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09/04/2013

Golf makes a return to Pakistan's Swat Valley after Taliban's ouster

Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 6.35.19 PM

A wanted poster for Taliban militants posted near the city of Mingora in 2009. (Rick Westhead/Toronto Star)

During the early days after Pakistan’s military forced the Taliban out of the Swat Valley in 2009, the local cinema reopened, screening the Pashtun movie Target twice each day.

That was four years ago and progress since then has been achingly slow for the residents of Swat, a collection of beautiful valleys and mountain vistas north of Islamabad.

The Taliban had held control of Swat for months before the army finally forced their retreat and while the Taliban ruled the region, locals became accustomed to hardline rule. The Taliban outlawed movies and music and art as secular evils, said polio vaccinations were a Western conspiracy, and preached that women did not belong in schools or public markets.

The Arab-style burqa with a slit to see through was not adequate for women; the Taliban insisted the Afghan "ghost-style" opaque screen be used instead.

Now, in a development that highlights how life in Swat is slowing returning to normal, Swat’s golf course has reopened for the first time in more than two decades.

According to a report in the newspaper Dawn, Swat Deputy Commissioner Imtiaz Hussain said the Kabal Golf Course was fit to play and that its inaugural tournament would feature 200 golfers, including 27 senior professionals and 54 professionals.

Hussain said that the club, also known as the Cedar Golf Club at Kabal, was built in 1964 and hosted tournaments until 1992.

“Due to militancy and other problems in the area during recent years, no tournament of national level has been held here for the last 21 years,” Hussain told Dawn. “But now, the golf club and all of its holes have been restored with the help of army.

“We want to give a message to the people that Swat is peaceful now and they can come here without any fear,” he said.

Pakistan’s international image is battered and took another blow earlier this year when Taliban gunmen attacked the base camp of one of the world’s highest peaks, killing 10 foreign mountaineers. Following that attack the country halted expeditions.

News of the golf course reopening is surely be a welcome bit of positive news although not everyone was initially impressed.

One reader, identified on Dawn’s website as BRR, remarked snidely, “While Rome burns, Neros of Pakistan play golf.”

The Tribune newspaper reports Mohammad Ashfaq, a member of the Pakistan Air Force, won the first 54-hole Swat Open. Ashfaq's winning score was not reported by local media.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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