too late for the Soon Valley
storytelling skills of the locals and the times they
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
As I sit upright in the front seat of the jeep and enjoy the sight of the crystal clear Swat River near Fizaghat in Mingora, my attention is caught by a demolished structure on the roadside. Not fully razed to the ground, it stands there half erect with its roof caved in. I can also see warped steel rods protruding from the debris.
What possibly could have caused this destruction? I wonder. Before I could ask the driver, he speaks up. “This was a restaurant owned by a person called Haji Sahib Kabari. He once hosted and feasted the Taliban here. The security forces came to know about it. They raided the place and demolished it. The whereabouts of Haji Sahib are not known to date,” he adds.
What’s mentioned above is just one of the recollections of Swat’s locals that they share with the visitors. There are countless stories about events leading to the rise of militancy in the area, the locals’ response to the upheaval and the sacrifices they made and the process leading to the restoration of peace in the valley.
And the remnants of the tumultuous era — the debris of the demolished restaurant, for example, add value and credibility to their narratives. There is a perception among many that the destruction has been left there intentionally — as a warning message to militants and their supporters.
During my four-day stay in the valley, one thing was obvious: the locals have mastered the art of storytelling. They recreated the past dramatically; in fact, they terrified me — are these men posing as peaceful locals? I could feel shivers down my spine.
Since the end of the operation in Swat, the site of Maulana Fazlullah’s madrassa, ‘Imam Dheri’, has become a favourite tourist destination. Situated on the riverside, opposite the fish mongers’ huts in Fizaghat, the madrassa accused of promoting militancy and its brand of Islam was demolished by the armed forces during the operation. One can see the structure from a distance… while nibbling crispy Swati fish at these huts — or, if you dare, crossing the gushing river via a pulley-driven doli, operated by young boys, for a closer look.
Local Swatis disassociate themselves from the extremist forces. They seem as clueless about how these militants intruded their space as a person sitting anywhere else in the country and beyond. They strike a chord with you the moment they seek your sympathy. They question why they are left to suffer for the sins of others and not helped to stand back on their feet.
How can I help you? I asked. Simply by showing the real picture of Swat to people outside Swat, was the common plea. “Report a gunshot only if you hear one. You must report accurately. Generally, media persons go back to their cities and draw a very negative picture of law and order here,” says Niaz Ali, a social worker in Madyan, whose contention is that perceptions of fear among local tourists are out of place.
He agrees it’s unrealistic to expect foreign tourists in Swat. In fact, he says, all of Pakistan is out of bounds for them. But he fails to understand why local tourists should stay away from Swat — “It’s strange. Trains, buses and flights to Karachi — which is bathing in blood — go full but the number of tourists heading to the peaceful Swat is far less than desired.”
He says they had braved the longest curfew in the history of the country, spanning 111 days, and fed themselves and their families on potatoes alone — but not left the area.
The tales of courage and resilience of Swat’s locals are many. The way they are struggling to rebuild their lives after the military operation and devastating floods is undoubtedly heart rendering. Take the case of Falak Naz Khatoon, a granddaughter of Wali-e-Swat: Her husband was killed in a targeted bomb blast in the valley and her house in Saidu Sharif remained in the line of fire for long. With Pakistan Army troop stationed on a post on one side of her house and militants on the other, her family would wake up every day to find their lawn full of shrapnels. All night long they would hear the deafening noise of gunfire and could sleep only during the intervals.
I was anxious to know why did she not leave the place for good and decided to stay where her roots were. Rather, she took up the task of renovating her family-owned White Palace Hotel hoping things would improve in days to follow.
Built in 1941, by the first King of Swat Valley, it was his residential palace, which was converted into a hotel later on. Today, she works hand-in-hand with the USAID team working on a multi-million project to revive the hotel industry of Swat.
The sights and tales of emerald mines that remained in the custody of Taliban, the destroyed Malam Jabba ski resort and the PTDC motels there, the barber shops, video centres and TV shops that faced the wrath of Taliban, interest the tourists a lot — all for the excellent storytelling skills of the locals and the era they portray. It adds a new dimension to the pristine valley; yet another reason for tourists to venture here. Swatis deserve a chance after what they have been through in the recent past.
Anyone wishing to drive through the valley is advised to either do so on a 4x4 vehicle or pray the pleasing scenery soothes your bones
By Kaiser Tufail
Returning after yet another weekend trip from our favourite getaway at Sakesar, my wife and I decided to try out a different route on the way back to Lahore. After a heavy downpour, the southbound road from Naushera to Khushab was badly inundated. We checked with some locals about the feasibility of an alternate route heading east to Kallar Kahar to get onto the motorway.
Three successive bystanders assure us that one the road is not bad, except for some repair work, two the road is as good as the other one and three the road is very good. All three comments spurred us to drive through the fabled Soon Valley that lies between Sakesar in the west till Padhrar in the east, a stretch of about 35 miles walled up all along by two ridges about 10 miles apart. What lies between the verdant ridges are striking hues of greens and browns with some shimmery silvers reflected from the beautiful lakes that dot this picturesque valley. ‘Heavenly Bliss’ got a new meaning as we drove through this little traversed stretch of the Salt Range.
