By Zubair Torwali
The Swat Valley, in the north western province now named Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of the East: even in the picturesque mountainous region of north Pakistan, Swat is remarkable for its natural beauty. There was a time when the region was visited by foreign tourists and Pakistanis alike.
In 2002, a Swiss tourist declared, “Swat is more beautiful than Switzerland, but there is no Gul Khan in my homeland.” Gul Khan was the security guard tasked with the duty of escorting the tourist. It was soon after the 9/11, and foreigners had to be protected. The Swiss visitor had quickly grown tired of Gul Khan and his gun.
But to a resident like me — born, raised and based here — Swat was no less than a Paradise. The holy scriptures depict Paradise as being beautifully blessed with clear water streams, peace, serenity, abundant fruits, and fine weather. All those things were present in Swat.
The entire Valley is divided along the zigzag bed of the Swat River. The river water usually gleams emerald blue. By the bank of the river, there are lush green fields are full of orchards containing apples, peaches, plums, and pears. Beyond the fields, hills rise green and proud beside the Swat River. As you travel up the Swat Valley, it gradually narrows down until the road is only a few feet from the river. This narrow valley starts from Madyan, the gateway to the Kohistan of Swat (Swat-Kohistan), perhaps the best-known area of the Swat Valley. Many Urdu and Pashto poets have used the metaphor of crown jewel for this part of Swat’s beauty. Swat-Kohistan offers much to lure the traveller into its lap. There are gleaming snow-tipped peaks, azure lakes, green pastures. gushing streams, and thick pine forests. The cold breeze lulls you into a dream of Paradise.
Whenever I have to travel back to sweet Swat from Peshawar or Islamabad, I schedule my journey to make sure I take my drive from Mingora to my home town, Bahrain, around an hour before sunset. This journey, especially in spring and summer, always induces the muse in me. It is a rare experience to travel between the orchards and along the green fields with the sun on its way to hide behind the hills in the west. I have never grown tired of seeing the valleys again and again. Each time, I feel as if I am new to the place, although I have by now spent more than three decades of my life here.
Before the worst ever militant insurgency in Swat, peace was the norm. I feel nostalgic when I remember driving in the moonlight with the car’s headlights turned off.
There was no fear in going home in the dead of the night. One could sleep safely under the blue sky.
Swat Valley was once a popular tourist destination. We had many friends from around the world: pilgrims from China, anthropological and environmental researchers, ethnographers and tourists from across the globe, as well as the rest of Pakistan.
To my misfortune, I could not remain neutral. I decided to take the side of humanity and civilization. In my meagre capacity, I tried to awaken the world’s conscience by writing newspaper articles. This put my life in danger and I had to leave Swat. In April 2009, after the notorious peace deal the government signed with the Taliban, I was urged by friends to leave Swat and I finally realised that there was a serious threat to my life. I agreed to leave, but the question was how, as I had to travel 100 kilometres inside Swat to run for my life. The main highway was controlled by the Taliban, and they were checking every vehicle. My mom came to my rescue: she accompanied me, veiled in the way the Taliban wanted. She carried my laptop, as even having a laptop was reason enough to get you killed by the Taliban. That way, I made it to Islamabad and shuttled between the capital and Peshawar for almost 7 months.