Written on 23 May 2009
It has been sad for me to read about, and see on TV news reports, the troubles in Pakistan’s Swat Valley these last few days because I was there 40 years ago in 1969. I was the RAF exchange officer spending a year as a flying instructor at the Pakistan Air Force Academy at Risalpur, about mid-way between Islamabad and Peshawar on the Grand Trunk Road and only a few miles south of the Swat Valley. Many of our general handling flying training sorties from Risalpur took place in the hills to the north of the airfield and occasionally we flew on north past the hill town of Mardan, which was an easily recognised navigation point for student pilots, visible for many miles around, and on into the valley. It was the most beautiful flying area I’ve ever come across. The Swat Valley is surrounded on all sides, but especially to the north, by the highest peak (7,708 metres, 25,298 feet) of the magnificent and remote Hindu Kush mountains.
Above: That picture of the Cessna T37 Squadron instructors and students at PAF Academy, Risalpur, was taken ín December 1969. I am 4th from the left on the front row. The Iranian Air Force exchange officer is wearíng the blue uniform shirt on the front row. The students on the back row were Jordanian, Iranian, and Iraqi. (During my time at Risalpur there were no Pakistani students on the T37 Squadron.)
On 5 December 1969 two of the Pakistani flying instructors, Mehdi (who I have just discovered became the Air Force Commander-in-Chief from November 1997-November 2000) and Sheikh, took me in a car for a day out to Saidu Sharif and Mingora. Heading due north from Risalpur, the road climbed first to Mardan, now a very much larger town than it was in 1969, then down the other side into the green and fertile Swat Valley. For miles the narrow twisting road faithfully followed the fast-flowing Swat River. The main towns, Saidu Sharif and Mingora, are both about 3,300 feet (1,000m) above sea level and were pleasantly cool. We continued on the road north of Mingora towards Malakand for several miles, but then we had to turn back and start the return journey to Risalpur.
Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take my camera on this trip because the remote areas of the North West Frontier Province (nowadays known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) were deemed, even in 1969, to be politically sensitive areas. Furthermore, the Holy Month of Ramadan was nearing its end so there was no food or drink permitted throughout our day out. Because of Fasting, the almost complete lack of people on the roads and in Saidu Sharif and Mingora was eerie, and I felt we were intruding. We arrived back in Mardan at sunset so my two Muslim colleagues (and me) were able to break our fast there by taking iftar at a roadside stall before completing the last few miles, downhill, to Risalpur.
What impressed me most, apart from the beauty of the valley and the impressive Hindu Kush peaks, was the sheer vastness of the area: Afghanistan off to the west, China to the north and Kashmir to the east. Years after my visit, the Swat Valley became a popular tourist area, and rightly so, but now the tourists have all departed, as indeed many of the population have, with the Taliban trying to take over. The pictures I’ve just watched on TV of the Pakistan Army patrolling the bustling streets of Mingora bear no resemblance to the memories I have of the valley in happier times.
You can take a short video trip along the Swat Valley on YouTube here.