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From Islamabad to the Swat Valley

From Islamabad to the Swat Valley

As the Taliban and the military battle in Pakistan's war-torn north, a diplomat's daughter reflects on terrorism, Omar Khadr and quieter days.

The author as a child in northern Pakistan.

Our house in Islamabad was large, whitewashed and pristine. It came with the same furniture that clutters Canadian embassy homes worldwide; bulky and ostentatious, the kind that belongs in a shoddy gentleman’s club. The house was also fully equipped with servant’s quarters, and we had a housekeeper, gardener and guard. We didn’t play with the servants’ children much, except for when the housekeeper’s son would come revving through the front yard on his dusty motorcycle. He’d scoop up my younger brother John and take him for rides in the neighbourhood, through flowering jacaranda trees and leafy avenues, leaving me to stare after them through the wrought iron gate. Little girls were not invited on those rides.

Our days passed calmly. We took classes at the International School—whose twenty-three acres of gardens and red brick walls towered over the clay huts of nearby farmers—and swam at the Canadian embassy pool. At night, the howls of jackals in the nearby Margala hills echoed through Islamabad’s empty streets. I hugged the covers a little tighter. Weekends were for shopping; we’d load into our little red Jetta and drive to the neighbourhood market. My parents would pick through acrid-smelling meat, settling for a chunk of water buffalo that would, inevitably, prove too tough to chew. Meanwhile, I’d gleefully select a new Archie comic or browse the selection of British children’s classics—gentle reminders of a darker colonial past.

Then, on November 19, 1995, an explosion at the Egyptian embassy shook us out of our sleepy expat existence. John, my infant brother Adrian and I were all at home with our mother when we felt the tremors. It could have been nearby construction work gone wrong, or it could have been a bomb blast. I didn’t know, at the time, that Islamabad was a hardship posting for diplomats, with serious risks involved. My parents were not strangers to unpredictable flares of violence; we lived in Moscow when the Soviet Union collapsed, and watched tanks parade down city streets after the bombing of the Russian White House. So my mother ushered us into the downstairs bathroom. We waited, huddled on the marble floor in the tiny windowless room, while she called my father to figure out what had happened.

My father felt the explosion from his office in the Canadian High Commission, not far from the Egyptian embassy. The first blast was small, the result of a suicide bomber blowing up the front gates to make way for an explosives-laden truck. The Canadian diplomats had risen from their desks and were milling about in the hallways when the second, deadly explosion took place. The building was evacuated, my father recalls, and whispers began as the plush green lawns filled with suits. Was the bomb inside our building? No, the Canadian embassy’s windows had imploded, so the bomb must have gone off elsewhere. All Canadian vehicles and drivers were dispatched to collect Canadian diplomats who were working off-compound. Word spread that the bomb had been at the Egyptian embassy.

Helene, a coworker of my father’s, began to panic. She had a three-year-old child at the British Nursery School, located directly behind the Egyptian embassy, and since all the Canadian drivers were gone there were no cars to take her to the child. She was hysterical. My father got permission to leave the compound and take his own car to bring her to the nursery. “As we drove through the back streets of Islamabad’s embassy neighbourhood, we didn’t know if we’d be finding a collapsed building filled with dead children,” he tells me now.

In fact, no children were harmed; just as my mother had hurried us into a windowless bathroom, the British teachers ushered their toddler students to safety. My father and Helene arrived at the school to find a group of three- and four-year-olds cautiously emerging from their school, all of them deathly silent.

The militant group Egyptian Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the bombing that day. Many people were arrested and subsequently released. One of them was Ahmed Said Khadr, the father of a young Guantanamo Bay prisoner now familiar to Canadians. Khadr, a dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen, was reportedly working for a Canada-based charity in Afghanistan at the time, and his family put a great deal of pressure on Ottawa to have Pakistani forces release him.

All the children of Canadian diplomats got to meet Jean Chrétien in Islamabad a few months later. We dutifully waved our paper Canada flags and posed for photos with the Prime Minister, who leaned down to ask each of us our names in his loping accent. Khadr’s children, Omar included, also met Chrétien. At a press conference at the Marriot Hotel, they stood behind their mother and pleaded with the Canadian government to ensure the release of their father, “a charity worker who loves mankind.” Chrétien raised the issue with Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and Khadr was later freed. Militants bombed the same Marriot Hotel last year; Bhutto was assassinated in 2007.

