SWAT VALLEY, Pakistan
Nov. 8, 2007 -- Pakistan's Swat Valley is 150 grueling miles, and a world away from Islamabad.
We left early this morning, and it is lucky we did. It took more than five hours to make the trip through treacherous mountain passes paved only in gravel, and small villages where covering my face and hair was imperative.
We were in the heart of Taliban country, but this wasn't Afghanistan -- it was Pakistan.
I started reading about the Swat Valley on my way over to Pakistan early last week. I knew that it was a former tourist spot surrounded by a staggering wall of mountains. The mountains are still spectacular, but the tourists are nowhere to be found. I also knew that it was now considered too dangerous for foreigners, especially Westerners, which is why we did our best not to look that way.
When I met our guide this morning he had left his polo shirts and khaki pants home. He, the cameraman, and British producer Bruno Roeber were all dressed in native garb. Despite Bruno's bright blue eyes, the men blended in fairly well.
Our guide told me to bring a large black or white scarf and to wear it over my head. Half way up the mountain he could see I wasn't very good at handling a head scarf, and he pulled over to show me how. It must drape your shoulders as well.
As we got closer to Swat and were passing through a village, I peered out the window and our guide calmly said, "Look straight ahead, don't let them see your face."
But the streets were so swarmed with people that it was difficult not to be noticed.
And then we hit the traffic jam -- an unimaginable traffic jam. On a high mountain pass we came to a dead stop because they were doing some blasting up ahead. We were surrounded by huge, brightly colored trucks filled with cattle, rice, hay and people. Drivers were squeezing in between the cars. Our guide told me to stay in the car, make sure my hair was covered and not look around. Finally, after an hour we began moving again.
People in the region are terrified. Of the more than 1.5 million people here, more than 200,000 have fled. We saw long lines of vehicles with families and their belongings packed on top, evacuating Swat Valley today.
Girls schools have been closed and ransacked, bombers have staged attacks and businesses have been shuttered. Many people say their businesses are completely ruined.
And followers of a radical Islamic cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, have had no trouble scaring away or slaughtering the few Pakistan government forces have been sent to the area. A dozen were publicly beheaded in recent weeks, and dozens more were taken hostage. They were later released but only after the government freed dozens of insurgents in exchange.
Getting out of the car to do standups was tricky. We did not want to stay in one place too long, or we would attract attention and word would spread that foreigners were in town. In fact, the place I wanted to do a standup was off limits.
"They are looking to take an American hostage over on that side of the river," our local cameraman said. "You should not go there."
So we stayed in the area he told us to. I shot several on-camera pieces, including one right across the river from Taliban headquarters. We attracted huge crowds, and as soon as we did we hopped back in the car.
People we talked to in the small area of Swat that has not yet fallen to the Taliban blame one man for the problems here -- Musharraf. There is talk that President Musharraf may soon mount a major operation here to show that his emergency declaration is intended to battle terrorists, but most people here want to know why he hasn't acted sooner.
I talked to a few people on the streets, but our time was limited. It was getting dark and it was a long way home.