Mon, Mar 03, 2014 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Pakistani military fuels anger in securing Swat Valley from Taliban

Reuters, KHWAZAKHELA, Pakistan

Pakistani farmer Wazir Jamal was so upset about being forced off his patch of land to make way for an army base in the Swat Valley that he killed himself, family and friends said.

The army pushed Pakistani Taliban militants out of the scenic northwestern valley with a big offensive in 2009 and it is determined to keep them at bay.

However, in securing Swat with new checkpoints and bases, the army has had to take over some land, fueling resentment among people who were happy to see soldiers chase the Taliban away, but now wonder about the cost.

The 53-year-old Jamal, distraught at the thought of losing the means to support his wife and children, became overwhelmed by despair and shot himself, relatives said.

“We’re not against the army, but please don’t rob us of our lives,” said Kaleem Ullah, Jamal’s 16-year-old son. “The army has driven away the Taliban so why do they need to stay?”

With its meadows, trout streams and forest-clad Himalayan foothills, Swat, 120km northwest of the capital, Islamabad, was once a paradise for family holidaymakers, honeymooners and backpackers.

The valley even had Pakistan’s only ski resort.

That all changed when Pakistani Taliban militants infiltrated from the Afghan border and overran the 5,000km2 valley in 2007.

The militants imposed strict Islamist rule, closed girls’ schools, murdered policemen and publicly hanged and beheaded opponents.

The government, struggling against a surge of Islamist violence, prevaricated.

The army mounted an initial operation before authorities struck a pact which the militants took advantage of to expand their sway.

Eventually, the army mounted a successful offensive, but even after that, the valley was not safe.

Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl campaigner for girls’ education was shot and seriously wounded by Taliban gunmen on her way home from her Swat school in October 2012.

Now the government is determined once and for all to secure Swat.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently approved construction of a military complex, known as a cantonment, covering 15 hectares in Swat’s Khawazakhela area.

The army fears that the end of more than a decade of US military involvement in nearby Afghanistan will galvanize militants and inspire them to try to seize back Swat.

“The Taliban have been dislocated, but have they been eliminated? It’s a big question,” said a senior military official who was based in Swat until 2012.

However, in securing the valley, the army might be sowing discontent that could feed support for the militants they are trying to keep away.

Community elders said Jamal was one of about 200,000 people in Khawazakhela to lose access to their land because of the construction of the army base.

Much of it is being built on what was for generations a patch-work of orchards.

Apricot farmer Zahir Shah, 65, said soldiers first moved onto his land in 2008.

“We’ve been waiting for them to leave but now they’re building a permanent cantonment. This is an occupying army,” he said.

Much land is fenced off and soldiers lurk at orchard gates.

Residents say they need permission to visit their land, tend their trees and harvest their fruit. Soldiers often refuse to let them in, villagers say.

Villagers also complain that the compensation they get is far below the market price.

“They want to buy my land for 30 rupees a square foot [0.9m2],” apple farmer Nadar Shah said. “That’s a joke.”

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