MINGORA: It is more than two years since the Taliban roamed Pakistan's Swat valley with impunity and threatened to kill him, but Mohammad Karim is still scared when he remembers how they paralysed life.
"The bad days are over... they (the Taliban) are in the past now and I don't think they will ever come back," he told AFP as he prepared to close up his music and video shop and rejoin his family for the evening.
It was his merchandise of popular songs and films that saw the Taliban effectively shut down his shop two and a half years ago, after the picturesque mountain valley first started to slip out of government control in July 2007.
Radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah led hundreds of Taliban in sowing terror in an area once loved by holidaymakers for its balmy summers and snowy winters.
His supporters beheaded opponents, burning schools and fighting to implant a harsh brand of Islamic law.
But in April 2009, Pakistan launched a major offensive to reclaim Swat from the Taliban, along with the neighbouring districts of Buner and Lower Dir.
Heavy fighting displaced an estimated two million people, but the military declared the region back under control in summer 2009 and tentative efforts began to kickstart development and revive the economy.
Two years later, the army is still a heavy presence in Mingora, the main town of Swat, and commanders confirm they are preparing to create a military-run cantonment area in a bid to protect long-term stability.
"They (the Taliban) ruined my business," Karim said. He grew so frightened of their threats for running an "un-Islamic" shop that, after watching helplessly as his sales fell 70 percent, he closed down for several months. "Let me tell you very frankly, I got scared after they warned me of serious consequences."
Standing behind big wooden shelves displaying CDs and DVDs of popular Urdu, Pashto and Indian songs and movies, Karim said it had been difficult to survive.
"We're in safe hands now but one thing I'm at a loss to understand is where did the Taliban come from and where did they disappear to so quickly?"
Nowadays shops, small restaurants and cafes are open in Mingora until late at night, with little outward sign of fear.
It may look like any normal Pakistani city, with people going about their routine business and markets crowded, but heavily armed police and soldiers are still deployed in large numbers, searching vehicles and even pedestrians.
"This is one big problem that we're facing. An over presence of military and civilian police on all roads and areas has been causing lots of problems for people," local grocer Zahid Iqbal told AFP in Saidu Bazaar.
He wants things to be more relaxed and for the army to hand over power to a civilian administration since Mingora and other areas of Swat are now peaceful.
"Gone are the days when we used to receive threats and collect dead bodies from different areas of the city," he said.
But Major General Javed Iqbal, commander of Swat, said it would take time before the situation fully returns to normal – a mantra that army leaders have been repeating for almost two years.
"As soon as the government and the general headquarters (of the army) determine that the job is done, the army will go out of Swat and hand over administrative control to civilians," Iqbal said.
He told reporters on the sidelines of a seminar on de-radicalisation in Swat that the area was experiencing a "victory of peace. Military solution is the temporary phase of a permanent solution."
The army has endorsed or organised a series of public events in Swat this year to revive tourist interest, such as a skiing competition in March and a public festival in June to showcase what is on offer.
But the rumble of violence is never far away in northwest Pakistan. On June 1 and June 3, hundreds of militants besieged an area in Upper Dir on the Afghan border, some 70 kilometers (43 miles) northeast of Swat, sparking prolonged fighting that killed at least 34 people.
Sporadic outbreaks of violence in Swat have led to fears that the Taliban who held it are regrouping elsewhere in the northwest.
"Larger efforts are needed to sustain whatever we have achieved in Swat," said Lieutenant General Asif Yasin Malik, supervising all military operations in the northwest.
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