MINGORA - Five years have passed since security forces cleared Swat Valley from Mullah Fazlullah-led militants during military operation Rah-e-Rast (Straight Path) in 2009. Apparently, the situation is normal in the area; there are no militants on the street, music and barber shops are open, girls are going to schools and women are visible in bazaars; but people of Swat are still under the constant fear of target killers who from time to time attack pro-government and peace-loving people in the valley.
In a fresh incident on Sunday night (July 14), unknown killers targeted Biadar Khan, 29, a resident of Roringar village in tehsil Matta in Swat. According to his relatives, he had neither a family feud nor any kind of rivalry with anyone, but he openly opposed militants.
"He was a brave and courageous person who tried his best to keep the saboteurs out of his village. During the militancy period in Swat (2007-09) he had snatched a gun from a militant in his village that made him an enemy for the Taliban", said his nephew Abbas Khan while talking to this scribe, adding, "This is the only 'crime' he had committed".
The rising incidents of target killing in the presence of security forces have worried the peaceful inhabitants of Swat. These incidents have also raised questions about the performance of law and order agencies.
"The killings of innocent people by unknown attackers are creating fear amongst the masses. It seems that target killing is increasing day by day in the area," according to Usman Ulasyar, Executive Director of Suvastu Art and Culture Association.
Operation Rah-e-Rast was arguably one of the most successful military assaults in Pakistan against militants and one of the major reasons behind its success was the support of the local people who raised Aman Lashkar on behalf of the security forces to oust the Taliban from the valley.
Launched in April 2009, the forces soon freed the locals from the clutches of the militants. Although, the operation displaced around 2.5 million people, but they returned to their homes soon and peace was restored. To maintain peace in the region the government formed a village security system where the villagers guarded their respective villages against the insurgents.
Maulana Fazlullah and his men fled Afghanistan and remained out of sight for almost three years but in 2012, the Swati Taliban re-emerged and they started attacking Pakistani security forces near Pak-Afghan border in Dir, Bajaur and Chitral. The attacks in the scantly-populated area of Malakand Division did not create any panic in the valley but fear gripped the locals when the Taliban targeted Malala Yousafzai in broad day light in Mingora, the heart of Swat, in October 2012.
Afterwards, target killing rapidly increased in Swat and Pashtun nationalist leaders like members of Awami National Party (ANP), Pakhtunkhwa Mili Awami Party (PMAP), members of village defence councils (VDCs) and other pro-government elders were targeted by the unseen killers. From 2009 to 2012, around 12 eminent persons were killed while during 2013, nine leaders of peace committees were targeted in Swat district.
Mukhtiar Khan Yousafzai, provincial head of PMAP and the head of Swat Aman Jirga, said the army has time and again claimed clearing Swat valley of all kind of terrorists but the people are being targeted and killed in broad daylight. According to him, it was common perception in the area that state agencies were involved in such killings. "It is unfortunate but it is truth that the state agencies are involved in target killings," he insisted.
After Pashtun nationalist political activists, the VDC members are frequently being targeted in Swat valley. Thousands of VDC volunteers under the command of 225 leaders are fighting for the security of their respective villages. Idrees Khan is the overall head of VDCs who himself lost his family members and survived two assassination attempts. Still he is determined to fight this war against the Taliban.
"The recent surge in target killings is a reaction to the military operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. I think some of the Swati Taliban might have reached Swat from Waziristan and they are now targeting the pro-govt elders," said Idrees Khan.
"During last five years 14 VDCs leaders embraced Shahadat. For the security of Swat our jihad against the terrorists will continue," he said and demanded the govt provide proper security to VDC leaders.
Some residents of Swat complain that the government initially encouraged the Aman Lashkar but later on stopped supporting and protecting them. Now they are at the mercy of target killers and the police have failed to arrest them.
When contacted, Swat District Police Officer (DPO) Sheer Alam Khan said that at the very outset many cases were described as target killing but later on when they were investigated it came out that there were some other motives behind the killings.
"Before reaching a conclusion we have to investigate all angles; unless and until that is established, we can't say any incident was a target killing (by the militants)", he said. He further said, "Few days back we arrested a gang of terrorists from Swat and they did confessed to their involvement in many incidents. Target killing is a serious issue and we take it seriously".