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Artists flee Pak's Swat valley to escape fanatics' threats

world Updated: Mar 06, 2009 14:33 IST

Mohammad Shahid scrapes together a living in a city slum by painting birds, flowers, animals and celebrity portraits onto minibuses -- and vows never to return to the horrors of Swat valley.

After pro-Taliban vigilantes beat and threatened him at gunpoint, he swapped the green pastures and sweeping mountains of his birthplace for the concrete jungle of Pakistan's smoggy metropolis of Karachi on the Gulf.

It was heart-breaking to leave the idyll of his youth, he said, but there was no choice.

"I had to come here because there was no other chance for me or my family to survive," said 45-year-old Shahid.

The memories of the terrifying campaign waged by Islamist hardliners to enforce sharia law are still fresh for Shahid, and no fledgling truce between the government and those who chased him out will persuade him to return.

"I'm a painter, an artist. I can't do anything else to earn a living. The Taliban won't allow people like us to do our work, which saw my family suffer.

"What would I do if I return in these conditions? They will remain in control of the region and no one will have freedom to work at will."

The one-time ski resort became a battlefield. Rotar blades from helicopter gunships sliced through the once-clear skies. Warplanes roared overhead.

Anything deemed "un-Islamic" was banned. Opponents were beheaded, more than 120 girls' schools were bombed, entertainment was outlawed.

Shahid said he used to make a good living painting landscapes, birds, Pakistani and Indian film stars, pavement caricatures and portraits, which were popular with tourists who flocked to the once-friendly and tolerant valley.

But then the fanatics came, the tourists left and life changed for those who made a living from the arts.

Suspected Taliban militants kidnapped and murdered a dancer, Shabana, who ignored warnings to quit her profession. Her bullet-riddled body was dumped on the main roundabout of Green Chowk in the main town of Mingora last December.

One after another, artists, dancers and singers renounced their profession or fled to more liberal cities such as Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad.

-- Those who flee are haunted by beheadings and bombings --

One day, Shahid said, gun-toting vigilantes walked into his studio.

"They beat and insulted me for doing something that they said was forbidden by religion," Shahid said.

"'From now on, don't paint creatures'," Shahid quoted one of them as saying, "'otherwise you'll suffer an unprecedented punishment'."

Shahid rang his brother, a construction worker in Karachi.

"He asked me to leave immediately. I took my wife and four children, caught a bus from Mingora and came here."

He rented a place in Karachi's western Baldia Colony slum, found a job painting trucks and buses, and put his children in school.

Shahid said the humidity and pollution of Karachi frequently make his children ill, but he insists he will never again put himself at the mercy of the "unpredictable" Islamists in Swat -- where the government has agreed to enforce sharia, or religious, law.

"One's life will still be in danger no matter what guarantee they give," Shahid said. "I don't want to disturb my daughter's studies. She's in school here. The militants could reverse their pledge any moment."

The United States, which puts South Asia on the frontline of the "war on terror," has branded extremists who make their base in northwest Pakistan a direct threat to the country, to neighbouring Afghanistan, and to the security of the US and other nations.

Yet the net of Islamist extremism is spreading across the northwest, where Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists have infiltrated the border with Afghanistan to create de facto fiefdoms in semi-autonomous tribal areas.

US drones have rained dozens of missiles on areas they believe to be extremist strongholds, and Pakistan's military has spent months fighting the Taliban.

Even in Peshawar, the bustling northwestern trading city close to the Afghan border, artists have come under threat from the extremists.

Nishtar Hall, the only theatre in Peshawar, has been closed for six years.

Militants kidnapped Alam Zeb Mujahid, a famous Pashto comedian, from the upscale Hayatabad neighbourhood in January, held him for five days and let him go only after he renounced all drama and film work.

Haroon Bacha, a renowned Pashto singer, left the northwestern town of Swabi for the United States when militants demanded he stop singing.

"I started getting threats from the Taliban about a year ago. I was told to stop singing. There were letters, there were phone calls and there were text messages," he wrote to AFP in an email message from Washington.

"They used to come to my home very frequently, telling me to stop music or I would be killed."

CD and music shops, Internet cafes and barbers who shave beards -- all have been targeted and many shut down. Some of those brave enough to stay open have hired private security.

And for many of those who have left, the bombings and beheadings stay with them.

"My little children still scream when they see planes flying. Children run for shelter in Swat when they see planes or helicopters," says Hashim Khan, a 37-year-old labourer who lives near Karachi airport.

"They saw planes bombing in Swat. It still haunts their dreams. I saw bodies lying near Green Chowk, the roundabout where Shabana was dumped.

"The area once symbolised our city's beauty but now it has become 'khooni' (bloody) Chowk," he said.