For the people of the Swat Valley who had recently returned home, following a Pakistan army operation to drive out the Taliban, it felt like too much to bear. In summer 2009, three million people had been displaced while the army carried out operations against militants in the north-west. (The photographs on this and the next three pages capture the plight of those caught between military shelling and the rebels’ violence.) When the worst floods in Pakistan’s history struck last summer, they hit the north-west first, and hardest.
“We felt as though God was punishing us but we couldn’t understand why,” Afzal Khan, a villager from the former Taliban stronghold of Kot in the Swat Valley told me on a recent visit. Standing in the courtyard of his home, which had been transformed into a medical clinic for children, Khan and other local men estimated that the loss from their once-fertile rice fields was $360,000 for that year alone.
Many farmers had just sown their first crop since returning home, following the army operation the previous year. Although the intrusive military presence was beginning to chafe, few shed tears for the Taliban forces led by the dreaded Maulana Fazlullah.
“They forced people into giving them money and shelter. They put guns to the heads of our elders. They cut down our trees, blew up schools, and killed anyone who got in their way,” said Tilawat Shah, a farmer who joined a village defence committee to fight back.
In Mingora, the main town, people recalled a campaign of terror that included weekly beheadings of dissenters and executions of musicians and dancers, in line with the Taliban’s hardline interpretation of Islam.
The people of Swat suffered heavy losses, but eventually recovered. Informal village defence committees gave way to 2,500 army-trained community police, who guard against a Taliban comeback. Unlikely heroes rose from the rubble: Malala Yousafzai, an 11-year-old schoolgirl who refused to be cowed, declaring that women have the same right to education as men; Mussarat Ahmedzeb, daughter-in-law of a former blue-blood ruler of Swat, who started an embroidery centre that provides employment for hundreds of women, including war widows; Usman Ulasyar, a poet who defied the fighters to hold critical recitals while the Taliban were still in control.
Now, with the backing of generous foreign donations, aid officials and residents are confident that Swat can recover from the floods, too. “There was no secondary disaster, as we had all feared,” explains Dr Zaigham Habib, a senior official at the National Disaster Management Authority. Fresh seeds were sown and livestock cured of their illnesses.
So far, up to 90 per cent of the land has been recultivated. New farming techniques have been introduced, making barren land once kept fallow suitable for cultivating wheat. The army has rebuilt bridges and helped put up solar-panel-equipped homes for thousands of affected families.
Nor has the daily violence returned. Major Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, an army spokesman, reports that skirmishes with militants are few and far between. And the people are feeling confident. “We’re satisfied with the security situation. The Taliban can’t make a comeback in Swat now,” says Ziauddin Yousafzai, a school principal in Mingora. He points out that, unlike in Pakistan’s cities, terror attacks here are isolated and come months apart.
Swat is free of the Taliban – but the 25,000 army troops on constant patrol underscore the cost of peace.
Issam Ahmed is Pakistan correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor
These photographs were taken by Alixandra Fazzina in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, north-west Pakistan, between May 2009 and March 2010. She has photographed under-reported conflicts worldwide, and won the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award in July 2010.