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Life returns to Pakistan's Swat Valley

Pakistan, July 29, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Reuters/Faisal Mahmood, courtesy of www.alertnet.org  </span>
    Displaced families are returning to their homes in Pakistan's Swat Valley, months after fleeing a Taliban onslaught. Photo: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood, courtesy of www.alertnet.org

Swat is often called the Switzerland of Pakistan, and yesterday I had a chance to see why.

I had the rare opportunity to tour the conflict-affected areas by helicopter, where access has been restricted due to security concerns. Flying at treetop level provides an eerie sense of omniscience, looking onto rooftops and into courtyards. The contours of the land, the underlying patterns of villages and roads become clear, especially in the rugged mountains of Swat where the roads snake over passes and along ridges, houses hug the mountainside alongside terraced ridges.

As we flew yesterday, we passed over a long line of trucks, rickshaws, cars and buses filled with the displaced residents of Swat returning home. The "all clear" has been sounded for all of Buner and most of Swat, the two districts of Pakistan where conflict had pushed out most of the residents in a terrifying exodus — most of them left with minimal possessions, and many of whom walked for several days until they reached either transport or shelter. The elderly and infirmed were often left at home, unable to withstand the journey and taking their chances as the Pakistan military sought to crush the Taliban insurgency once and for all.

Most importantly, traveling with Pakistan country director Steve Claborne, we were able to make a quick aerial assessment of the damage that awaited the returnees. Thousands of people have returned over the last two weeks. Once again, I was struck by the extraordinary resilience of people.

We touched down in Mingora, Swat's largest city, and toured the already-bustling marketplace, perhaps already 30 percent back in business. Open-front shops were selling produce, household goods, flowers and — most interestingly — radios, cassettes and videos, which were banned under the Taliban rule of the last several months. Women were on the streets, after having been forced inside under the Taliban. Laundry flapped in nearly half the houses and children tumbled out to wave at us.

Damage is centered on buildings near the roadside, on the 230 schools destroyed by the Taliban and in the buildings that housed the insurgents. There is rubble; there is damage, but the determination of the people to return from the ferocious heat and hopelessness of the camps is clear. Mercy Corps will focus our return programs on helping people quickly recover and get back to school and work.