Foize Nasim interviewed Saira, a 20 years old girl from Mingora, Swat at a training centre set up by PPAF at Jalala Camp.
Saira has 7 sisters and 3 brothers. 3 of her sisters are married, two of whom were living at Jalala with their families. One sister, Farhat was missing with her husband, who had decided to stay back at Mingora. Saira and her family had been calling her cell phone and PTCL line but had no news from her.
Saira had studied till class 6 and was currently enrolled in a religious course for becoming an alima at Mingora. Her father worked as a laborer but her family owned a sweetshop which was blown up last year when the Taliban arrived. She could not say why they had targeted her family’s shop.
Saira mentioned that she had arrived two months ago and they were 13 people living in two tents at Jalala Camp. She said her family had walked from 7 a.m. till 9 p.m. from Mingora when they decided to leave. They reached Batkhail on foot and then rented a car for Rs.12,000 to reach Jalala at 1 a.m. the next day.
Saira said reaching the camp, the first thing she did was to search a doctor because she had painful blisters on her feet, which were swollen for many days afterwards. Her space at Jalala was not easily arranged because her cousin was already living there and with their arrival, it was forty people to accommodate in two tents. Saira and her family went to Peshawar at a relative’s house but found themselves extremely crammed in their house. A few days later, her cousin had arranged tents for them at Jalala and they immediately settled there.
Saira mentioned that at the beginning they were only given watery daal, which was more watery than soup. Her family did receive wheat bags from WFP and 2 kg bags of sugar for the first month but then they had to buy vegetables on their own. Luckily, her family had brought along tons of food, clothes and other goods with them, which lasted only for the first month.
Saira said they had received a stove one week back, around June 28th. Before that they had been using wood to cook. Her life was torturous at the beginning. She would have nightmares in her sleep and found herself becoming weaker every passing day.
Thankfully, the vocational training centre was set up at Jalala. She was one of the first ones to enroll in its simple program of learning sewing and embroidery. She spent most of her time at the centre, learning and working with other women there. The clothes they stitched had no market and were put on display only in the centre. The activity itself was enough to keep her busy and active throughout the day.
Saira did not have much views on why the war had taken place and who was responsible but she said she would run home bare feet when the roads were opened. She insisted that the government must give them monetary support for repairing the homes at their return.
Saira said her only wish was to go back home and finish her studies at the madrassa.
Foize then spoke with Afsana, an 18 year old from Mingora, Swat. Afsana is completing her intermediate at Degree College, Saidu Sharif. Her father works as a mason and has made education compulsory for his 3 sons and 3 daughters, all of whom are either in school or in college.
Afsana explained how she had been hearing news of violence in Swat for two years but three months ago the situation had became terrible. She said the first sign of Taliban arrival for her was the presence of dead bodies of security personnel, police and rangers on her way to college.
Afsana said that she never took the hijab and simply covered her head with a dupatta like girls do in cities of Swat. But out of fear of the Taliban she and her peers had started wearing the burqa. She said it had become a habit now and because she had seen families who were supporters of the Taliban in Jalala Camp, she did not want to be targeted once they returned home.
Surprisingly, Afsana shared that the Taliban did not harm her family and never targeted the local population. She said they always had selected targets, people they killed for their own political motives. She joked and said that they had taken the shoes of her brother because they were of fine, imported leather.
Afsana said that she used to go to college in Saidu Sharif. She had started hearing bomb blasts in the mountains and in the outskirts of Mingora and Saidu Sharif as well. Fearing for their lives, Afsana and her friends began walking to college rather than taking a bus, which took them 45 minutes one way every morning and the same time to return every afternoon.
