Clerics and elephants

Among the Swat Valley’s apple trees and neat lawns, Sam Alexandroni finds war, bloodshed and poetry

That night the sky was blacker than usual because of a power cut and there were thousands of stars. I tried to pick out the constellations but got no further than Orion. Living in London, where all but the brightest stars are blotted out by electric light, does not provide much opportunity for practice. Overhead, something streaked silently across the valley, trailing fiery sparks.

“Did you see that?” said Freshta. “It was a shooting star. I wished on it.” Shirazi and I exchanged looks and kept quiet. The shooting star had been a rocket launched by militants, or maybe the army. The thud and thunder of distant explosions started up – sounds now as much a part of the night as crickets and running water. The newspapers carried the death toll each morning like the latest score card, but no one believed the figures or that those killed by falling shells were really “miscreants”; the dead were mostly innocent people.

I had come to Swat, a district in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, with friends from Peshawar, the provincial capital. Peshawar in August was a rowdy 40°C oven and we all cooked, sweat sliding beneath damp clothes, day and night. This happened particularly when the fans stopped, which was often, because the local substation had been blown up by militants and was still under repair. But in Swat, all the days were like a perfect English summer when the air is warm and stirred by a cool breeze. The garden of the White Palace Hotel where we were staying also reminded me of England, with its apple trees, rose bushes and neatly tended lawn.

I spent slow afternoons reading or walking with friends along the rocky banks of the river that ran not far from the hotel. At night we talked and looked at the stars. It was easy to see why Pakistanis called it the “Switzerland of Pakistan” and why, before the fighting, they used to flock here during the summer to cool off.

The recent trouble started on the radio, with a local cleric called Maulana Fazlullah. His father-in-law, Sufi Muhammad, leader of the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, had stirred up trouble in the 1990s, and in 2001 he led a large force into Afghanistan to fight the US-led invasion. It was a disaster and on his return to Pakistan he was caught and imprisoned. Fazlullah stepped in and rose from obscurity, broadcasting on an illegal FM station. People called him the “Radio Mullah” and his tirades against the west and Pervez Musharraf were popular. In the aftermath of the October 2005 Kashmir earthquake his organisation, like so many militant groups in Pakistan, grew in popularity because it provided effective humanitarian relief to quake victims.

Unchecked by the government, Fazlullah continued to gather momentum and support from people long tired of official corruption. It was only when he began destroying girls’ schools and, in a direct challenge to government authority, set up his own sharia courts that, in October 2007, the army moved in. At first, the people of Swat welcomed the army, but as civilian casualties spiralled and it became clear that there was no end in sight to the conflict, they lost faith. Last April, Sufi Muhammad was released after six years in prison. He promptly signed an agreement to end the violence in Swat, which his son-in-law broke almost immediately, creating a rift between the two leaders. The fighting continued and grew bloodier, though at that point the army was still talking about victory. The people just wanted peace.

But there was more beneath the surface, Swatis told me, and everyone had a theory: a secret war is being fought between the Pak army and intelligence services, the latter of which is unwilling to abandon the militants it has trained to foment unrest in Afghanistan and India; agents from India’s external secret service, the Research and Analysis Wing, are supporting and fighting alongside the militants to destabilise Pakistan, which is why, when checked, dead militants are often found to be uncircumcised: proof that they are non-Muslim (circumcision is usual but not compulsory in Islam); hardcore jihadis, including Chechens and Uzbeks, now run the show, having crept in from the tribal areas; the CIA and Mossad are fuelling the conflict in order to weaken and ultimately dismantle Pakistan.

The details vary, but everyone agrees that an “international game” is being played in Swat. This explanation, applied by Pashtuns to explain the situation throughout the Pak-Afghan border region, is often expressed in the proverb: “When elephants fight, no one thinks about the ground they trample.” The “elephants” are the powerful outside forces – from the United States and al-Qaeda to Pakistan’s own intelligence services – that compete for influence in the region, and the ground trampled beneath their feet is the Pashtun homeland.

Later, sitting with my friend Shirazi inside his hotel room, I listened to the others outside in the garden reciting poetry. Several of my

Pashtun friends were accomplished poets and, even though I couldn’t follow what was being said, I always enjoyed listening to them. Poetry, one friend told me, is used by Pashtuns to express frustrations and feelings, like love, that people in the west can discuss openly. That is why the west has fewer poets. Maybe he is right. I have never switched on the television at home in England to find a poetry recital being broadcast with concert-sized crowds in attendance, as I had in Pakistan.

I wanted to join the group in the garden, but Shirazi was reluctant. We were sipping green tea with the lights off and talking quietly. A soft black spider the size of my palm kept us company on the near wall. Shirazi wasn’t happy about the noise the others were making. He was worried that some militant, running for his life, might stumble from the trees straight into our gathering. “In this place, it can all change suddenly,” he said. “And it only has to happen once.”

Sam Alexandroni was awarded a 2008 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. For more information on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust visit:

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload