Thursday, November 6, 2008

Plenty of Rooms Available - Bring Firearms

Looking for an unusual vacation destination?

A valley as green as the emeralds that lie beneath the mountains. Cold and clear rivers flowing from the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush. A brilliant blue sky - it's hard to describe the Swat valley without getting carried away. It feels like one of the most beautiful and magical places on earth.

No need to worry about crowds.

The Serena has 50 rooms set in beautiful landscaped grounds. I was the only guest in the entire hotel and the first one they had seen in well over 6 weeks. The handful of other people they have had stay this year were all journalists like myself.

Of course, there's a reason.

Around 7pm every evening it started. Boom boom boom, followed by the inevitable shaking of the building, sometimes so strong it was impossible to distinguish it from the earthquakes which routinely hit the region. It was the sound of the military offensive - evidence that the Pakistani military has stepped up its battle against the local Taleban.

For several nights in a row I was unable to sleep as mortars and gunfire echoed across the mountains, sometimes for 12 hours solid. One night I counted 60 mortars in less than an hour.
Some blasts were so close the windows threatened to shatter.

The outlook isn't good.

The Pakistani Taleban appear to be slowly but surely taking over Swat with 80% of the Swat valley estimated to be under their control when I was there. People in Mingora, Swat's biggest town, say it is a question of when, not if the Taleban seize the town.

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