PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Amid news of the Pakistani government’s arrest of another Taliban leader and a suicide attack in the volatile Swat district this month, residents here are bent on making the most out of a life that has been returning to as close to normal as possible.
Since the Pakistani military reclaimed control of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) near the border with Afghanistan, Swat residents – used to violence, bombings and the impact of Taliban activity in their midst – have been able to focus more on education, entertainment and normal routines of everyday life.
They are bent on enjoying this even in the wake of a Feb. 22 suicide attack on a military vehicle in Mingora, Swat’s main town, that left at least seven dead and 40 more injured. It was the first suicide attack there in many months.
Before that, Pakistani officials announced the arrest of yet a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, near the southern port city of Karachi.
But the last few months have shown all too clearly to Swat residents how different life can be with better security, after the military ousted Taliban militants last year.
Indeed, Swat-based actor Zahir Zada said some seven production houses are filming in Swat "round the clock". Members of the education and tourism sector talked of students returning to school and visitors who were again considering taking breaks in what used to be called the ‘Switzerland of the East’.
"The situation has undergone a sea change due to the eviction of Taliban," said Muhammad Zahid, president of the Hotels’ Owners Association in Swat. "There is no fear among the people, who are now coming frequently to this scenic tourists’ paradise of Pakistan."
Zaiuddin Yusufzari, president of the Private Schools’ Owners Association in Swat, meanwhile reported that students "are now coming to schools in droves".
He believes many youth in Swat have developed a passion for education in reaction to the Taliban’s opposition to schools. Said Zaiuddin in a phone interview with IPS in Peshawar: "The students now think there is something special about education."
The Taliban tried to impose its extremist views on the residents of areas it operated in by forcing schools to close, discouraging the playing of music and dancing, and even terrorizing barbers who offered beard-shaving among their services.
To the Taliban, forms of entertainment such as music, films, and dancing are un-Islamic.
In January 2009, just a few weeks after seizing control of Swat, the Taliban executed celebrated local dancer Shabana and hanged her body on an electric post. The act forced some 400 women dancers to either leave the district or stay home.
The number of Taliban leaders and members in Pakistan had swelled after the U.S.-led coalition forces toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the wake of Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Taliban and its al-Qaeda friends sneaked through a 2,400-kilometre porous border of Pakistan and took refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They then spilled over to the adjacent NWFP, where they began to wreak havoc.
Even before it was able to take over Swat, the Taliban had already managed to shut down several schools there and drive away tourists who used to enjoy the district’s lush mountains and clear lakes.
The Taliban kept a firm grip on the district until May 2009, when the Pakistani military began a ground-and-air offensive that soon had the militants on the run. By December, the government announced that it had regained control over Swat and the rest of NWFP.
For sure, the Taliban has not exactly fallen silent since. Locals, however, say that the number of Taliban-instigated violent incidents has gone down. While there were 59 suicide attacks in 2009, for example – an average of about five a month — there have been just four attacks so far this year, and none of them in the NWFP capital of Peshawar.
As a result, music and more are returning to Swat and the rest of the NWFP. Zahir Zada, for one, said, "We have produced a dozen telefilms in Swat since December last year."
For another, CD and Music Shops Association president Sher Dil Khan said that in the past month and a half, new CD shops have opened even in Swat. He added, "Even we go for shooting (videos) in Swat because of the natural beauty there."
The Taliban blew up about 190 music shops in Swat alone, he said. Across the NWFP, it destroyed more than 400 shops. Said Khan: "Hundreds of people had left the (CD) business…due to fear."
About 500 hotels in Swat that lost business and shut down during the Taliban rule in Swat have now reopened as well. And in markets across the NWFP, female shoppers have reappeared after being banned by the Taliban from venturing out in public.
"During the Taliban’s rule, our business had nosedived but now there is a rapid improvement," said a palpably pleased Jafar Shar, a cloth seller in Swat.
Some say, though, that the most significant change has been in the locals’ attitude to education.
Even before the Taliban took over Swat, its literacy rates have not been exemplary, with official figures at 22.89 percent among females and 52.79 among males. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Pakistan has an adult literacy rate of 55 percent. Among youth between the ages of 15 and 24 years, females have a literacy rate of 60 percent and males 80 percent.
Since December, NWFP education minister Sardar Hussain Babak said, there has been a one-percent increase in female enrollment. Some 500,000 students, of whom 98,000 are female, have reported back to school in the last several weeks, he also said.
Among these students are Grade 2 pupils Sumaira and Jamila, who said they hated the Taliban for denying them education. Both girls said that they try not to miss class because they want to "become doctors to serve the female patients in this area".
But even boys and older students were kept out of school as violence raged through the NWFP in recent years. In Swat, 188 girls’ schools and 97 boys’ schools were destroyed between February 2008 and March 2009, forcing the students to either stay home or flee to safer places.
The military offensive against the Taliban also displaced bout five million people from Malakand’s five districts from May to June last year.
Colleges and universities elsewhere in the NWFP had to undertake stricter security measures as well, hampering students’ access to their classes – if these were held at all.
But University of Peshawar security officer Abdur Rehman said: "This year has proved to be different one from the past bloody year in which we closed the doors of university. We ordered removal of barricades from the campus on Feb. 1 due to much improvement in the law and order situation."
The University Public School (UPS) across the street is also back to normal, said Abdul Manan, a senior teacher there. The school, which has more than 3,000 students, had experienced frequent closures in the wake of threats of bombing by militants. Said Manan: "Earlier the students were afraid of coming to school, but now (with) a lull in the suicide and bomb attacks, we are feeling very good and students are extremely happy."
NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said that the government would eliminate Taliban to provide the people their much-awaited peace. He told IPS: "We have taken all measures to ensure that the people no longer face threats from militants. We would not sit idle till their (Taliban)’s elimination."
(Inter Press Service)