'Princess of Swat' holds court

ISLAMABAD — When Zebunisa Jillani visits the camps established for Swat refugees in Islamabad, her face becomes etched with sorrow and pain at seeing the suffering around her. For this 56-year-old, the story of Swat is the story of her life. 

Had Swat continued to maintain its status as a princely state, Jillani — a member of the Wali family, the original rulers of Swat, akin to royalty — would have settled down in the scenic valley as one of its royal princesses. But in 1969, more than two decades after the Indian subcontinent was partitioned, creating Pakistan and India, Swat was fully merged into greater Pakistan. From that time on, Swat has been governed by the federation of Pakistan, while the Wali family has been stripped of any royal privileges but allowed to keep their honorific and continue to be regarded with great respect and love in the valley.

Though Jillani settled in the United States with her husband, an MIT graduate, she has recently been drawn back, propelled by news of the refugee crisis there.

“Swat runs in my blood,” she said, pushing stray strands of gray hair off her face and smiling pensively. “When I saw the pictures, read the headlines and heard the stories, I knew I had to come and help. I just had to.”

Though the beautifully furnished but modest apartment in Islamabad where Jillani is spending her time is a far cry from the palace she grew up in, she is by comparison to many of her compatriots living like royalty. Most of the estimated 3 million refugees who have fled the fighting in Swat and surrounding areas are enduring Pakistan’s sweltering summers in tent dwellings or living in cramped quarters with friends or relatives. Only 200,000 refugees have been lucky enough to find space in a tent camp, according to figures from the Red Cross.

The mass exodus of Swatis from the valley has been described by the United Nations as the “world's most dramatic displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.” Returning from a three-day trip to the refugee camps in mid-May, the UNHCR head Antonio Guterres described the displacement crisis as "one of the most dramatic of recent times." In a statement issued by the U.N. agency he said, relief workers were "struggling to keep up with the size and speed of the displacement.”

Though the U.S. has already pledged $110 million in aid to the refugees, and President Barack Obama is pushing to send another $200 million, for now a vast majority of the Internally Displaced Persons are without food, clean drinking water and adequate clothes, while children remain without access to schools or medical care.

It was this dire situation that propelled Jillani back. During her visits to the camps she is sometimes recognized as the Wali’s granddaughter and sees elderly women burst into tears and kissing her hands on realizing who she is. But for the most part she covers herself with a chaddor and moves amongst the crowds anonymously, eager to do the best she can.

“I’m concentrating on health services for now,” she said, and describes her work in Mardan and Charsadda. She has already established two mobile health units which provide refugees with free medicines and health care. In keeping with her grandfather’s philosophy, she is making concerted efforts to only hire Swati nurses and doctors. “He always believed that the way to prosperity was for Swatis to encourage Swatis: that’s what I wish to do.”

Though the only royal working at the forefront to provide assistance to refugees from Swat, Jillani is far from the only woman working in the refugee camps.

Tehmina Durrani, controversial author and wife of Punjab’s chief minister, has won applause for making trips to far-flung districts in Charsadda and Mardan. And young, Ivy League-educated, Prada purse-wielding women are often seen weaving through the camps in Mardan and Charsadda.

“It’s wonderful to see all these young people come together to make a difference,” Jillani said. “I’m very heartened by their efforts.”

For Swat’s princess of course, these efforts are more than works of charity. They represent a duty she says that she feels she owes to her people.

The childhood home Jillani remembers fondly is currently the battleground for what has turned out to be a protracted struggle between the Taliban and the Pakistan military. As girl schools, sufistic shrines and marketplaces in Swat were repeatedly bombed, Jillani watched aghast as the towns she knew so intimately were reduced to rubble.

“It was so different when I was growing up,” she said, sitting in a modest apartment in Islamabad during a tea-break the hectic schedule she has carved for herself since arriving in Pakistan a couple of weeks ago. “Swat was a place of prosperity, progress and pleasure.”

As the grand-daughter of Miagul Abdul Haq Jehanzeb, the last reigning Wali of Swat, she lived with her grandmother and mother in the women's section of the Wali’s palace. Her grandfather’s lifestyle was heavily influenced by the British.

“We had to get dressed up every morning and again in the afternoon for tea,” she said, laughing at the memory. “It was so quaint but my grandfather was adamant and at the time, no one would dare challenge him.”

She also remembers the Wali as being obsessively punctual: “If any one of us was even late by a couple of minutes he would be sitting at attention in the dining room,” she said. “The minute the straggler entered, he would wave his pocket watch at the late comer and raise his eyebrows.”

But what Jillani remembers most vividly is her grandfather’s emphasis on speedy justice. “It was remarkable now that I look back,” she said. “He would hold court everyday on the ground floor of the house we were living in and no decision took longer than a week.”

Ulema Fida Muhammed Khan, a judge in the Federal Shariah Court, has studied the Wali’s system of justice. He says under the Wali rule, the valley was completely peaceful because justice was speedily and efficiently discharged.

“Let’s say for example that one guy was driving a tractor, slammed into someone’s buffalo and killed it,” he said. “All the aggrieved party would have to do is show up in the Wali’s court and complain: the Wali would gather witnesses and if the crime was proven, he would order the guilty party to buy the victim a new buffalo.”

It was the Taliban’s promise for speedy justice which propelled them to popularity in Swat, and compelled the government to negotiate a Nazam-e-Adl deal with them. The agreement fell through when the Taliban continued in their violent ways, even after signing a ceasefire.

One man who hates the Talibans with a vengeance is Jillani’s uncle who would have been ruler of Swat had the valley not become integrated into greater Pakistan. The 81-year-old Miangul Aurangzeb is still respectfully addressed as Wali of Swat, even though now he spends most of his time in Islamabad instead of the valley where he lives in a two-storey house adorned by photographs of his interactions with dignitaries such as John F. Kennedy and others.

Disgusting is how he describes the Taliban and the government’s handling of the situation. "I wish my country was better run. I wish there was no corruption and that we had speedy justice.” As moderate Muslims who comfortably wear both eastern and western dress, speak fluent English and love their emails, both Jillani and Aurangzeb represent a future Swat could have had if the Wali system had not been disintegrated.

Would the valley have been better off under them?

Jillani looks thoughtful as she answers: “If we were still in charge, we would have been very sincere to Swat. But I don’t know — I don’t know how it would have worked out within the larger framework of Pakistan’s government. Can’t say.”

More GlobalPost dispatches from Pakistan:

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The ground truth in Islamabad

Hope for Pakistan's child workers