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The Story Of Neelum From Charbagh

How many stories like Neelum's can be told throughout the Swat Valley?
How many stories like Neelum's can be told throughout the Swat Valley?
Neelum will never forget August 23, 2008.

Now 27, she was at her home in Charbagh in Pakistan's Swat Valley working -- like the other women of the family -- when she was assigned a task for the day: cleaning and washing clothes. The majority of the Yousafzai Pashtun tribes of the valley live in a joint family system where male members leave for work in the fields or markets during the day and the female members share responsibilities at home.

Unlike the plains of Pakistan, where temperatures can easily surpass 45 degrees Celsius in the summer, the weather was pleasant in Charbagh.

At the time, the situation in the area was tense and frightening, as militants led by Mullah Fazlullah were trying to consolidate their positions in different areas of the valley and challenging the writ of the Pakistani state.

Neelum was excited. Earlier in the week, her husband, Karim Khan -- a shopkeeper -- promised her that if the roads were open he would take her to her father’s home in Shangla district in the afternoon. Her excitement was short-lived.

While she was thinking of the journey to her father’s home, she heard a big explosion. Neelum saw dust and smoke spread over the main market and up to the space over her home.

The explosion came from a suicide bomber who had rammed his explosive-laden car into a police station, killing 20 and wounding scores.

A boy crying in the street informed the neighborhood that the police station had been attacked and several dead bodies were lying on the road.

"I knew Karim Khan’s shop was close to the police station," Neelum tells me. "My heart sank and I started crying."

I saw two big tears roll down her cheeks and disappear behind the black shawl that covered half her face.

Karim Khan was dead. Neelum had lost her world.

Neelum doesn’t want to discuss how she received pieces of her husband’s body, but his death left her mired in what she calls "a sea of fire." She faced discrimination from her in-laws, who did not want to give her any of Karim's inheritance; bore the sufferings of migration; and faced a constant struggle for the education of her now fatherless daughter.

"I felt that my family members were not respecting me after the death of my husband," Neelum says. "They were not ready to give me even a share of his assets. They simply wanted me to leave. Maybe I had proved a bad omen for them."

Compounding things was a rapidly declining security situation in the region, as Taliban fighters controlled the streets and military jet fighters patrolled the sky.

One night, as she sat in her room, Neelum heard military planes shelling Taliban hideouts close to Charbagh. An elderly woman ran to her room and asked her to come to a relatively safe portion of the house with the rest of them. Neelum refused.

"I thought I had my share of pain and loss," she says. "Why would heaven test me again?" The death of her husband had made her indifferent to the impending danger.

A shell exploded and shrapnel pierced her right leg -- breaking the bone and pushing her forcefully to one corner of the room.

The family had to wait until dawn to call the hospital, as the army had imposed a regionwide curfew. A local paramedic gave her emergency care and in the morning Neelum was taken to a hospital in Mingora for treatment. In the morning, newspapers flashed stories about the success of the military action and of the huge losses suffered in the militant ranks.

"I am recovered from the physical wounds, but the wounds of my heart will take centuries to heal," Neelum tells me in a beleagured tone. "I don’t know who I should ask about my suffering -- the military or the Taliban."

-- Shaheen Buneri

Shaheen Buneri is a journalist with RFE/RL’s Pakistan service, Radio Mashaal. He is on a monthlong reporting trip to Pakistan as a Pulitzer Center fellow.