The rest of the Khadr story is well known: the patriarch’s alleged ties to al-Qaeda, his 2003 death in a Pakistani raid, the family’s controversial return to Canada and, of course, Omar’s imprisonment. Omar and I never properly crossed paths in the diplomatic wrangling of 1995. But we share Pakistan, a country that shaped our young lives and, today, strains at its own seams more and more.

I HAVE BEEN TOLD that I heard the Egyptian embassy bombing, and I know the facts: sixteen killed, sixty injured. It does not, however, stand out in my memory any more than does watching the sky turn pitch black as the first monsoon rains gathered above Islamabad, or stopping for chai and chapatis in a tiny village in northern Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

Today, fighting between Taliban forces and the Pakistani army has decimated the north. Every time the Pakistani government announces that it has killed a top Taliban leader or made advances in the fight against terrorist forces, another suicide attack hits elsewhere in the country. Recent attacks targeted Peshawar’s Hotel Pearl Continental, frequented by expats and foreign dignitaries, and two mosques in the east and northwest. The suicide bombing of Jamia Naeemi mosque succeeded in killing its target: Sarfaraz Naeemi, a fervent anti-Taliban cleric and religious scholar. The fighting has displaced or killed thousands of civilians in the north. From Lahore to Swat, the country is being ravaged.

The Pakistani military’s campaign against the Taliban technically began on May 8, but its unfolding has been convoluted. Foreign reporters are not allowed into the Swat Valley, and Pakistan’s famously deceptive spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, has long been accused of terrorist ties—including to the same militants the army is currently fighting. Everyone recalls the ISI’s covert actions during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the billions of American dollars it poured into the Mujahideen forces, which later gave rise to the Taliban.

In the spring of ‘96 my family drove from Islamabad to the Swat Valley, turning north just before the Afghanistan border. We stayed at a standard government guesthouse, its gardens filled with blossoming peach and apricot trees. Although Islamabad had already begun to sweat in the post-winter heat, the nights were still cold this far north. We were given small bits of wood for the fire and bundled up at night, sitting huddled together on the patio and watching what I’ve been told were the most spectacular stars in the world.

The patio overlooked jagged green mountains and valleys filled with farmer’s fields. We hiked through the hillside terraces, most of them no more than three strides wide. I remember running giddily along the paths through the fields, racing with my brother and our friends. My parents stood above, on the Swat Valley’s steep hills, watching us run and feeling dizzying flashes of vertigo.

Eventually we came to rooftops and had to slow down. As we walked down into a group of peasants’ houses—too few to even be called a village—one of the women we were with began chatting in Urdu with the woman whose roof we had been trouncing upon. There are few places in Canada where you can strike up a conversation with a complete stranger and, within minutes, be invited into her home. Here, however, all the women in our group were welcomed into the dark, clay-and-straw house. These were relatively peaceful times in the valley, so outsiders were offered a seat on a wooden charpoi and a glass of hot tea.

On another trip to the north we ventured out to Gilgit, an area high up in the Himalayas near the Chinese border, and legendary for its beauty. While trekking through the countryside—all jutting rocks and sparse shrubbery—we came across a stunning, silty river the colour of metallic-silver pewter. Some local boys were braving their way across the foaming waters, jumping nimbly from rock to rock as rapids licked at their feet. The men in our group decided that, if the locals could do it, they could too. My mother looked on, unimpressed, as my father led my five-year-old brother across the roaring waters.

When it was time for prayers, a family friend of ours, Muzaffar, found a small roadside shrine. My father recalls looking back and seeing Muzaffar, all by himself in white robes at the pinnacle of a mountain path, looking out at the mountain valley in the direction of Mecca. Other Muslim men would approach and, brothers, they all prayed together.

“No idols, no statues, no complicated trinities,” my father remembers. There was something immensely holy in those mountainside prayers, in their utter remove from my childhood world of complicated Catholicism. They seem even holier to me now, with northern Pakistan suffering under Islamabad’s bombs and the Taliban’s fanaticism, and Mecca so far away.