Page last updated at 23:17 GMT, Saturday, 23 May 2009 00:17 UK

Remembering Swat's peaceful past

By Mishal Husain
BBC News

Swat valley

It is a surreal experience for me to see the pictures emerging from the Swat Valley at the moment - helicopter gunships striking at their targets - a mass exodus of poor and desperate people. The contrast from the Swat I knew from my childhood summers spent in Pakistan is almost indescribable.

For my family, who have always been pretty intrepid travellers, Swat was very much a "soft" holiday destination, more accessible than the valleys further north, where we would go on our more demanding annual fishing expeditions.

Swat was the gentle valley, an easy weekend trip from Islamabad, a way to experience the picturesque northern areas of Pakistan in relative comfort.

So we would drive up from the plains, up towards the Malakand Pass - the exact opposite of the journey of thousands of fleeing Swati civilians in recent weeks.

The "old Swat" as I have to call it now, was a very laid-back place.

Like many parts of North West Frontier Province, its people are conservative in their ways - so when we walked into the bazaar in Mingora, I remember making sure I had a scarf around my shoulders - something I could fling over my head if necessary.

But this was purely out of respect for local traditions - not out of any sense of compulsion.

We stayed in the home of friends - the family of the one-time ruler of the valley, known as the Wali of Swat.

I have no idea what Kalam is like today, and I fear the worst for Swat's other outstanding attraction - the Buddhist ruins

It was far from a palace - rather it was a low-key compound, guarded, as I remember, by a single caretaker.

The old Swat wasn't the kind of place where you thought much about security.

It wasn't hard to see though why it was such an attractive place to while away time.

The natural beauty of the valley became more and more striking the further north you travelled - in our case, to Kalam in upper Swat.

'Centuries of tradition'

This "town" was really little more than a group of houses nestled into the hillside around the unspoilt Swat river, with fantastic walking available in every direction.

The government guesthouse we rented had a spectacular view, and was unlocked for us by the caretaker - a bearded local with a gun slung over his shoulder.

children at a refugee camp
The idea of holidaying in Swat valley is hard to imagine for these children

In the course of conversation, he told us he had to carry the weapon because of the feud raging between him and another villager.

I remember our party laughing about it at the time, seeing it as evidence of an age-old way of life, where people were bound by centuries of tradition.

I have no idea what Kalam is like today, and I fear the worst for Swat's other outstanding attraction - the Buddhist ruins.

When I was there, you did not have to search hard to see priceless ancient etchings in the rock of the valley, or find sites like Butkara, just outside Mingora, built as a Buddhist monastery.

For thousands of years, these ruins had been preserved, co-existing in the past few centuries with Islam in Swat.

But it's not hard to imagine the threat posed to the Buddhist heritage both by the conflict and by the Taliban's attitude to anything pre-Islamic.

In the days of the old Swat, we used to wish it would fulfil its potential as a tourist destination - although popular with Pakistanis, it could have attracted so many more foreign visitors.

Their spending power would have made a difference to the many Swatis working in the fledgling hospitality business.

Today, my wish is much simpler - if only we could have the old Swat back.

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