Soon Valley is the home of Awans as was evident from signboards at almost every shop in the small towns of Uchali, Naushera, Jabba and Padhrar. The house nameplates of the more well-to-do locals also display the superior title of Malik. A sign of the extravagant taste and affluence of some locals was evident from the concrete urials (wild sheep of the antelope sub-family) crafted to the most exacting proportions and colours that surmount the roofs of their houses. The real life urial has, unfortunately, been hunted to near extinction in the Salt Range, though conservation efforts claim to have arrested the declining numbers.
A few miles out of Naushera, just as we were discussing the merits of the bystanders’ advice about the road conditions, we were jolted by tyres meeting crushed stone. It was the expected road repair work, of course, but we hoped to ride out the rumble in a short while, if the first comment had some truth in it.
Uchali Lake, part of the 3,000-acre Uchali Wetland Complex, could be seen to our left. The lake is bisected at the western edge by a road that was supposed to connect Uchali town with Chitta village, but remains incomplete due to shortage of funds. Sticking out like an ugly varicose vein over the lake’s placid surface, the road was the brainchild of a local politician who thought that a shortcut through the lake would please the locals and bring in votes, while outrightly disregarding issues of environment and aesthetics. The lake is a birdwatcher’s delight, being home to numerous varieties of aquatic birds, especially during the migratory winter months. White-headed Ducks, Greater Flamingos and a variety of grebes are a sample of these birds that can be found especially in this complex.
As we continued rumbling over the ‘under repair’ road, we checked with a passing motorcyclist who told us that the broken stretch would continue for another 15 kilometres. Mercifully, the pleasing scenery soothed our bones that were starting to get jarred. Little shepherd boys tending flocks of goats and sheep were a common sight. Even in small hamlets, children seemed oblivious to school life, which is a pity. Even though the roadside villages could see school buildings, attendance seemed less than satisfactory.
After covering 15 kilometres, there was still no sign of a proper road, so we flagged an oncoming pick-up truck to find out what the driver had to say. “15 kilometres more to Jabba and then you will be on a proper road,” he surprised us, just when we thought the worst was over. Crest-fallen though we were, we slowly trudged along the broken stretch assuring ourselves that the beautiful countryside was, at least, worth the rough ride. Gradually, a large water body came into view which was Khabbeki Lake, the second in Soon Valley. Though much smaller than Uchali, it offers a more charming view since it runs along the roadside. Water birds could be clearly seen but are in small numbers compared to the winter migration season, when the lake is full of many kinds of ducks and flamingos.
As we drove on, we noted that there were no ugly billboards and hoardings to mar the scenery. However, stone quarrying and cutting have left some unsightly scars on the adjoining ridges and one is not sure if this activity is being undertaken lawfully. When one considers that the Salt Range is a geological wonder of Pakistan, it is heart- rending to see its priceless fossil-loaded specimens being ground up in the stone-crushing machines.
Earlier in the morning, we were lucky to have walked over a pathway on Sakesar top, which was littered with rocks bearing imprints of molluscs (a group of small sea animals). Studies show that these creatures lived in the Early Jurassic Era dating to 200 million years ago. Sediments bearing these dead creatures that were once on the seabed got uplifted, folded and buckled — in excruciatingly slow motion — to build mountains due to collisions of the underlying plates of the earth’s crust. Subsequently, erosion of the mountains by the elements led to exposure of the fossils. Such are the ways of Nature that you get to observe in the open air museum of Soon Valley, much as in the Salt Range at large.
The fauna of Soon Valley is restricted to bushes and small trees including sanatha, phullai and kau (wild olive). The wood of the latter is quite hardy and finds use in ploughs, handles and walking sticks. It was no surprise to see a number of camps set up by enterprising Afghan refugees, stacked with heaps of kao wood. Womenfolk, in their brightly coloured ankle-length dresses, could be seen helping their tall, heavily turbaned men with loading lumber in the tractor-driven trolleys. We were left wondering if the local forest conservation authorities are aware of this activity, which, I am told, is prohibited in the area.
Having been on the broken road for two hours, we were delighted when a passer-by told us that Jabba was just 15 minutes away. The car’s fuel warning light had come on and, with no fuel station in sight in the valley, we wanted to get to some worthwhile town at the earliest. As we drove on anxiously, we had a close call when we stalled in a puddle of slush and mud. Mercifully, my wife’s ‘dua’ routine (that had been invoked at several critical junctures earlier) worked, and the wheels suddenly picked up some divinely sanctioned traction. We finally made it to Jabba from where the broken stretch ended and, much to our relief; we got to ride smoothly on a proper road once again. It had taken us two hours to cover just 25 km, but we were lucky to have been driving in a beautiful valley, enjoying its idyllic landscape, never mind the bumps and jerks. As with all good things that come to an end, the small town of Padhrar came into view around a bend in the road, and we bade farewell to Soon Valley.
Anyone wishing to drive through the valley would be well advised to either do so in a 4x4 vehicle or, wait for the road to be repaired fully, which is likely to take about a year or so, at least. A simple picnic with the family at the Uchali and Khabbeki Lakes or nature photography, bird-watching and study of rocks and fossils for the keener types, are some recommended activities. Whatever your preference, if you haven’t had a good outing for a while, it is never too late for the Soon Valley!