Last year, the picturesque hillsides and towns in this region, which lies about 100 miles from the capital, were transformed into a battleground as government troops tried to drive out the Taliban forces who had set up a haven there. Two million people were displaced, fleeing both the Taliban and the shelling and fighting that followed as the Pakistani military retook control of the valley last spring.
But months after residents began returning to rebuild their lives, the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history drove thousands of people from their homes and ruined residents’ hopes for a respite from the relentless upheaval and instability. This lush valley, they said, seems to be under an unending curse.
The flooding has also renewed fears that Taliban forces, who mostly melted away into the hillsides and villages on the outskirts of Swat as government troops launched their offensive, might now seize on the disorder to re-establish a foothold.
In Pakistan’s northwest, some hard-line Islamic groups have been providing shelter and food to flood victims, exploiting gaps in the government’s slow and haphazard initial response to the floods. Although more aid is now flowing into Pakistan to reach the eight million people who need emergency relief, President Asif Ali Zardari warned Thursday that militant groups could still take advantage of the crisis.
“All these catastrophes give strength to forces who do not want a state structure,” Mr. Zardari said at a news conference. “There is a possibility that the negative forces would exploit the situation.”
The floods, which have killed about 1,600 people throughout Pakistan, have left 142 dead in Swat and hundreds of thousands without homes, food, electricity or clean water. One of them was Sher Mohammad, a farmer who stood in line here in the small town of Jaray with more than a hundred other flood survivors on Thursday, waiting for a bag of flour from relief workers.
It was nighttime when the surging water knocked down his mud-walled house three weeks ago and destroyed Mr. Mohammad’s apple orchard, killed his cattle and ruined 120 bags of corn. Mr. Mohammad said he saved his family but lost everything else. The water, he said, seemed to be chasing him.
“I was not a rich man, but I had everything to live a reasonable life,” he said. “Now I have nothing. I am a destitute like all these others.”
Mohammad Zameen, a frail teenager from the village of Bahrain, was clearly in pain as he tried to heft a bag of flour onto his back. He said he would have to climb four hours through the mountains to return home.
“It had been a difficult journey to Jaray, but it is going to be all the more difficult to carry this bag all the way back home,” he said.
Jaray is now the last point of what one official called the “orderly life.” The road beyond does not exist anymore, and a sentry keeps commuters and pedestrians at bay.
As monsoon rains abate, government officials have begun trying to restore power and evacuate people still trapped on islands of earth cut off by the swollen Swat River. Officials are bringing in food by mule trains, and building cable trolleys and foot bridges to help people cross the river and transport their ripening apples and peaches to market.
But much of the valley remains a disaster zone. There has been no electricity for three weeks, and 34 of the 42 bridges in the area have been swept away.
“It is a unique, unfolding tragedy of huge proportions,” said Maj. Gen. Javed Ramday, commander of the 19th division in Upper Swat, who was leading a flood-relief effort.
Electrical towers have been washed away, leaving behind crumpled steel skeletons and broken high-tension wires. Well-known tourist hotels that boasted of their river views have been devoured. The once-bustling district headquarters of Mingora, with a population of 300,000, looks like a haunted ghost town at night.
As the economic and human toll of the disaster continues growing, officials have begun to deliver a blunt assessment of their own response.
“We were not prepared for a situation of this scale and magnitude,” said Atifur Rehman, the district coordination officer. “It was beyond our capacity.”