Trying to Heal, Pakistan Valley Fears New Battles
MINGORA, Pakistan — Schools have officially reopened. Soldiers stand guard at checkpoints and have established a semblance of order. Many thousands have returned here to a town that is mostly intact, if still under a military presence.
But Mingora, a battle-scarred city in the Swat Valley, remains tense. Pakistan’s efforts to restore normalcy — a vital test of the government’s resolve to stand up to the Taliban — waver between fear and hope, leaving an enduring victory over the militants a distant goal.
Beneath the surface of relative calm, there is the sense that a new and more insidious conflict may be afoot, one that could take many months to play out before the fate of this once-prosperous region is ultimately decided.
On Sunday morning, a body, hands bound with rope and shot in the back of the head, lay on the sidewalk of a main road. A note pinned to the shirt and written in Urdu gave the victim’s name, Gul Khitab, and said he was from Matta, one of the remaining Taliban strongholds. “Enemy of Swat,” it read.
Rumors abound of other bodies being dumped in the last two weeks, a signal that the army may be prepared to use extrajudicial killings to settle scores. A government employee, Murad Ali, who peered at the body, said he had seen three bodies, shot in the head, lying in similar fashion in the past six days.
Asked about the identity of the man, an army commander who stopped to look, and then moved on, said with a grin, “Maybe a bad guy.” A military spokesman, Maj. Nasir Khan, said the army was unaware of the death and did not condone extrajudicial killing.
If no one knew precisely what to make of the body, it was a clear enough sign that the conflict in Swat was not over.
To the fear and frustration of those who suffered at their hands, the top Taliban leaders remain on the loose. Taliban fighters have melted away to the periphery of Swat or to neighboring areas, like Dir, leaving soldiers and civilians alike filled with dread of when — and how — the insurgents would return.
On Friday, warning shots could be heard, as jittery soldiers, worried about suicide bombers, patrolled on with hair triggers.
Three months after the Pakistani military began its offensive, many among the more than one million displaced have returned, expecting calm but still uncertain whether the military can guarantee it.
The failure to kill or capture Taliban leaders has left many here suspicious that the military is not serious about taking on the Taliban. To allay fears, the military has publicly presented four teenage boys who it says were captured by the Taliban and placed in a training camp with more than 100 other boys, all of them hostages.
The boys said they were lectured by a trainer on how the army was an “infidel” organization filled with “apostates.” The four boys said they escaped in less than two weeks.
For the moment, the military’s presence is tolerated. But the fact that soldiers are holed up in schools — the prestigious Sarosh Academy is being used as a prison for Taliban militants — does not make people happy, either.
The western part of the city remains barricaded. The many requirements to secure the peace — functioning courts and other government services — seem months away.
“One year — we’ll be lucky if we get this under control,” Atif ur-Rehman, the district coordinating officer who is one of the senior government officials in Swat, said in the garden of his residence on a hill above the town.
Mr. Rehman, the point man for foreign donors who are beginning to line up with plans for reconstructing Swat, said the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank were assessing needs based on the damage to buildings, roads and bridges after two years of periodic fighting between the militants and the army, and the three-month offensive.
The United Nations planned to help restore health and education services. The United States Agency for International Development had also offered to help.
“Their mode of working is slower than the government of Pakistan,” Mr. Rehman said of his meeting with officials at the American agency.
Whether these foreign aid programs can be done fast enough to satisfy the people who are most vulnerable to the lure of the militants is a pressing concern.
At Takhtaband, an impoverished area on the edge of Mingora, Rahim Khan described two aerial strikes by the Pakistani military around 5 p.m. on May 15, at a playground where children were playing cricket.
The strikes killed 27 people, including his mother, father and eight children, Mr. Khan said. The second raid came as relatives picked up the wounded and the dead from the first attack, Mr. Khan said.
Nearby, as he spoke, a skull was lodged in a crevice among the broken bricks, and from the smell it seemed likely that bodies were still strewn beneath them.
The strike was apparently intended for an adjacent farm that was used by the Taliban, Mr. Khan said. The farm was untouched by the attack, though six or seven Taliban were also killed in the strikes, he said.
The most bitter experience, he said, was dragging 12 of the most seriously wounded on a harrowing two-day walk to a hospital in Malakand. Some were carried on the backs of men, and others were put in wheelbarrows, he said. Six of the 12 later died, he said.
The May 15 date described by Mr. Khan corresponds to official army reports, made May 18, that heavy fighting was under way in the Takhtaband area, and that two Taliban commanders had been killed.
For most of the 20th century, Swat was a place apart in Pakistan. It was run until 1969 by a hereditary ruler, and its natural beauty of cascading rivers, towering mountains and pristine forests drew wealthy Pakistanis.
The Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation hotel reopened two weeks ago. It still serves tea in pots covered by cozies and poured into flower-patterned china cups, one of the few genteel touches to survive the traumas of the last two years.
The owner of a copy shop, Jehangir Khan, said his customers now were mostly those applying for government compensation for damaged property. “Business is equal to nothing,” he said.
Would Swat ever be the same? “It’s difficult to see,” he said. “The government never takes care of its promises.”