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Despite Peace, Anti-Taliban Activists Are Targeted In Pakistan's Swat Valley

Pakistan -- Swat: Zahid Khan, president of hotel association and peace activist injured by unknown arm men, undated
Pakistan -- Swat: Zahid Khan, president of hotel association and peace activist injured by unknown arm men, undated
Years after a major military operation freed Pakistan's northwestern Swat Valley from Taliban control, local peace activists live in fear of bombs and bullets.

Zahid Khan, a senior leader of the anti-Taliban tribal council, or Swat Qaumi Jirga, says that peace has returned to Swat since the 2009 campaign, but targeted killings of local elders, political workers and peace activists continue.

Khan has survived three assassination attempts for standing up to the hardline militants.

He told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that 12 anti-Taliban activists were killed last year.

"The state is indifferent to our plight," he said. "Despite tall claims by authorities, attacks on peace activists continue.”

According to Khan, 58, families of the Swati elders and peace activists killed by Taliban assassins get no compensation from authorities, while other civilian victims of terrorist attacks are paid the equivalent of more than $10,000.

A gathering of Swat Qami Jirga last year.
A gathering of Swat Qami Jirga last year.
He says that fear of Taliban assassins prevents local leaders from playing a proactive role in helping Swatis rebuild their livelihoods and press for their rights.

"I am restricted to my home. I can't go outside without the permission of the security forces." he says.

Six year ago Khan, a former president of an association of hoteliers in Swat, emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah.

Radical sermons spread Fazlullah’s control over Swat with the help of his fiery illegal radio broadcasts, which earned him the nickname "Radio Mullah." In 2007 Khan and his friends formed the Swat Qaumi Jirga to campaign for peace.

In 2008, his council was the only local organization to publically demand that Islamabad intervene to end Fazlullah's rule in the mountainous region -- once a favorite holiday destination for Pakistani and foreign tourists.

"A majority of Swatis depended on tourism for their livelihoods which was threatened by terrorism," he recalled. "Locals were being terrorized by bomb attacks in public places and on funerals. We just wanted peace."

Khan was declared a Taliban enemy and militants attacked his car and his house, but he was saved by supporters who fought the Taliban in gun battles.

In the following year Khan and other leaders of the Swat Qaumi Jirga were forced to flee their homes but they continued their struggle. They were instrumental in raising awareness about Taliban brutalities, both inside Pakistan and internationally.

Their return to Swat after a major military operation in 2009 was not a happy homecoming. Khan's friends were systematically targeted in drive-by shootings and suicide bombings. In August 2012, Khan was shot in the head. He survived after complicated skull surgerry and long treatment.

Two months later the Taliban shot child rights icon Malala Yousafzai at a school in Swat's main city, Saidu Sharif. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a close friend of Khan, was one of the leaders of Swat Qaumi Jirga and was outspoken about preventing the Taliban from returning to the valley.

Khan's struggle for peace was undermined by government efforts, too. Seeking to replicate the Swat Qaumi Jirga's model, authorities created numerous 'peace committees' to prevent a Taliban comeback by hunting their sympathizers among Swat's residents. This, however, resulted in retribution, reprisal killings and persecution of families.

Sher Muhammad Khan, a human rights campaigner and lawyer in Swat, says authorities are indifferent to the plight of Swat Qaumi Jirga leaders.

He says that the government first encouraged people to oppose the Taliban publically, but is now failing to protect them from retribution. He adds that authorities are even reluctant to protect and help families of murdered activists.

Khan says that such failures are now leading locals to oppose the government-backed peace committees.

Authorities in Swat, however, claim that peace has returned to Swat after the 2009 military operations. They point to the lack of major terrorist attacks in the valley since then as evidence of the government's success.

Salman Lodhi, a senior civilian official in Swat, says that the government pays compensation to those who follow its policies. "You will have to prove that your relatives were killed in a terrorist attack," he says.

The emergence of Fazlullah as the leader of Tehreek-e Taliban (TTP) Pakistan in late 2013 worries Swat residents. He assumed the leadership of TTP after a suspected drone strike killed its then-chief, Hakimullah Mehsud in November.

People in Swat are concerned that as the leader of the main insurgent faction in Pakistan, Fazlullah might unleash a new terror campaign in the region.

But Khan is adamant to fight on. He believes that Taliban violence can only end if Islamabad develops a political consensus against terrorism to back a comprehensive national counterterrorism strategy.

He says that extremists would not succeed despite fomenting violence. "They can’t kill everyone, their faces are exposed and they will never be able to impose their agenda on the people," Khan says.