Our Swat – Gone With The Wind

Swat is in the news daily for its lawlessness, violence, killings, destruction and refugees. But while growing up in this beautiful princely State in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, we remember it for its peace and tranquility and the people for its compassion and benevolence. Swat was a land rich in culture and history – Alexander and Buddha and more recently the Yusufzai – and its wealth and beauty is legendary – emerald mines and emerald-green river, lush orchards, and snow-capped mountains. In 1961 the Queen of England, as a guest of the Wali, had loved Swat and called it “The Switzerland of the East”.

In the evening our daily routine would come to a halt and we would punctually join our grandfather, Jahanzeb, the Wali Swat, on his daily drive through the orderly state of Swat. “This is duty”, our grandfather never failed to mention. He and the “ardalies” – smart, impeccably dressed, young bodyguard each representing an important family in Swat – were there to impose order and inspect what was his pride: schools, clinics, police-stations (qalas) and administration-units every couple of miles, connected by an impeccable web of blacktop roads throughout the State.

The Wali’s morning duties too were grueling. As a hands-on ruler the Wali headed each department of his administration. His role was that of king and religious leader, chief minister and commander-in-chief, chief exchequer and head qazi. He ensured that his government provided: 1) good administration and productive revenue collection; 2) a judicial system that provided quick and free justice to all. 3) A qala system that provided security and protection to the people; 4) Grassroots developments, centered on jobs, welfare, education and health services to all; Finally 5) instant communication through roads, bridges, and telegraph and telephones and informers that kept the Wali informed of the latest developments. This was a unique system of administration. The Wali’s successful and effective rules and penal codes provided complete rule of law.

The Wali’s administration reflected the best of Pukhtun culture, Islam and modernity. His government was a combination of progressive laws and the regional “Codes of Conduct” set by the jirgas of the region. The balance between traditional culture, religion and modernity ensured a progressive, efficient and enlightened system.

The Wali was the supreme leader of Swat. Like his administration he had the best qualities of a tribal, Islamic and modern leader. He was compassionate and benevolent like his holy ancestor (The Akhund of Swat); politically able and skillful like the Founder of the State; and disciplined and contemporary like the British political officers he interacted with. He based his conduct and morals on his strong faith and the example of past successful Islamic rulers. He never missed a prayer and his fast began one day before everyone else. It was these principles that allowed the Wali, his father Bacha Sahib, and his revered great-grandfather, Saidu Baba, to provide peace, civility, and tranquility to the State for more than a hundred years, transforming a raw tribal structure into an organized, firm and efficient modern government.

In 1947 the rulers of the State chose to give their full support to Mr. Jinnah and the creation of Pakistan. Swat opted to join Pakistan in 1954 and in 1969 the State was formally taken over by Pakistan and was split into the districts of Swat, Shangla and Buner – 60 miles from Islamabad as the crow flies. The new Pakistani bureaucracy, that took over from the Wali, was slow in providing administration, justice and security but was successful in providing checks and balances between the police, politicians and local leaders until President Musharraf dismantled the civil service structure and replaced it with the local bodies or Nazim system. The Nazims were locals, who enhanced their own interests and provided little or no administration or security. This vacuum together with the events of 9/11 would propel the Swati Taliban to prominence.

The new zealot group of madrassah-educated youth had begun to assert themselves as early as the 1990. They had existed in society before then but they had been a docile and insignificant group. Now they formed strong links to their allies, the Taliban of Afghanistan, and had access to their wealth and militant expertise. Sufi Muhammad who headed them took a large contingent of Swatis to fight the US in Afghanistan in 2001. In Swat they began to gain support as they provided justice as vigilantes.

They constructed a major mosque worth millions of dollars with underground bunkers and Fazlullah, the successor and son-in-law of Sufi Muhammad, even began to communicate with the people of Swat through his “FM” radio station. Through his broadcasts he could muster up several thousand people in a few hours and appealed to the dispossessed, the young and even the women, solving their problem through his aunt agony program. The result was that they became his ardent supporters lavishing him with their jewelry. Fazlullah also exploited class warfare. Officials, the rich and well-off were targeted and the poor recruited.

