In Pakistan's Swat Valley, an Eid Tempered by Recent Dangers

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan -- Girls in bright dresses pushed each other on swings, and boys in pastel tunics played soldier with toy rifles. Neighbors hugged, families gathered and vendors sold scoop after scoop of sweet custard.

This week is the first time in three years that people in Pakistan's Swat Valley have been able to celebrate Eid al-Fitr -- the joyous three-day festival that follows the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and its daily fasting -- without looking anxiously over their shoulders for armed religious vigilantes in pickup trucks.

But the Taliban-free holiday has been bittersweet for many Swatis, still shellshocked from the summer-long army operation that drove the Islamist militants from this verdant northwest valley but also left a path of death and destruction and sent hundreds of thousands of inhabitants fleeing for their lives.

"It doesn't really feel like Eid, because we cannot forget so soon," said Sadiq Khan, a fruit seller in the town of Batkhela. "They are still finding bodies in the Swat River. We had to spend weeks in those hot tents, and some of our women had to give birth on the road as we ran from the fighting. There is too much sorrow and shame for us to celebrate."

Two months after the Pakistani army declared that people could return home from their makeshift camps and lodgings, Swat still looks like a war zone. In towns and villages leading to this regional center, dozens of buildings lie in ruins. Some were schools destroyed by the militants; others were homes and shops blasted by army shelling.

The main road through the valley winds past peach orchards, rice paddies and fragrant eucalyptus groves. But drivers must navigate a succession of military barricades concocted from boulders, trees, car parts and iron pipes. Every few miles, soldiers flag down long lines of vehicles, peer inside and check each passenger's face against photos of fugitive Taliban leaders.

Although there is no visible sign of the armed and turbaned militants who once freely roamed Swat, enforcing Islamic laws and meting out punishment to miscreants, the specter of the Taliban hovers close. Three weeks ago, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a police training center here, killing 16 recruits.

Although the 7 p.m.-to-11 a.m. army curfew has been briefly lifted for Eid, few people go out after dark and most shops remain closed until midmorning.

"There is less fear now, but people are still worried the militants will come back, so they don't feel completely free," said Shah Zia ul Haq, 40, a shop owner in Balogram whose house was partly destroyed by army shelling. "My family is still in mourning because my brother was killed when he went outside after curfew one night. We still don't know what happened to him in the dark."

The enjoyment of Eid here was also marred by a political and religious dispute over exactly when the holiday began and people could end their month of daily 15-hour fasts. Officially, Eid is declared when a national committee of Islamic scholars announces that the new moon has been sighted. But local committees in the northwest -- led by conservative clerics aligned with Afghan and Saudi religious practices -- strove to prove the moon had appeared sooner.

As a result, Swatis who obeyed the local mullahs broke their Ramadan fast on Sunday and began celebrating; others remained fasting until the government declared Eid on Monday, leading to awkward social situations, semi-opened markets and general annoyance.

"Everything is confused," said Noor Rehman, a butcher in Batkhela, where many shops were closed Monday. "Some mosques announced it was Eid yesterday, but others said we should still fast. It is because the government is too weak. We need to have one Eid to unify the country."

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