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Swat refugees nurse dreams of peace in Pakistan

Thousands of Pakistanis, rich and poor, have fled the Swat Valley as Taliban militants have strengthened their hold. Some fear the rising tide of extremism bodes ill for the rest of the country.

April 27, 2009|Mark Magnier

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The ragtag group of men rises out of a small gorge wedged between a gas station, a mosque and a community center, the sort of place you'd easily miss unless you ventured over a small garbage mound and down a dirt path obscured by trees.

Ten miles away, a woman answers the door of her luxury top-floor apartment. Through the windows, there's a view of a park, majestic mountains and the endless blue Pakistani sky. A few feet away, her teenage daughter complains about the speed of their Internet connection.

These people at opposite ends of the social spectrum are among thousands who have fled Pakistan's Swat Valley in recent months to seek refuge in the capital. Although they have different reasons for leaving, those who have lived through the last few years in Swat say they have experienced firsthand what passes for peace, Taliban-style, and fear the worst as militants gain more influence across the region.

A former tourist destination, the Swat Valley is now ground zero in Pakistan's identity crisis. A move last week by the Swat militants into the adjacent Buner district, which is only 60 miles from Islamabad, rattled the country's political establishment and foreign allies. Many here and abroad fear the rising tide of extremism in Swat could foretell changes in an overwhelmingly Muslim society that has been largely secular and open.

In February, after months of clashes, authorities in Swat agreed to a truce in which local Taliban leaders were allowed to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, throughout the picturesque valley, a move they justified as a way to achieve peace. This month the national government approved the deal.

Alam Sher, 30, his clothes torn and his fingernails dirty, left Swat early this year with his wife, two daughters and a son and moved 100 miles south to Islamabad. Though violence was a factor, he said, the main reason was the difficulty of making ends meet.

As the Taliban's grip intensified and violence grew, construction projects dried up. For day laborers like Sher, that meant no work. So he headed for a tent city in the hectic, unfamiliar capital.

A girls school near his ancestral home in Mingora, the main town in Swat, was bombed shortly before he left, Sher said, one of an estimated two dozen attacks he witnessed or saw the aftermath of in recent months.

"After hearing the explosions, we thought our time on Earth was finished," Sher said. "We've been filled with fear."

The Sharia agreement hasn't brought peace, said fellow laborer Jahangir Rehan, 30, standing beside Sher on the steep trail, adding that he knew or was acquainted with at least 50 people kidnapped or beheaded by militants in Swat.

"Why are Muslims killing each other?" Rehan asked.

For Falaknaz Asfandyar, in her penthouse apartment several miles away, earning a living is not a major concern. She married into minor royalty. Her husband, Asfandyar Amirzeb, a grade-school sweetheart, was the grandson of the Wali of Swat, who ruled over the valley until 1969. Amirzeb recognized early on that the Taliban was a mortal threat to the valley he loved, she said, tears welling in her eyes.

As the militants gained strength in 2007, Amirzeb became increasingly vocal, raising Swat's plight with Pakistan's president, prime minister, the governor and other top officials, and chiding them for ignoring the militants' growing power.

Amirzeb was seeking reelection to the provincial assembly at the time. The militants "have spies everywhere," his wife said, and his protests weren't lost on them. While traveling on a mountain road one day after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, he was killed in a roadside bombing.

The rumor at the time, Asfandyar said, was that Taliban commander Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, sometimes dubbed the "Radio Mullah" for his use of FM programming to build a following, personally pushed the detonator switch. Eight people died in the explosion.

The village where his meeting was scheduled had many Taliban militants, and Asfandyar said she had urged him not to go. But he insisted.

Asfandyar says now that she believes it was only a matter of time before the Taliban killed her husband. He wasn't one to give up, she said, and the Taliban isn't tolerant of critics.

Over the years, she had a front row seat on the rise of the Radio Mullah and his fighters. Fazlullah started with a few supporters but was patient, tactical and ruthless, she said. He expanded his audience with his radio sermons, and solicited donations for a religious school and other charitable works. Even Asfandyar's household contributed.

Gradually, however, his tenor changed. He became sharply critical of the U.S. and the Pakistani government. He started calling for attacks on "infidel" targets and made promises of rewards in the next life.

"That's when the beheadings started," she said.

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