MALAM JABBA: More than three years after the Taliban shut Pakistan's most famous ski resort, enthusiasts are again slamming down the slopes trying to prove that the feared insurgents are gone for good.
When Taliban fanatics led by Maulana Fazlullah took control of the scenic Swat valley in 2007, they turned the Malam Jabba resort into their stronghold, blowing up the ski lift and setting fire to the only hotel.
Western holidaymakers and Pakistani skiers became a distant memory as Fazlullah's men effectively ruled Swat through fear and intimidation, bombing and beheading opponents of their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
But the army retook Swat after launching a major offensive against the Taliban in 2009, and recently organised a four-day amateur skiing competition in an attempt to get winter sports back on piste for the first time since 2007.
One of the competitors at the gala, Yasir Khan, still shudders when he remembers how "well-armed" Taliban snatched his skis and equipment and threatened him with death on his last visit, in his mid-teens in 2007.
"I was shocked when they offered me military training instead of learning how to ski. They said I should better go for jihad," he told AFP.
"They broke my skis and warned they'd slaughter me if I came here again," said the 19-year-old, as he prepared to launch himself down Malam Jabba's ski slope, part of the Hindu Kush mountain range.
The Taliban warning - "You should avoid this place if you want to keep your head on your shoulders" - still echoes in Khan's mind. "I'd lost hope of ever visiting this place again," he said.
Malam Jabba's flip-flopping fortunes, from holiday destination to Taliban breeding ground and now back to a symbol of fun, encapsulate Pakistan's struggle with religious extremism and deteriorating security.
Towering 2,630 metres (8,630 feet) above sea level, the lone ski slope at Malam Jabba is 1,200 metres (yards) long and 400 metres wide. The resort lies 300 kilometres (190 miles) northwest of the capital Islamabad.
Fiercely opposed to any form of entertainment, Fazlullah's followers had burnt down schools and video shops, closed cinemas and banned people from listening to music, plunging the thriving tourist centre into fear and boredom.
The ski resort was no exception. The militants destroyed its 72-room hotel owned by the state-run Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation and its only chair-lift, installed by the Austrian government in 1988.
Since Pakistan's apparently decisive battle in 2009, which displaced an estimated two million people, the authorities are still making only tentative efforts to kick-start development and revive the local economy.
Late last month, more than 40 enthusiasts took part in the alpine contest - 27 local residents, members of the military and some government employees - watched by hundreds who flocked to Malam Jabba for a taste of downhill skiing.
"We have organised this event to tell the world that peace has been established in Swat," army Colonel Irfanullah Khan told AFP.
"The Taliban practically paralysed the whole valley... but the dark days have ended," said Matiullah Khan, president of Pakistan's Skiing Federation, who effectively runs the resort and a skiing school in the Swat valley.
Nonetheless most Pakistanis remain circumspect, the appalling memories of Taliban intimidation and lack of government control only too recent.
"People are scared," said skier Rehmat Ali, 24. "They still fear Taliban may have some pockets, that they may emerge again.
"Nobody will become a militant if we have facilities here," he added.
"I think the government should focus on education and sports to discourage militancy."