Tourists flock to Kashmir’s ‘ghost valley’

Once the scene of furious artillery shelling, Neelum Valley in Pakistan-administered Kashmir is enjoying peace dividend.

Officials say they are facing a challenge to manage the tourist influx into the valley [Roshan Mughal/Al Jazeera]

Neelum Valley, Pakistan-administered Kashmir – A fragile peace along the de facto border between India and Pakistan in the disputed territory of Kashmir has turned this “ghost valley”, once caught in the crossfire of artillery barrages, into an unlikely tourist destination.

The strategic Neelum Valley, northeast of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, is enjoying a rare peace dividend as domestic tourists flock to the picturesque region, with its scenic mountain views and rivers.

But the tourism boom has not erased painful memories of the death and destruction local residents experienced during shelling up until a 2003 ceasefire. Villagers remain nervous about the implications for peace in the wake of a Hindu nationalist party’s victory in recent Indian elections.

“Tourism is in full swing these days in the Neelum Valley, which has hundreds of scenic places, sky-high mountains, rivers, friendly people, and peace,” said Mian Abdul Waheed, the minister for education of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and a resident of Neelum Valley.

“More than 10,000 tourists are coming to the valley every day. There is complete peace with no reports of cross-border shelling, for which the credit goes to the Pakistani army.”

Bloodier days

It is a far cry from bloodier days experienced by local people such as Shahzad Ahmed, when artillery exchanges across the Line of Control (LoC) separating Indian and Pakistan forces devastated valley communities.

Shahzad Ahmed is wary of  the shaky peace between armies of Pakistan and India [Roshan Mughal / Al Jazeera]

Ahmed’s father, Ghulam Ahmed, succumbed to injuries caused by an Indian artillery shell fired from across the LoC into the border village of Lowat Bala in 1991.

Ahmed, then aged 11, said: “I wanted to go with him to hospital but was unable to lend any help moving him and unable to escape the shelling on the way to Muzaffarabad.”

He recounted the hardships Neelum residents faced during the India-Pakistan clashes across the LoC from 1990 through the 2003 ceasefire, and recalled 40 passengers being killed when a bus travelling at night in front of Indian positions was hit in 1996.

“I am surprised why they [the Indians] used to pound the civilian population instead of the military,” he told Al Jazeera.

Villagers displaced

While on the other side of the LoC, the population is small and dispersed, on the Pakistani side there are hundreds of villages and towns along the de facto border.

This meant the artillery exchanges across the line that began in 1990 left considerable destruction on the Pakistani side – and bitter memories.

“An undeclared war was declared against us for 14 years until the 2003 ceasefire, during which all kind of weaponry was used by the Indian army, killing 2,500 villagers and wounding more than 5,000 besides displacing thousands of people,” Education Minister Waheed told Al Jazeera.

“The shooting spree reverted the valley into a state of backwardness, with the destruction of markets, shops, schools, hospitals, and thousands of houses.”

The shelling displaced half the area’s 150,000 residents who fled to safer places, most to Muzaffarabad, and among them was Zia-ur-Rehman.

The locals who had faced death and destruction haven't invested in any tourism activity fearing peace as short lived. All the investors are from outside Neelum.

by - Shahzad Ahmed

“I shifted my family here in 2000 after my house and a market in Aathmuqam, the district headquarters of Neelum Valley, had been destroyed twice [in 1991 and 1998] by heavy Indian shelling,” said Rehman, 55, who now runs a pharmacy in Muzaffarabad.

“We had built bunkers and dug out trenches to save ourselves in the event of shooting from across the LoC, assuming it would stop, but it got more and more fierce every day making it difficult to live under constant fear, harassment, and uncertainty.

“I have rebuilt my house but I don’t want to live there until a permanent peace holds. I get frightened whenever I go there.”

Tourist influx

The fragile peace has begun to open the area to tourism and such has been the transformation in the valley that authorities are struggling to cope.

“We are facing a challenge to manage the tourist influx into Neelum Valley these days with residential facilities running short because the number of visitors is growing immensely,” said Zaheer-ud-din Qureshi, the director general of Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s tourism department.

Now Pakistani soldiers welcome tourists at the checkpoint as they enter the valley.

One Pakistani officer, who declined to give his name, told Al Jazeera: “There is peace on the LoC and in the valley, and there aren’t any ceasefire violations here. The tourists are pouring in to enjoy it.”

Dotted with the bunkers and trenches of both Indian and Pakistani armies, the flags of their respective countries flying outside, the valley is now full of colourful tents, picnic resorts, and newly established guest houses and hotels.

Soldiers emerge from their foxholes to eye the tourists as they cross in front of their bunkers.

Short-lived peace

Yet locals remain fearful that politics and nervous trigger fingers could yet destroy the fragile calm, and resist becoming dependent on the tourism boom.

With bunkers, colourful tents and new guest houses have sprouted in the Neelum Valley [ Roshan Mughal / Al Jazeera]

“The locals who had faced death and destruction haven’t invested in any tourism activity fearing peace as short lived. All the investors are from outside Neelum,” Shahzad Ahmed said.

There have been a number of recent ceasefire violations along the LoC in Poonch and Rajouri, and India and Pakistan have both blamed each other for the incidents.

Border skirmishes have been on the rise since last year and tensions escalated in August after India accused Pakistan of killing five of its soldiers.

But Pakistan maintained that India had attacked a border post, prompting the suspension of trade and travel between parts of the disputed region.

Waheed, who represents Neelum Valley in Pakistan’s legislative assembly, stressed the need to maintain the peace.

“God forbid, one bullet [fired across the LoC] would sabotage the entire tourism boom. We all should make efforts to maintain peace-keeping in view of the valley’s strategic importance.”

Source: Al Jazeera