During the Taliban occupation, Swat Valley, which was visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1961 and many other dignitaries turned into a mess. Long gone were the backpacking students from Europe who biked their way through the valley. Even Pakistanis who took the annual summer vacations, frequenting Bahrain and Mingora, stopped as news of the Taliban takeover spread. The destruction of Malam Jabba ski resort, a picturesque spot that was frequented by skiers from the region, was savage. The footage beamed all over the world was a stark reminder that the valley was in the grips of mad men. Schools set up by the last rulers were blown away and for many, the images they saw of Afghanistan on TV seemed to have become a horrible reality. But the sad part is that it was religious minded people who supported the maulana, thinking of him as a man of faith who was true to the spirit of Islam.
THE LADY IS NO MOTHER THERESA BUT PROUDLY WALKS HER WAY
by Sumaira Jajja
A note from Raja Mujtaba of Opinion Maker: Mussarat Ahmedzeb is the widow of a dear friend of mine Capt Ahmezeb who was my course mate in Pakistan Military Academy. It’s indeed an honour for me to republish what was published in Dawn about her role and conduct in Swat during all those years of insurgency and terrorism. [Raja Mujtaba]
“I am no mother Teresa!” says Princess Mussarat Ahmedzeb, with a playful sparkle in her eyes. On a cold, wet night as rain lashed Swat, she gave a rundown of how things were in the valley before the 2007 insurgency.
Many know her as the widow of Captain Ahmedzeb, the youngest son of the last ruler of Swat, Miangul Jehanzeb. The girl who got married at barely 15 years of age after the army officer was captivated by her beauty, only to become a widow at 25. Many more know her as the woman behind LaDore’, a small scale enterprise that helped some 500 single mothers and widows in Swat earn respectable livelihoods during the height of the unrest and as the military operation continued.
Her blue eyes often turned misty as she recalled the hard times that the valley has seen over the last few years. Time goes by, things change but at times wounds don’t heal, she says.
From a convent educated girl who lived a well-protected and sheltered life of peace and comfort for most part, the death of her husband had its impact. “That was the day I grew up.” From raising four children on her own to getting them settled, Ahmedzeb’s life followed the trajectory that most single women trace. And then came middle age. While most women either immerse themselves into prayers, looking for salvation, or enjoy the frequent coffee parties and pampering their pooches, Ahmedzeb found her calling: one that she says ‘gave her the option to improve as a human being’.
It was in 2007 when things got really bad in Swat, with the Taliban turning the quaint valley into a bloody mess. The roads that were travelled often by tourists from world over ended up becoming sites where ‘kafirs’ were hanged. The radio station set up by Maulana Fazalullah worked non-stop, twisting the religion and spewing hatred against anyone they deemed an ‘infidel’.
The Swat Valley, that was visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1961 and many other dignitaries turned into a mess. Long gone were the backpacking students from Europe who biked their way through the valley. Even Pakistanis who took the annual summer vacations, frequenting Bahrain and Mingora, stopped as news of the Taliban takeover spread. The destruction of Malam Jabba ski resort, a picturesque spot that was frequented by skiers from the region, was savage. The footage beamed all over the world was a stark reminder that the valley was in the grips of mad men. Schools set up by the last rulers were blown away and for many, the images they saw of Afghanistan on TV seemed to have become a horrible reality.
“The sad part is that it was religious minded people who supported the maulana, thinking of him as a man of faith who was true to the spirit of Islam,” said the matriarch.
“The valley became a mess. People stopped trusting one another; people living under the same roof would not trust each other, thinking that they were with the Taliban. It seemed as if people lost faith in humanity.”
With the bloodshed taking its toll, it was women and children who suffered the most.
“I have seen qayamat in this life time only,” she says, as she went to share the details of what happened in the valley while the army operation continued.
“It was February 1, 2009 when the mini operation began. There were tickers on all TV channels about the operation but the world did not get to see the pain and misery of the people here. Everyone was busy with the upcoming Valentine’s Day preparations and Swat was limited to news in brief,” she recalled.
As always, those with money made it to safety, many moving to Peshawar and Mardan but it were the poor who suffered the most, not only at the hands of the Taliban but also the weather.
“It was raining and then it started snowing. There were people walking in from Matta, Charbagh and Kabal tehsils where the operation to weed out the Taliban was in full swing. It was the wild, wild west.”
“The IDPs started pouring into Mingora but there was no plan on the cards by the administration to take care of them,” she says.
“A boy I knew from his childhood days, came to me, visibly shaken by the plight of the IDPs who practically fled with no shoes or warm clothes. He asked me to do something that night. It was one of the worst nights in Swat, with snow and rain lowering the temperatures,” said Ahmedzeb.
“I requested the then DCO to open the schools (that were closed due to the Taliban threats) but was refused on the ground that he did not have the permission. I got some people to stay in my house but there were thousands of people. So then I asked the locals to break the locks of the schools and let the people take refuge there,” she says, clearly showing that being a princess really is helpful in some cases.
Willing to take the blame for ‘illegally occupying’ public property, Ahmedzeb turned out to be a pillar of strength for many in the area. The next step was to feed the people and provide whatever relief was possible.
“There was curfew in the area and it was lifted at 6.00am every day. So we pretty much had little time to plan out things. I got the elders from communities and we started looking for food and warm clothes. But what emerged next was a picture that makes me say we have been through qayamat.”
Ahmedzeb shared stories of horror, the ones that many would not even think of. “There was a young girl who fled, all the while holding a blanket in her arms, thinking that her baby was safe. It was only during search, at the Kanjoo Bridge, that she found out that the baby had slipped somewhere along the way. Then there was another woman who held on to her lifeless son’s body and walked for miles. Their cries and wails still haunt us.”
Yet another woman had to make a much tougher decision as she fled with her six children. “She told me, ‘Bibi I left my handicapped husband in the house and took my children. I could not carry him’. While I was trying to grapple with the shock, she said that she left the doors and windows open so that he dies due to cold early, ‘would be easier for him to die due to cold and hunger’”.
“I can’t judge anyone but wars do make us do strange things; what that woman did was more out of maternal love than anything else. No one should be in a position to make such a choice.”
The worst part was that none of these women were considered eligible for the cash grant awarded by the government. “Families of blast victims get cash grants, not women who had their husbands slaughtered by the Taliban. Also, do you think one lakh rupees is enough for a life time?”
From her own experience as a widow and realising the little options the women had, Ahmedzeb tried to intervene and LaDore’ was born.
The writer Sumaira Jajja is Pakistani journalist whose writings frequently appear in the leading English dailies of Pakistan like Dawn and th News Intenational. Follow her twitter.com/#!/sumairajajja
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