Mujahid Torwali (@Mujahidtorwali)

July 2010 saw some of the most devastating floods in Pakistan’s history. These were followed by serious flooding again ten years later. This post examines communication during these floods among the Torwali-speaking communities of Swat, in northern Pakistan.

The Torwali Communities of Swat

Swat is a district in Malakand Division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan. The district is known for its outstanding natural beauty and its cultural diversity. The total area of Swat is 5,337 km² and according to the 2017 census, its total population is 2.31 million. Pashtuns are the majority and Pashto is the dominant language of Swat Valley.  

The Swat region of northern Pakistan.

Torwali, a Dardic language, is one of the Indigenous languages of the region. The community that speaks it is called the Torwali Community.  The language is spoken only in Swat, and is indigenous to the Torwali people who live in scattered hamlets in the mountainous upper reaches of the Swat valley, above the Pashto-speaking town of Madyan, up to the Gawri-speaking town of Kalam. There are two main dialects of Torwali, Bahrain and Chail, and the total number of speakers is around 150,000.

LanguagePopulationArea in Swat
BadeshiNo speakers leftBishigram in Swat
Gawri~90,000Kalam, Utror
GujariNot knownSpread in Swat
Khowar~1,000Ushu in Kalam Swat
Pashto~20,00,000Lower and upper Swat
Torwali~150,000Bahrain areas, Chial
Ushojo~10,000Bishigram in Swat

The 2010 Floods

From the 28th of July, catastrophic flooding resulted from heavy monsoon rains in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan regions of Pakistan, and affected the entire Indus River basin. Approximately one-fifth of Pakistan’s total land area was affected by the floods, with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province facing the brunt of damage and casualties; more than 90% of the deaths occurred in that province. According to Pakistani government data, the floods directly affected about 20 million people, mostly by destruction of property, livelihood and infrastructure, with a death toll close to 2,000.

In Pakistan, most such natural disasters begin in the high mountains, affecting nearby places first and then flowing through the plains. The same happened in the 2010 flood, which badly affected all the Dardic peoples of Swat and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. All at once, on the same day, everyone in Swat lost electricity and mobile network coverage, and we were unable to communicate with loved ones and relatives elsewhere in Pakistan.

A bridge linking Torwali and other communities collapsed in the 2010 flood.

Messengers in Swat Valley

After waiting for a day or two, we began sending verbal messages to relatives and those who were trapped elsewhere in the valley. It has long been our custom, before telecommunications were installed, to use some specific points on the roadways and tracks as meeting points for messengers to connect and share information to take to the next community. In the Swat Valley, these meeting points were typically significant places like bridges or mosques.  In our Torwali language, we called a messenger a ‘kotwal‘, but with the passage of time the term kotwal and those who undertook this task disappeared. This is because new technologies arrived, and made their jobs redundant. 

However, during the flood, when technology failed, the oral messenger services became important again—but this time everyone was a kotwal, because we all shared and delivered messages all the way up and down the valley. At some point during the flood people were sending written letters but these were limited because of the low literacy rate in the Indigenous communities. I still remember that I sent a message to one of my friends during the 2010 flood via the kotwal and received a reply in 10 days.

Communicating by Every Means Possible

Sometimes people would convey messages for further delivery on mobile and telephone from cities: when a person visited the city and returned home, people from the community would visit them to listen to the stories from the lower districts and cities.

I also remember that, back in 2010, around the time of the flood, it took three to five days to receive newspapers. When a newspaper arrived in the village, villagers read it page by page from front to back, and it took a week or so to circulate it through the community.

In such a situation, the main source of communication among Indigenous people in Swat during the flood was oral messages.

During the 2010 flood the entire Torwali community was badly affected because  all the main bridges on the Swat River were washed away. People could not even visit their close relatives on the other side of the river. At some meeting stations, I noticed that people were standing on the both sides of the river, talking to each other in gestures (like a sign language) although they were not deaf, because they couldn’t hear each other over the roar of the river.

People also wrote handwritten notes, wrapped them around stones, and threw them across the river to one another.

The 2020 Floods

Communication was somewhat different when floods struck the region again in August 2020. The recent floods didn’t affect the entire valley because all the roads and bridges were reconstructed after 2010, but the telecommunication system was again badly damaged and this affected villagers’ lives.

The communication breakdown of 2010 was repeated because there was no mobile network or electricity for a couple of days. People once again watched the roads and found ways to send their messages. I myself received a message from a villager who said that Fazal Hadi, my friend in the city, had said that Jaky Troy, in Sydney, had called and was asking about me. So, my friend in Australia called Fazal Hadi and delivered a message for me but Fazal further sent the message to me from another man who was passing through and coming to my village. 

Raging floodwaters during the 2020 flood.

Our Language, Our Solutions

So, these are the ways that local Indigenous communities in the Swat Valley have used to communicate during natural disasters. This is how Torwali people communicate with each other—they mostly send their messages through other Torwali speakers. This is especially true for women, who often don’t have access to dominant languages.

During the crucial time when the people were most in danger from the flood, there was no help from the government for communities in far-flung areas, like the Torwali community of the Swat Valley. The government could only start assisting people once the roads were repaired. Until then, we had to rely on each other and our languages to solve our problems.