Ordinary Pakistanis risked their lives under Taliban rule
MINGORA, PAKISTAN–It’s hard to picture the Green Chowk traffic circle as a landmark steeped in horror.
Cars, pickup trucks and donkey-pulled carts lurch through the roundabout, passing billboards advertising guest houses, Internet cafés and Pepsi-Cola.
But mere months ago, there was nothing routine about this potholed intersection.
For more than two years, Mingora was a base for Islamic militants who called themselves Taliban. They routinely rounded up enemies – residents say 40 were targeted in one three-month period – dragged them to this traffic circle near crowded bazaars and butcher shops, and cut off their heads.
For good measure, they placed their victim’s head on his chest and pinned a note warning the removal of the deceased before noon the next day would herald more beheadings. (Women weren’t decapitated, merely shot.)
“There’s been no rule of law, only a jungle law,” says Zia Yousafzai, a school principal. “You can’t imagine what it has been like, especially for our children.”
Mingora residents like Yousafzai, his 12-year-old daughter, Malala, and others, have lived through the nightmare and are now providing a first-hand glimpse of life under the Taliban. Theirs are stories of panic, paranoia and unlikely courage.
A city of about 350,000, Mingora is tucked among orchards and mountain vistas in Pakistan’s serene Swat Valley. To travel here from Islamabad, you drive on a narrow road that snakes along the sides of majestic mountains. At one time, this was a place the country’s elite came to ski, hike trails and splash in glacier-fed rivers.
The Taliban came for other reasons. The Swat Valley is an ideal strategic location as a base of operations just four hours from Islamabad. This summer, after Pakistan’s government ceded control of Swat to the Taliban in a peace deal, militants began seizing control of towns even closer to the capital.
Pakistan’s hand was forced, and the military subsequently pushed the Taliban out of Mingora. In the fighting, thousands fled Swat to live in refugee camps near Islamabad.
Now, most of those people have returned to Swat as Pakistan’s army battles the Taliban in the remote South Waziristan region. But the terror of life under the Taliban still haunts them.
Sitting in his school’s courtyard, as students write their exams, scratching their heads as they grapple with questions such as the definition of thermal expansion, Yousafzai explains how the Taliban took control of Mingora.
“They didn’t show up one day with a jeep with rocket launchers and machine guns,” he says.
Rather, a local religious leader named Mullah Fazlullah in 2004 began broadcasting sermons from his own radio station, “Radio Mullah.” Initially, Fazlullah merely discussed the basic tenets of Islam. Ironically, he won the support of many local housewives who managed their household finances because their husbands work abroad.
But it wasn’t long before Fazlullah’s message became more hardline – he decried movies and music and art as secular evils, polio vaccinations as a Western conspiracy, and preached that women did not belong in schools or public markets. The Arab-style burqa with a slit to see through was no longer adequate for women; the Taliban insisted the Afghan “ghost-style” opaque screen be used instead.
“It’s been sheer terrorism in the name of religion and it shows people can be led astray,” says Yousafzai. “All of the mosques played Fazlullah’s radio messages over their loudspeakers throughout the day. People listened day and night. Their minds are a blank slate and eventually the people followed the Taliban.”
Yousafzai decided not to, despite the risk. Once, in February, when Taliban rule was in full swing, he urged a barber to resist the demand of the Taliban to stop cutting hair. As spectators looked on, Yousafzai said: “You need money, not Islam. You go to the mosque. You fast and you pray. What else do you need to do for Islam?”
It soon became clear the Taliban viewed Yousafzai as a threat.
Some mornings, he was met at his school of 750 students by his employees. They handed him letters of warning from the Taliban to shut down his school. “I told them to put the letters in the wastebasket and not say a word to anyone.”
And at one council meeting earlier this year, a Taliban leader pointed to Yousafzai and said he had been named as an enemy. “I told him I have also named you,” Yousafzai says. He says his family worried that the Taliban would snatch him up, as they had so many others.
“My wife got a ladder and put it by our back window so that if they came for me in the middle of the night we could escape,” he says. “But then we went out of town for a few days and someone used that ladder to go into our home and steal the TV. What to do?”
Yousafzai’s defiance of the Taliban rubbed off on his daughter, Malala.
“She stood like a rock beside me,” he says. In September 2008, Yousafzai took Malala to Peshawar to speak to the local press club.
“How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” Malala told her audience. She explained how she would never bow to the Taliban’s demands and how she hid her textbooks under her clothes while walking to school.
Malala’s speech was covered by newspapers and TV channels, and widely available through Swat. Malala also wrote an Internet blog under a pen name, highlighting the rights abuses occurring in Swat.
“People said to me, `How can you let her do this?'” Yousafzai says. “We needed to stand up.”
Mingora remains a troubled city.
Police banned all motorcycles from its roads just a few days ago because of fears about a possible suicide bomber. And there are worries that police may be overzealous in their pursuit of Taliban sympathizers. As many as 400 corpses of suspected Taliban have surfaced in Swat, some showing signs of torture with drills and irons.
The body of one suspected Taliban informer was recently found hanging upside down with a warning pinned to his shirt: “If anyone takes down this body, he will meet the same fate. This is a warning to the Taliban.”
Still, Mingora’s darkest days seem to be over.
The cinema has reopened and is showing the Pashtun movie Target twice daily. On a recent afternoon, the two-level auditorium was half full of teenage boys munching samosas and sipping chai tea. And down the road, Mingora’s DVD shop owner has restocked his shelves. Terminator 2 is a current popular choice. Javed Ali said he sells at least 10 movies a day for about 50 cents apiece.
It’s been speculated the Taliban may try to reclaim Mingora after the army leaves. Usman Ulasyar, a 38-year-old poet and father of two, says that won’t happen. Sitting in his home decorated with handwoven rugs and artwork, Ulasyar said many residents have bitter memories of life under the Taliban.
It’s surprising Ulasyar is still alive. In January 2007, when the Taliban held sway in Mingora, Ulasyar was worried over the grip the militants had on the region and convened a poetry reading to remind people of the importance of culture. He recalls how the Taliban stared at him expressionless, and how his mouth went dry. He opened his notebook to his poem “Burning Trees.”
Until yesterday, we used to enjoy real life and dreamed when we looked to the skies.
Until yesterday, the beautiful girls of Swat had beautiful ornaments.
But today, they are not having nice ornaments.
Until yesterday, every bird was singing happily in the trees.
But today, forget about the birds. They cannot sing.
All of their trees have been burned.
Today, they have banned even a meeting of a loving couple.
They have burned our music.
What a drama is happening to us.
Our culture is going to be destroyed.
Everywhere, our culture is burning.