On the Swat valley's forbidden road

Since the Pakistani army launched an offensive against the Taliban in the country's north-west, over 2.5 million civilians have been forced to flee their homes. They now live in makeshift camps, in dire conditions, and often torn from their families.


Mohamed's life has been upended. Until a month ago, he taught maths in the secondary school in his village in the Swat valley. But when fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani forces neared, he fled with his pregnant wife – on foot.

“We didn't have a car so we walked down here,” he says. “My parents, though, decided to stay and watch over the house. We've been trying to call them every day but they don't answer, so my brother and I are worried. We don't know if they are there, or even whether they are still alive.”


But then he gets the call he has been waiting for. It's the first time Mohamad has spoken to his parents since he left them one month ago. They need help. “My parents have been walking for three days. They are in a village near Chakdara. They are exhautsed. They can't find a car and anyway there isn't a drop of petrol for miles around. We have to find a way to get them out of there.”


As Mohamed says goodbye to his baby daughter, born in the camp a few days previously, we realise that he is not going to get far without a vehicle. We offer to drive him. But there's no time to lose: Chakdara is three hours' drive away and we have to get there before the curfew. The army says it is engaged in combat there with the last remaining pockets of Taliban resistance.


Just as we are about to leave, Mohamed decides to call his parents one more time to arrange a meeting point. But the news on the other end of the line is not good. “My parents say we should not come - there are Taliban there, it's too risky… The town is totally surrounded and they say the Taliban have got it in for everyone who fled their homes because they didn't want people to leave.”


Since the fighting began the Taliban have been using local people as human shields against air strikes. Anyone who deserts their village - as Mohamed did - is considered a traitor.


Yet the region is supposed to be under army control. If the Taliban really are holding whole populations hostage here, we want to know more about it. We decide to leave Mohamad at the camp and try to find his parents in the Swat valley on our own.


On the road to Chakdara


After an hour on the road we find hundreds of trucks blocked by the Pakistani army. The military are imposing a blockade in order to cut off The Taliban's supplies of food and water. But of course, that means the villagers don't get any either. Now we understand why Mohamed's parents said they were hungry.


On the Chakdara road, an army patrol overtakes us at high speed. We think we've been spotted when the soldiers point their guns at us, their hands on the trigger. Journalists are not allowed in this area. Several TV crews have already been shot at. If we want to proceed we must do so very discreetly.


So we leave the main road and continue along secondary dirt tracks. We head for the village of Darguai on the edge of the Swat valley. Before the region fell into Taliban hands, this was where Pakistan's bourgeoisie used to spend their holidays. The unbroken stream of displaced persons fleeing the area in the opposite direction is enough to show us the way towards Chakdara and Mohamed's parents.


A friendly stranger


We are approaching our destination when we realise we are being followed. To set things straight, we decide to stop and face our pursuer.


The man's name is Ishaaq. He says he's just a concerned citizen who wanted to warn us of the dangers awaiting foreigners around here. “You are two women, one foreign, the other Pakistani. Your chauffeur only speaks Urdu. So you could easily be taken for spies or something. That's why I am telling you, don't go there, it's really not safe for you.”


Ishaaq offers to drive us to Chakdara. We get to within 20 kilometers of the town, but then we are stopped at a checkpoint. The policemen take us to one side. They don't realise we are filming. A man in plain clothes tells us we can’t go further. "Our job is to make sure nothing happens to you," he tells us. ”You can't see them, but there are Taliban everywhere, they are mixed in with the passers-by. Even we can't tell them apart. We don't want any nonsense to happen to you, you have to leave right now.”


We will not make it to Mohamed's parents. All we can do is go back to the camp and tell him the bad news.


“I'm not surprised,” he says on our return. “I know other people here who have tried and failed. You can't go there either way - if you don't get kidnapped by the Taliban, the Pakistani army will arrest you. I spoke to my parents on the phone, they said they are going to try and find some kind of vehicle to get down here.”


Mohamed is one of three million Pakistani refugees forced from their homes by the fighting. Although he still doesn't know when or if he will see his parents again, he feels certain of one thing: his future is not in Pakistan. Like almost everyone at the camp, Mohamad hopes to be granted refugee status and move to Europe with his daughter.

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