She was also an eyewitness to the execution of the dancer Shabana in Mingora. In early January 09, the story of Shaban’s bullet-ridden body found slumped on the ground in the centre of Mingora’s Green Square, strewn with money, CD recordings of her performances and photographs from her albums filled the local and international press. Here are some links to her story: http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=19403
Afsana mentioned that this dancer was well known in her area. People knew of her professional activities and women objected to her dancing for money but everyone knew the socio-economic reasons for her performing in weddings and parties. Shabana had brothers at home but none were supporting her aged parents, who had incurred huge debts while marrying off her elder sisters. Afsana said that it was obvious that Shabana had resorted to dancing because of poverty. This ‘degrading’ profession was providing her sufficient amounts to feed, clothe and pay the medical bills of her parents as well as running her household. She had been threatened to stop dancing but not one to be easily subdued, Shabana had continued providing her services in Mingora.
Afsana remembered how Shabana was dragged from her hair, shot five bullets and then strangled from her neck by her dupatta and hung on the main chowk of Mingora city, where people were told to leave her dead body alone. Afsana had seen her body the day it was placed in the chowk and is still mortified by its image embedded in her mind.
Afsana mentioned that her family decided to leave Mingora when all others residents of the city were deserting their homes. Her family walked for five kilometers till Odigram and then paid large sums of money to people with cars to give them rides to Takht-Bhai.
Afsana shared that at one point on the road to Takht-Bhai, Taliban had stopped their car and told the driver to drop her family and take ordinary looking Taliban in his car as IDPs. The driver resisted and immediately called a contact in the army. The Taliban were unarmed and tried to stop him but he had already shared his location and told the criminals that the army had promised to send helicopters. This made them run away.
Afsana and her family reached Jalala Camp at 7 p.m. There was only one tent available for seven people of her family. She said that they did not eat anything till 3 p.m. the next day, which was only plain, bland soup. Later, they started to receive cooked food from Al-Khidmat Foundation. Only once Afsana’s family received 5 kgs of wheat and sugar, which was finished in 10 days. At the time of the interview, they were receiving wheat and lentils from WFP. She laughed telling Foize that the bags had pictures of Nawaz Sharif on them. However, her family had spent all their money on buying food for themselves since the donated food items were never enough. Thankfully, they had received electricity and fans this month in the tent.
On July 4th, Afsana had been at the camp for one month and 15 days. She was working as a supervisor of teachers in a school set up by Khwendo Kor, with the help of PPAF. She managed administration issues of the school. She shared the terrifying facts of children creating art related to war, such as pictures of the Taliban in trucks carrying guns and their bloody punishments.
Afsana said after reaching Jalala Camp, she used to have nightmares of the Taliban killing her and her family. Only after she began working at the school from June did she feel much better. Even now, she could not stop crying at times of severe depression. She had learned that the government school where she had studied in Mingora was bombed by Taliban. Her father had also found out that their house had been destroyed in Mingora.
Afsana mentioned that her sister was working with Hayat Foundation and her brother was completing his matriculation exams. She and her sister had also completed a course called ‘Dast Khair’ from Pakistan Bait-Ul-Maal at Jalala Camp.
She said the government had announced that they could return by July 10th. Her mother wants to go back but she do not wish to return to her life in Mingora. Afsana questioned what they were going to do? Their house had been destroyed and the security situation was still perilous. They also did not have any news of relatives who had stayed back since the phone lines were down.
Afsana mentioned that an uncle, Aurangzeb, got injured when a grenade splinter hit him in the back after the army’s arrival at Mingora. Aurangzeb used to take pictures with his cellphone of the Taliban and the people killed in their area.
Afsana said that she wanted to study, work and buy a house in Mardan or Peshawar. She said that her sister wanted to become a doctor in Peshawar.
When asked what she thought about the government and its efforts, Afsana said she was happy with the arrangements made for their relief. She said the government had supported them and she was proud to be a Pakistani. She added that the government must repair and reopen schools and colleges damaged in the fighting. She wanted a chance to acquire more education for herself and her siblings.
Afsana concluded that she was still scared for her life and feared what lay in the future. She was certain that there were Taliban women living as IDPs at Jalala and other camps who will return to Swat and help them resurge. She said that if she had to die, she would prefer it by the hands of the army not the Taliban.