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Reporter’s Notebook: Making the Rounds in Pakistan’s Swat Valley

Delivering aid in the Swat valleyThis week in Islamabad started with a jolt – one that woke me from a deep sleep and measured 5.3 on the Richter scale. Producer Jay LaMonica and I flew in Sunday night to join cameraman Paul Mongey for a series of stories about the aftermath of the disastrous Pakistan floods.

And although we had concerns for our safety and security, earthquake preparedness never came up in our pre-trip planning. I just hoped that the flood catastrophe wouldn’t morph into something even worse. Bizarrely, as the quake subsidized, a subsequent hailstorm pelted the metal shutters of the hotel. If I believed in omens, this would be a really bad sign. As it was, there was no way I was going to get any more sleep.

We set out early Monday morning to make sure we kept our appointment with the U.S. Army at a Pakistani air base a couple of hours outside of Islamabad. There we caught a ride on a Chinook helicopter, one of 18 choppers operated by the men and women of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade. Based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, this particular unit is perfectly suited for the mountainous flying in the north of Pakistan because the crews have experience with similar terrain and weather conditions.

View from the helicopterSoon we were heading up to the Swat valley, loaded with food supplies to bring to remote areas. The U.S. crew was accompanied by Pakistani soldiers whose job it was to provide security. As the unit’s commander, Lt. Col. John Knightstep, told me, the Pakistanis are basically calling the shots on the relief missions, deciding where to go and making sure insurgents were kept at bay. It was unnerving to think that just over a year ago, the areas we are visiting were Taliban strongholds and the sites of battles between Taliban fighters and Pakistani military. It also seemed incongruous to think of brutality amid such beauty. The mountainous Swat valley resembles Switzerland with lush greenery and snow-capped peaks.

The day was one of the noisiest I’d ever experienced. Ear protection is hardly a match for the powerful Chinook engines, and Knightstep, who piloted the helicopter, told me that years of flying had taken a serious toll on his hearing. The motors roared for the entire day, even during stops to refuel or to load and unload people and supplies. We swept through the canyons following the river, the devastation evident below us. Cropland has been destroyed, roads and bridges swept away.

We landed at a site of a former school, now a Pakistani army base. As U.S. soldiers rushed to gas up the helicopter, members of the Pakistani army stood guard around the perimeter. Other Pakistani soldiers loaded sacks of wheat flour onto the chopper.

Our next stop was a placid park farther up the valley.The landing zone was ringed by barbed wire, and Pakistanis let into the area had passed through cordons of security checks. A Pakistani military official told me that soldiers were on patrol in the mountains around the zone, there to try to thwart any potential attack. As the tandem rotor blades of the helicopter spun around, Pakistani men unloaded sacks of foodstuff. Farmers then took turns stashing sacks of fresh vegetables that had been piled nearby the helicopter, in the cargo hold. The bags contained cabbages, potatoes, and other vegetables, and, since roads are impassable by trucks, the helicopters are being used to help transport the goods to market.

With supplies packed in, it was time to bring people aboard the aircraft. They had been sitting on the ground outside the barbed wire perimeter. Pakistani soldiers herded them in, made them line up next to the ramp, and then allowed them to board. Many were elderly. Mothers and fathers cradled children. One man carried an older, bearded man on his back. Many of the evacuees, I was told, had come to be transported to medical facilities. Others needed to get to distant towns to find work, as they commonly do with the approach of winter.

Women boarding U.S. helicopter
Photos by Jeffrey Kaye

As the day wore on, the helicopters – one we were riding in, and a twin that traveled the same route – completed loops, stopping to refuel and reload, then taking off and repeating the task.

As the sky became grey and the day drew to a close, Knightstep piloted the Chinook back to the base, making sure to arrive just before dusk. His unit will be there until the Pakistanis decide they are no longer needed.

Watch Jeffrey Kaye’s latest report from Pakistan on Tuesday’s NewsHour.

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