Documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy left her comfortable home in the San Francisco Bay area to journey back to her native Pakistan two years ago, and Tuesday night on PBS' Frontline she reported the uncomfortable story of the transformation she has found there in "Children of the Taliban."
"Swati women never wore the burqa," she notes driving through village streets, referring to the full-length head and face covering common in Afghanistan. "Now all are covered" in this region, she says. Her footage from villages at the mouth of the Swat Valley is particularly shocking: Schools for girls all have been destroyed by Taliban, which took over the region in a February deal with the Pakistani government that was formalized only Monday. Obaid-Chinoy interviews several young girls who say their first priority in life is "education" but now are prohibited from attending school since the Taliban takeover. The changes in Swat Valley, Obaid-Chinoy points out, are particularly alarming because it "is not a tribal belt, not a lawless area like the border regions with Afghanistan, it is part of proper Pakistan."
Indeed, the valley is only three hours from Islamabad, the capital, and once was a getaway for well-to-do city dwellers complete with ski resorts and other retreats. Now reports suggest it will become a staging ground for Taliban fighters following the controversial peace deal. President Asif Ali Zardari ratified the arrangement, in effect, yesterday, when he signed a bill that imposes Islamic law, or Shariah, in Swat. Pakistani lawmakers supported the deal because they see it as a way to end fighting in the region and halt the Taliban advance in Pakistan.
But on Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported, thousands of Muslim militants are pouring into Swat and setting up training camps there, quickly making it one of the main bases for Taliban fighters. Reporters on the scene estimate that between 6,000-8,000 Taliban fighters have established base camps, doubling their presence since the first of the year. Signs have gone up in barbershops ordering men not to shave their beards, and women are not allowed outside their homes unless in the company of a male relative. Signs warn women against shopping in markets, saying it is "un-Islamic."
In Islamabad, support for the resolution is in part tied to growing frustration with what lawmakers call the "U.S. war" and increasing numbers of missile attacks by U.S. forces inside Pakistan. But it represents an incursion no less lethal by the radical Taliban. Already Taliban fighters control the North West Frontier Province and other tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. U.S. diplomats believe the Swat Valley bases could give Taliban leaders an opportunity to threaten and strike Pakistan's urban centers.
Meanwhile, Christian leaders in North West Frontier Province say the Taliban are trying to enforce their interpretation of Islam on the whole nation, and to threaten religious minorities. One leader reported that Christians are beginning to dress like Muslims, with men growing beards and women wearing head coverings, to blend in for safety's sake.