After the Lal Masjid brutal action by the Pakistan government in Islamabad, its capital, in July 2007, where many Swati students lost their lives, a fresh and unprecedented wave of violence set in motion in Swat: A pattern was established: indiscriminate bombings, shootouts, army action, a lull, then a return to their barracks and a repeat of violence again. Amid these deaths and loss of property, rumors abounded in Swat of foreigners, of hardcore jihadis: Chechens and Uzbecks; of foreign governments; and even “foreign agents” – CIA, RAW and Musad. Some blamed the Pakistan intelligence of instigating these Taliban so that the US government could pay big bucks. Others blamed it on the internal battle between the Army and the ISI. Whatever it was it was causing unrelenting pain and anguish for the people of Swat.

More and more of our family members now set up home is Islamabad. Between 2007 and 2009 we would see family members targeted. Our first cousin Isfandiar Amirzeb, an Education Minister standing for his Provincial Assembly seat was blown up in his car with 8 others in the middle of his campaign a day after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto; another first cousin Jamal Nasir, the Nizam-i-Ala, was regularly targeted and narrowly escaped when his car carrying his brother and family was bombed, his house was looted and burnt to the ground; another relative, also a member of Parliament, was dragged out of his home and killed along with two of his sons while his female relatives watched. Many more near and close friends and relatives would have the same fate. The Taliban, and their foreign helpers, using bombs and suicide methods – alien to Swatis – have since killed or disfigured thousands of people including security personnel. They have blown up more than 200 schools, many of which were girls’ schools like the Presentation Convent in Sangota. The destruction of property and homes has resulted in over 3 million refugees.

Earlier, in response to the Taliban, the army action was sporadic. Over the last few weeks it has been more focused but it is seen as brutal, killing and wounding more innocent people than the militants and destroying property. It has also led to the greatest displacement in recent Pakistan history with over 3 million refugees living in the most squalid conditions. Army action without political and civil solutions is bound to fail. The Wali could not have been successful without this lesson of history: the army must return to its barracks after short-term action, the civil servant must live among the people for long-term solutions.

The Taliban talk of emulating the Wali’s system but the Wali’s government was geared to efficiency; swift and fair justice; impeccable security; grassroots development and excellent transport and communication systems? Swat is very much part of the Government of Pakistan. Unlike the tribal areas, it has no treaties for independent governance. The writ of Pakistan is and must be final. Everyone must obey its law including the Taliban. The Government of Pakistan must reinstate its institutions and govern the people of Swat in accordance with its law. That is why the Taliban cannot be allowed to set up an independent government. The people of Swat want the violence to stop whether it is from the Taliban, the army, or the Hellfire Missiles from alien drones.

The government of Pakistan must reclaim Swat and stop the scourge of terrorism that causes unrelenting pain and anguish, and give back the dignity of its people. It must ensure that the people return to their homes and are given justice, law and order and restore Swat to its former glory.

Zebu Jilani is President of the Swat Relief Initiative, and Zeenat Ahmed is the Program Manager of the Center for Dialogue, Peace and Action.


Letter from the Founders

Dear Friends,

We have always felt a debt of gratitude to the social institutions under which we grew up: Pakistan in the 60’s.  Today, unfortunately, those institutions are but a pale semblance of what they used to be. We were privileged but came from families that, despite their station in society, gave and taught us to give of ourselves to those who were less privileged.

This background, and our subsequent achievements in life, put us in a position to help the most needy people in Pakistan.  We are most effective in Swat:  This is in the region we are from, this is where we best know the people and this is where the people know us well.

We started Swat Relief Initiative at a time when the people of Swat went through the first major trauma of three major disasters: the 2008 Taliban takeover, the ensuing 2009 war and the 2010 mega-floods.

The most vulnerable segments of Swati society are the women and children – they are our focus.  We bring the men along too, for they are key to helping develop a milieu in which women and children can grow into fully contributing members of society.

We have a holistic approach to social growth with programs in Social Mobilization, Health, Education, Economic Development and Sustainable Environment. While working in these areas of social development we partner, when necessary, with individuals and organizations that can supplement our expertise and impact.

Of course, we cannot do any of this without the help of your continuing generous contributions, which we continue to pledge will go directly to where they are needed the most: programs and projects on the ground that provide the greatest opportunity for less fortunate women and children to thrive.


Zebu and Arshad Jilani