Valley Lost to Flood; Innocence to Oppression
Editor’s note: Edwin Koo is a 2010 winner of the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography. His proposal to document Pakistan’s Swat Valley captivated our judges last year and opened our eyes to the devastation that became daily life for Swatis in the presence of the Taliban. We were able to catch up with Koo recently regarding his project which is still in progress. This is what he had to say.
Update by Edwin Koo: Entering the post-conflict, post-flood Swat was an experience of jarring contradictions. Armed men behind fortified sandbags eyed each passing vehicle warily, backgrounded by serene valleys and rolling green hills.
Frontier Hotel, a Swat landmark, sits silently atop a knoll, its empty windows staring out into a beautiful but desolate valley. Once a popular tourist haunt, it is now garrisoned 24/7 by soldiers, armed to the teeth. As our car circled past the imposing structure, I was warned not to point my camera at it.
What is Paradise?
My project on Swat Valley began with a rather simple question: “What is paradise?” It wasn’t so much an inquiry demanding a conclusive answer, but rather, a doubt lingering in my heart, planted there in the summer of 2009.
That sweltering May, I had visited several refugee camps in other regions of Pakistan. More than 2 million people had been displaced from Swat Valley – the “Switzerland of the East” – when conflict erupted between the army and Taliban militants there.
When I had arrived in plains bordering the “red zone,” I found tent cities brimming with refugees. Of the dozens of subjects I had photographed and interacted with, almost all of them would complain about the heat, the lack of clean water and sorry state of sanitation.
“Uh, the usual complaints,” I thought, “disoriented refugees and overstretched aid agencies.” But as I spoke to more refugees, what really struck me was the yearning for home, which was invariably described as “paradise.” Against the backdrop of misery, I could hear hope in the voices of the refugees, who spoke of clear springs and rolling hills. I had never been to Swat, and I could only pretend to understand them.
When I left Pakistan, the question “what is paradise?” lingered in my heart. I resolved to make a trip to Swat Valley. Thanks to the Getty Images grant, my wish came true.
To Find an Answer
I returned to Pakistan in September 2010. The Taliban had been chased out of Swat, the army had taken over, and the refugees had returned home. But as things began to return to a semblance of normalcy, a terrible flood – the worst in Pakistan’s history – swept through the idyllic valley. I witnessed a landscape I could hardly call paradise. Many parts of the towns were in ruins. Lines of people were carrying 20-kg sacks of aid rations on their backs. Dust clouds obscured the sight, as vehicles rolled through freshly dug tracks, hastily made to replace destroyed roads.
This couldn’t be paradise – a landscape of destroyed schools, collapsed hotels, broken bridges and struggling people. I needed to ask more questions, to answer the unanswered question in my heart.
The destruction was so thorough, it was almost impossible to tell what was destroyed by the conflict and what was destroyed by the floods. The ruination was so complete, it felt irrelevant to ask who or what was responsible for this.
But the twin scourge had certainly left an impression. Yousuf Khan, a 55-year-old businessman, was supervising the reconstruction of his partially destroyed home when he told me he had never seen Swat so scarred in his life. “The Taliban were slaughtering people while the flood only destroyed our belongings. We could see the flood coming, but we cannot tell when the Taliban would come and kill us.”
In other words, while the flood ate away at the region’s physical beauty, the Taliban stole its innocence. Adnan Rashid, a radio journalist who grew up in Swat, remembered a time when drivers would not hesitate pick up hitchhikers, even in the middle of the night. “But now, we no longer do that. You don’t know whom you’re picking up,” he said. What few people realize is that the Taliban were not natives to this area. In fact, most of the radicals weren’t even Pakistanis.
Further, still fewer people realize the Taliban’s stranglehold over Swat was only possible only because Swatis are such nice tolerant folks. For example, when Taliban militants came in the darkness of night to desecrate an ancient Buddha carving in Jahanabdal, 60-year-old Tooti Gul could only cower in his home. Gul, himself a Muslim, couldn’t understand the intolerance the Taliban bore for universal cultural heritage. His family had lived at the foot of the Buddha carving for generations. On countless summer evenings, he would sit there admiring the craftsmanship, as his cattle roamed in the surrounding valley.
Now, although the Taliban is gone, the scar on the now-faceless Buddha reminds Gul that “Udyana” (“The Garden” in Sanskrit) is lost. Today, the omnipresence of armed men and sentry posts cast a long shadow on the once idyllic valley.
Rashid spoke about this recently on Facebook. “Kids of Swat in streets are playing militant and military,” Rashid wrote. “… Even my niece Usra (8) and Liyba (6) frequently use (words like) curfew, operation … in their games, which is really shocking for me. That’s the reason why I am trying my best to play cricket and other cultural games with them to wash such things from their brains, but it’s not an easy task.”
Slowly, I understood that the paradise that they had lost was the one in their mind, and while the Swatis can recover from the floods, innocence, once lost, might be impossible to recover. As John Milton’s once wrote in his epic literary masterpiece, Paradise Lost:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.