Taliban threats in Pakistan are heard a world away
Last June, Bakht Bilind Khan, who was living in New York and working at a fast-food restaurant, returned to his village in the volatile Swat Valley of northern Pakistan to visit his wife and seven children for the first time in three years. But during a dinner celebration with his family, his homecoming suddenly turned dark: several heavily armed Taliban fighters wearing masks appeared at the door of their house, accused Khan of being an American spy and kidnapped him.
During two weeks of captivity in a nearby mountain range, Khan says, he was interrogated repeatedly about his wealth, property and "mission" in the United States. He was released in exchange for an $8,000 ransom. His family, threatened with death if they did not leave the region, is now hiding elsewhere in Pakistan.
"Our Swat, our paradise, is burning now," said Khan, 55, who returned to the United States and is working at a fast-food restaurant in Albany, trying to reimburse the friends and relatives who paid his ransom.
Pakistani immigrants from the Swat Valley, where the Taliban have been battling Pakistani security forces since 2007, say some of their families are being singled out for threats, kidnapping and even murder by Taliban forces, who view them as potential American collaborators and lucrative sources of ransom. Some immigrants also say they, too, have been threatened in the United States by the Taliban or its sympathizers, and some immigrants say they have been attacked or kidnapped when they have returned home.
The threats have brought an added dimension of suffering for the immigrants, who say fresh reports of hardship arrive here every day, sometimes several times a day, and spread quickly among the several thousand Swati immigrants in the New York region: families driven from their villages, houses being destroyed, relatives disappearing. The fate of the valley dominates conversation among the exiles.
"It's 24/7," said Zakrya Khan, 30, the owner of two gyro restaurants in New York whose staff of 15 is almost entirely Swati. "This is their only concern now."
Though every community of exiles from a conflict-ridden country suffers when relatives who remain behind are caught in the fight, the immigrants from Swat also bear the burden of believing that their presence in America is endangering their relatives back home, where the Taliban have imposed their authority over vast swaths of the region, about 100 miles northwest of Islamabad.
More than that, Swati immigrants say they have been left with the sense that the more they try to help their families back home, the more harm they may do, an excruciating dilemma that has filled many with a combination of helplessness, fear, sadness and guilt.
If they speak out, they fear, it could lead to retribution for them or their relatives in Pakistan. Some exiles who have participated in anti-Taliban political demonstrations here or agitated in support of Swat residents say that they and their families have come under pressure as a result of these activities.
And few dare leave the United States for fear of losing the single largest income stream their families have.
"To go to their rescue would actually make the situation worse," said Khan, the restaurant owner. "We are the only source of income for these people. If we leave the United States, they'll have no one supporting them."
The Pakistan government announced Monday that it had struck a tentative deal with the Taliban amid a 10-day ceasefire to establish Islamic law in the region and suspend military operations there. But some Swati immigrants said they were skeptical the deal would hold ? two other accords in the last six months failed ? and they were bracing for a resumption of violence.
Iqbal Ali Khan, 50, the general secretary of the American chapter of the Awami National Party, a dominant secular political party in Swat, said he had received three threatening phone calls in the past two months. The callers, who did not identify themselves, told Khan he was "too active" and ordered him to bring $1 million with him on his next trip to Pakistan.
"Or you know what will happen," one caller said, according to Khan, who is also the owner of a limousine company based in New York. "We know your family."
The most recent call came last Tuesday. "You're still active," Khan quoted the caller as saying. "This is the last warning."
On Wednesday, he received a dire call from his brother, who at that very moment was hiding in a forest on the outskirts of the valley's largest city, Mingora, with their 97-year-old father.
The elder Khan had received a letter from the Taliban earlier in the day warning him that he would be kidnapped unless he handed over $200,000. The note specifically instructed the father to get the money from his son in the United States.
"My 97-year-old father is on the run," exclaimed the younger Khan, his voice choking up in sadness. "Tragedy! Tragedy!"
Before the start of the Taliban's incursion into the region in 2007, Swat was treasured as a vacation spot, particularly among Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the region. Known as "the Switzerland of Pakistan," it has snowy peaks, fruit orchards, lakes and flower-covered meadows.
But the tourism industry has evaporated amid the Taliban's uprising, and by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of residents have abandoned their homes, fleeing for Mingora or other regions of Pakistan. Immigrants have been coming from the Swat Valley for years, well before it became a front in the war between the Taliban and Pakistani government troops. There are an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people from the Swat Valley in the United States, about half of whom live in the New York metropolitan region, said Taj Akbar Khan, president of the Khyber Society USA, a Pakistani charitable and cultural organization. In New York, Swatis generally live within the larger Pakistani population, which is concentrated in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and Astoria, Queens, among other neighborhoods.
Many Swatis here suspect that the Taliban have spies among them; that insecurity mirrors the rampant mistrust in the valley, where many residents fear the Pakistani security forces almost as much as the Taliban and do not know whom to trust.
Perhaps with the help of stateside sympathizers, the Taliban have been adept at tracking the flow of money from the United states, and have turned increasingly to kidnapping recipients of the money with the goal of securing hefty ransoms, the exiles say.
Ajab, the owner of a fried chicken shop in Paterson, New Jersey, said the Taliban kidnapped a brother-in-law last year near the family's village in the Swat Valley.
During 75 days of captivity, the Taliban fighters told the brother-in-law that one of the reasons they had kidnapped him was that he had relatives in the United States, including Ajab. The fighters released him after the family paid a $20,000 ransom.
"We are sad that because of us, our relatives are getting into trouble," said Ajab, 51, who spoke only on the condition that his last name not be published, to protect his family's identity.
Not all of the violence visited upon the families of exiles has been due to the exiles' presence here. But the difficulty of watching it at such a remove has been no less agonizing.
Leaving behind his family in Swat, Jihanzada came to the United States in 2001 to earn money to build his dream house back home and to pay for the future weddings of his five children. He worked numerous menial jobs in Boston and New York.
"Everything I earned I sent back home," he said in an interview last week at a fast-food restaurant in Brooklyn where he works.
He, too, spoke on the condition that he not be fully identified for fear of alerting the Taliban to his presence in the United States. "If they knew I was here, they would definitely harm my family," he said. "If they got information that I talked to you, they can come and target me."
The house was completed early last year; Jihanzada still has not seen it: he has not returned to Pakistan since he left eight years ago.
But during fighting last summer between the Taliban and the Pakistani security forces, a bomb dropped by Pakistani military aircraft demolished the house. Jihanzada's family had evacuated before the fighting began and are now living in Mingora. His eldest daughter's wedding, scheduled for next month, was postponed.
Jihanzada, who said he could not return to Pakistan because he had an asylum petition pending, received photographs of the destruction soon after the attack. Asked how he felt when he first saw the photographs, he dropped his head, concealing his face behind the brim of his brown restaurant cap and trying to stem a surge of sadness. He stayed like that for a full minute, saying nothing.
Finally, he continued: "This is every Pashtun's dream: You earn, you build a home, your children grow up in it and when you get old you go and sit at home and enjoy life. I'm sad because my struggles start again."