photojournalist Beb REYNOL

Pakistan photography

In Taliban Land
Inside the Swat Valley

After nearly a week in Islamabad, I took a very long and painful journey into the much-conflicted regions of Pakistan, the Swat valley, in search for a new refugee camp hidden into the hills of Timargara. Escaping Taliban insurgency and government warfare from the Tribal belt of the Bajaur District, the displaced Pashtuns took refuge with stories of atrocities and hopes of returns.

Timargara looks very much like another town just like this one in the Swat valley, with a very busy and dusty main road swinging through the natural landscapes of the hills of the Dir District, at the foot of the Hindu Kush ranges. A young man guided me to a police officer who in turns, took me, on his motorcycle, to find the best hotel in town. Somehow, we can always count on anyone's hospitality unless it all goes very wrong.

As the darkness of the night fell upon us, the discomfort of being spotted dissipate and as we make our own path through the artery of a human flow, our bodies have finally taken several shapes as light beams from imposing car traffic illuminated our positions. Silhouette and shadows, these are what we have become while our lungs were saturated with dust and car fumes irritated nostrils and throats.

Young Pashtuns were the common guest at the hotel. They were often smoking cigarettes and drinking Kawa while spending an evening of good laugh and watching cricket games on television. The decoration of bamboo on the wall, the gecko that took everyone's attention when it made its way across the room, were such a distraction to the incommodity of the rugged environment the region has to offer.

Fatigue took me suddenly and was lead to my room: a square space with 2 dirty beds on a once green carpet. The room had a fan that I used to breathe the air but instead circulated the smell of human feces from the pit placed in the toilet area only separated with a wooden door. I woke up with a resistance from inhaling the stench of feces odor. The sun had already risen above the first hill facing the valley and the river; the light was pink, the dust already in the air. After 2 eggs and a black tea, I was lead by a driver just south of the town to climb through a rocky and dirt road up to a pass where grew eucalyptus and poplar trees. At the least expected turn on switchbacks, the Khungi refugee camp appeared to us.

The hills just down below the road surrendered to a thousand tents and more, where took refuge over 7000 displaced individuals belonging to the Mamunda tribe of the Bajaur tribal region. Forbidden to move from the compound, men lined up along a ridge, knee down to their ankles. They appeared calm.

They greeted me in the most respected traditions; they offered tea and soup in profusion and lead me to a chair in the shade. There was a sense of normalcy at the camp, considering their uprooted condition; it was strange to notice a strong sense of humor among the Pashtuns, a society known for its immeasurable pride; they often laughed and was invited to attend an open discussions with the elders of the tribe and the local police and for this fact, I felt I was penetrating into their land.

As the sun rose above my head, I left to return to the town. As I was taking a stroll through the bazaar, passing Taliban sympathizers, I was approached by a Pakistani journalist who I met the night before. He kept a one-day shave that was neatly tailored below his cheekbones, wore a brown sports-jacket over his pressed shawal kamiz reflecting a very meticulous personality, just the way I would imagine an informant to look like. He said he would be meeting me at my hotel in one-hour time. On my return to my room, he was absent but two commandos from the Frontier Police Post were waiting for me.

I was greeted with great camaraderie and strong handshakes by one tall and one short officer with Kalashnikov around their shoulders, and wearing a black beret above their head. I was escorted to their convoy waiting outside, a canvas hooted blue pick up truck where I was offered a front seat next to the tall chiseled-face-well-shaven-well-built Pathan commando Fazal Mamood.

"You are very nice, Mister Beb! You are very, very nice - with a finger pointed at me. Your shawal kamiz is your only protection". We drove away along the road parallel to the river and passed a tall and old Taliban holding the official black flag of the old regime, standing just across their camp where they were recruiting. After a brief explanation at the Frontier Post headquarters, I was told to leave the area. Under the pretext of my security, they escorted me away from the town where another pick up was waiting for me, with four armed commandos were keeping an eye in all directions.

Commandos after commandos, from vehicle after vehicle, we drove down the valley of Mardan, rushing down the mountainous-200-meter-cliffed winning road leading to Noshera, bypassing traffic jams and hurling sirens more often than they should have, alarming an important convoy - me, and coordinating over the radio my exchange 12 times until I was pushed out over 200 kilometers away from Timargara to a bus station where an old army officer was ordered to watch me go on it, in direction to Islamabad.

Beb C. Reynol, Swat - 2008.

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