every day the TTP militants would execute civilians at a mere suspicion and then throw their bodies in the square.
Located in the middle of Mingora city, the square is just three miles away from the then TTP headquarters, Mam Dehri, a native village of infamous militant leader Mullah Fazlullah.
He was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghan province of Kunar in June 2018. He was chosen TTP chief in 2013 following the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike in North Waziristan.
Fazlullah escaped to Afghanistan in 2010 after the Pakistani Army launched a full-scale military operation against the militants in Swat valley.
Apart from numerous terrorist attacks against Pakistani forces and civilians, he was also considered the mastermind of the massacre of 140 school children and their teachers at an army-run school of Peshawar in 2014.
Era of horror
“My uncle had once spoken against the TTP at a gathering of local elders and had described their acts as against the Sharia and Islam,” said Khan. “That was his only sin.”
Next day, militants kidnapped him. He was produced before the so-called court, which summarily awarded him a death sentence, Khan recalled, with tears rolling down his eyes.
Among those executed at the bloody square also included a young singer Shabana.
“I do not exactly remember the number of people who had been executed by the TTP in this square. But I can say, they were in scores and dozens,” Sherin Zada, a local journalist in Swat, told Anadolu Agency.
Zada says that he would see a dead body every morning, while passing through the square, on his way to office, located inside the city.
He lost his sisters when unknown gunmen attacked his house in Kanjo area of Swat.
“That was a difficult time for journalists. Every day we thought it is our last day.”
Now with the state exercising control and peace returning to the Swat valley, the square has turned into a business center. Hundreds of people could be seen jostling and walking around bargaining to sell and purchase goods.
“We all had left our businesses when the TTP was holding the area. Our families had migrated to Mardan district,” Muhammad Subhan, a local shopkeeper in the square told Anadolu Agency.
“We have now reestablished our business. The square has now become a thriving commercial hub not only for Mingora city, but for the whole Malakand Division.”
Pakistan army had launched a full-scale military operation against the TTP in 2009 and announced its successful completion in 2018.
Over two million people were displaced from Swat, Buner and Dir Lower districts of Malakand Division during the operation at the end of April 2009, according to figures available with the UN.
Most of them have returned to their homes, but not without frightening memories. They recall days when TV was banned, public hangings were common and girls were barred from going to school.
Overlooking snow-capped mountains and lush green landscapes, the Swat valley’s Green Square has made a steady transition from a blood hungry spot to an animated business midpoint – whispering to visitors American musician Caroline Shaw’s famous words: Be free, and live life fully.