The Swat Valley, a picturesque region of Pakistan, was briefly controlled by the Taliban before they were driven out by the army in 2009. For nearly a year now, the region locals call the "Pakistani Switzerland" has been opening up to tourists again, but the Islamist militant threat remains present in the valley – and in people’s minds. Our reporters returned to Swat.
Located amidst the lush green mountains of the Hindu Kush, the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan was always a tourist spot for foreigners in search of peace, calm and historical expeditions, but the Taliban’s capture of the region in 2007 and the subsequent military operation in 2009 changed the landscape. It became a no-go area even for Pakistanis as Mullah Fazlullah, who currently heads the Pakistani Taliban, took over.
Mullah Fazlullah escaped the military, and currently lives somewhere in the tribal belt, on the Pakistani-Afghan border. Due to his war with the Pakistani state, more than 2.5 million people were displaced from their homes.
The Pakistan Army continues to control the region, which is dotted with military checkpoints, especially at all of the valley's entry and exit points.
But the terrorist threat still looms.
The Taliban now have a new strategy: targeting and killing the influential people of Swat. Such killings, which are carried out in an organised and meticulous manner, have seen an uptick in the last 24 months – one reason Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Laureate, continues to live in the United Kingdom in self-imposed exile, after she survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in 2012.
Despite such fears, a majority of the 2.5 million of the region's displaced people have now returned to their homeland in the hope of rebuilding their lives, but find the military expanding its footprint everywhere. Pakistani forces have multiple bases in the valley, and plan to expand them. They have also launched a housing colony on some of the land that they occupied during the operation or have acquired since. The compensation being offered to the local evictees – some of whom are being forced off their land – is nominal. Many do not want to sell, as such agricultural land is their only livelihood.
However, there is some new hope for one segment of the Swat community: the region's women, who have started to reclaim the positions they lost under the Taliban. For nearly a decade, they were not allowed to leave their homes. Now, many are counting on women to bring order back to the society, as men have failed to do in the past. Some lead women-only jirgas (traditional assembies of leaders according to the teachings of Islam, making decisions by consensus) – the first of their kinds. Others have become lawyers to represent women in the courts – a profession that the women of Swat had never before considered.
Will the women prevail and make the Swat Valley the "Pakistani Switzerland" people remember it to be? Will the state’s efforts to revive tourism actually bring visitors?
We “revisit” to find out.