MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan re-opened schools over the weekend in the Swat valley where troops have been fighting Taliban guerrillas for over three months.
While hundreds of thousands of people who fled Swat to escape the fighting have now returned home, getting back to normal life will take longer in a region still under military curfew.
But the sight of children going to school lifted morale.
“It’s a milestone,” said Atif-ur-Rehman, the top government official in the region after classes resumed on Saturday.
“It’s been heartening to see boys and girls going to school in uniform,” he said, rueing a lack of transport that meant many missed their first day back.
Girls’ schools, in particular, had been one of the Taliban’s main targets during a campaign to enforce their own severe interpretation of Islamic law in the region hitherto known for its alpine beauty and passive people.
Where school buildings were either destroyed or badly damaged, classes were conducted under a canopy to provide shade from the fierce summer sun.
Most of the Taliban may have been either killed or driven out of the valley by the army’s offensive, but their threat still haunts the people.
“People are scared that if they visit markets, the Taliban may come and harass them,” Omar Sherin, a 55 year-old civil engineer said, while accompanying the womenfolk of his family shopping for clothes in Mingora.
“It will take time. You don’t expect normalcy will return overnight. Their confidence has been shaken. They’ve been terrorized.”
A decapitated policeman’s body dumped early last week on the outskirts of Mingora, Swat’s main town, was just one deadly reminder that the Taliban haven’t gone away entirely.
Last month, the government opened up Swat and neighboring districts for more than two million displaced people after the military said 90 percent of the region had been cleared.
According to the military, nearly 1,800 militants have been killed during the campaign, but there is no way of independently verifying casualties.
“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”
The main pockets of resistance are toward the north of the broad alpine valley, that was once a favored destination for honeymooners and trekkers.
There are also doubts over whether the army has managed to eliminate many of the militants leaders.
Just last week, Fazlullah, the commander of the Taliban in Swat, otherwise known as “Mullah Radio” because of his fondness for delivering messages on FM radio, stamped his defiance.
In an audio-recording played down the telephone by a Taliban spokesman to Reuters and other media, Fazlullah said the struggle would go on until Islamic sharia law was enforced in the valley.
The people of Swat got a taste of the Taliban’s idea of Islamic law during the past two years, as the militants slaughtered rivals and hanged their bodies in public, flogged women, closed music and video shops and banned shaving beards.
In a vain effort to appease the militants the government had agreed in April to the introduction of Islamic law, albeit not the Taliban’s extreme version, in Swat and other parts of the Malakand region of North West Frontier Province.
But when it became clear that the militants would not be satisfied, and their fighters slipped into the neighboring Buner valley, just 100 km (60 miles) from Islamabad, the army was ordered to mount a campaign.
Public opinion, which in the past had wavered over the use of force against fellow Muslim Pakistanis, finally got behind the government.
Irfanullah Khan, a goldsmith in Mingora, said he would migrate to another city in Pakistan if the Taliban reemerge.
“We’ll leave this town forever. We have heard them carrying out operations in the past but they stopped them at a certain stage but not now, they have to finish them. Enough is enough.”
The next milestones in Swat’s recovery will be the return of political leaders and the re-establishment of administrative and judicial systems, but the army will have to provide security as police cannot match well-armed Taliban fighters.
Many demand that the government should make its departments, especially police and courts, efficient and corruption-free as that would block the militants’ return.
“We all need to change our attitudes. The system needs improvement, overhauling otherwise the Taliban will reemerge,” Arshad Hussain Khan, a cloth merchant, told Reuters.
Khan was scathing about the behavior of politicians who were supposed to be with the people.
“How can you encourage people to come back to normal life if their representatives haven’t returned?” he asked bitterly.
“If someone bothers to visit here, he comes in a helicopter and roams around with security guards. What message are they giving their people?”