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Pakistan cinema returns to post-Taliban Swat

More than a year after locking doors and ripping down racy posters because of Taliban threats, cinema is once again attracting excited men in Pakistan's Swat valley.

world Updated: Sep 24, 2009 07:54 IST
Lehaz Ali

More than a year after locking doors and ripping down racy posters because of Taliban threats, cinema is once again attracting excited men in Pakistan's Swat valley.

Mingora, the capital of the northwest district formerly overrun by Islamist gunmen determined to enforce sharia law and ban entertainment, is now seeing hundreds queue up to watch re-runs of Pakistani films.

"I love the big screen. It's a lot of fun. The curse (Taliban) is almost finished," 21-year-old mechanic Abid Khan told AFP inside the Swat Cinema.

"Forget the Taliban, come on enjoy," he said, jumping up to dance along to a song from a fabled Pashto musical blaring out into the auditorium.

Taliban fanatics set fire to music and DVD shops, closed cinemas, killed and threatened dancers and banned people from even listening to music, plunging the once relatively liberal, northwest tourist centre into fear -- and boredom.

But this week a billboard showed a silver screen hero, Kalashnikov in hand, with an actress dancing in a provocative manner on the side.

The Pashto film, "Gul Soori Soori Karam", which loosely translates as "The Flower Who Injured Me", is a popular old-time favourite for the Muslim religious festival of Eid al-Fitr, which took place this week.

"There is no other source of entertainment. Where can the young go? That's why I'm here to enjoy," said 17-year-old shop worker Sajid Ali who came to see the film with eight friends.

Pakistan launched a blistering assault against the Taliban in and around Swat last April after foot soldiers loyal to radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah advanced further south towards Islamabad in defiance of a peace deal.

The United States, which branded Islamist militants an existential threat to the fragile, nuclear-armed country, welcomed the offensive and the army appears, at least for now, to have taken back control of the mountain region.

The military announced ahead of this week's Eid al-Fitr festival a series of high-profile arrests of wanted Taliban commanders. Scores of bodies, mostly Taliban suspects, have piled up -- the victims of revenge killings.

"I'm not afraid of the Taliban anymore. We saw their dead bodies. We know (Swat Taliban spokesman) Muslim Khan and others are in jail," said Ali.

The Swat Cinema opened at Eid, putting on two screenings of a Pashto film. But nighttime showings are still out of the question because of a curfew.

The city's Palwasha cinema remains closed but staff says they are planning to re-open when they feel the risks have eased. Families still avoid the cinema and women are not yet backing in the audience.

Eighteen months ago, the Taliban turned up and ordered staff to shut the cinema, threatening to bomb it. It wasn't a difficult decision.

"Dozens of Taliban armed with Kalashnikovs came in a jeep and other vehicles and ordered us to close," said Swat Cinema manager Fazal Ghani.

"They were aggressive, they weren't listening me and we decided to close," said the establishment's owner, Ayub Khan.

"We first opened in August, then closed again for Ramadan. Now we are open permanently," said Khan.

"There were only two people at the first show in August. Now you can see more than 200 people in the audience," said his manager Ghani.

Militants have bombed hundreds of entertainment shops across the northwest in recent years, claiming music and movies as against the teachings of Islam.

Cinemas are still closed elsewhere in the northwest, but even in Peshawar, a city known for its conservative Islam and brush with militancy, posters of actresses in short skirts and shirts have sprung up, an AFP reporter said.