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Originally published Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Pakistani immigrants can't escape violence

Last June, Bakht Bilind Khan, who was living in the Bronx and working at a fast-food restaurant, returned to his village in the volatile Swat Valley of northern Pakistan to visit his wife and seven children for the first time in three years.

The New York Times

NEW YORK —

Last June, Bakht Bilind Khan, who was living in the Bronx and working at a fast-food restaurant, returned to his village in the volatile Swat Valley of northern Pakistan to visit his wife and seven children for the first time in three years.

But during a dinner celebration with his family, his homecoming turned dark: Several heavily armed Taliban fighters wearing masks appeared at the door, accused Khan of being a U.S. spy and kidnapped him.

During two weeks of captivity in a nearby mountain range, Khan says, he was interrogated repeatedly about his wealth, property and "mission" in the United States. He was released in exchange for an $8,000 ransom. His family, threatened with death if they did not leave the region, is now hiding elsewhere in Pakistan.

"Our Swat, our paradise, is burning now," said Khan, 55, who returned to the United States and is working at a fast-food restaurant in Albany, N.Y., trying to reimburse the friends and relatives who paid his ransom.

Pakistani immigrants from the Swat Valley, where the Taliban have been battling Pakistani security forces since 2007, say some of their families are being singled out for threats, kidnapping and even murder by Taliban forces, who view them as potential U.S. collaborators and lucrative sources of ransom. Some immigrants also say they, too, have been threatened in the United States by the Taliban or their sympathizers, and some immigrants say they have been attacked or kidnapped when they have returned home.

The threats have brought an added dimension of suffering for the immigrants, who say fresh reports of hardship arrive every day, sometimes several times a day, about families driven from their villages, houses being destroyed, relatives disappearing. The fate of the valley dominates conversation among the exiles.

"It's 24/7," said Zakrya Khan, 30, the owner of two gyro restaurants in New York whose staff of 15 is almost entirely Swati. "This is their only concern now."

Back home

Though every community of exiles from a conflict-ridden country suffers when relatives who remain behind are caught in the fight, the immigrants from Swat also bear the burden of believing that their presence in America is endangering their relatives back home, where the Taliban have imposed their authority over much of the region, about 100 miles northwest of Islamabad.

More than that, Swati immigrants say they have been left with the sense that the more they try to help their families back home, the more harm they may do, an excruciating dilemma that has filled many with a combination of helplessness, fear, sadness and guilt.

If they speak out, they fear, it could lead to retribution for them or their relatives in Pakistan. Some exiles who have participated in anti-Taliban demonstrations here or agitated in support of Swat residents say that they and their families have come under pressure as a result of these activities.

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And few dare leave the United States for fear of losing the single largest income stream their families have.

"To go to their rescue would actually make the situation worse," said Khan, the restaurant owner. "We are the only source of income for these people. If we leave the United States, they'll have no one supporting them."

The Pakistan government announced Monday that it had struck a tentative deal with the Taliban amid a 10-day cease-fire to establish Islamic law in the region and suspend military operations there.

But some Swati immigrants said they were skeptical the deal would hold — two other accords in the past six months failed — and they were bracing for a resumption of violence.

Switzerland of Pakistan

Before the start of the Taliban's incursion into the region in 2007, Swat was treasured as a vacation spot, particularly among Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in the region. Known as "the Switzerland of Pakistan," it has snowy peaks, fruit orchards, lakes and flower-covered meadows.

But the tourism industry has evaporated amid the Taliban's uprising, and by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of residents have abandoned their homes, fleeing for Mingora or other regions of Pakistan.

Immigrants have been coming from the Swat Valley for years, well before it became a front in the war between the Taliban and Pakistani government troops.

There are an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people from the Swat Valley in the United States, said Taj Akbar Khan, president of the Khyber Society USA, a Pakistani charitable and cultural organization.

Many Swatis here suspect the Taliban have spies among them, and that insecurity mirrors the rampant mistrust in the valley, where many residents fear the Pakistani security forces almost as much as the Taliban and do not know whom to trust.

Perhaps with the help of stateside sympathizers, the Taliban have been adept at tracking the flow of money from the United States, and have turned to kidnapping recipients of the money with the goal of securing hefty ransoms, the exiles say.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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