SWAT: The mountains of Kalam see new faces as tourists pour in to Swat and adjoining areas to attend the Pakistan Army’s Swat peace festival, which goes on until July 18.
“This really is heaven. We have never seen more beautiful natural scenery,” says a man who came from Chakwal with his family.
“The stunning sceneries of the area make me feel young again,” exclaims an elder, who is sitting on a charpoy with his feet dipped in the cool mountain water.
Kalam is 100 kilometres from Mingora, the largest city in Swat district where the Pakistan Army launched an anti-militancy operation in 2008. Troops moved in after negotiations broke down and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Swat chapter took over to implement their strict brand of Shariah in the region. TTP Swat chief Mullah Fazlullah – also known as Mullah Radio after his chosen sermon device – threatened girls to quit school and told boys to grow beards.
Once a favoured tourist destination, Swat and its valleys became victims of violence and tourists started declining in number. Although the local Kohistanis bravely combated Taliban fighters who had to retreat from the valley, Kalam was hard-hit. Ninety per cent of the town’s population depends on tourism. Known for its breathtaking waterfalls and thick pine forests, Kalam is 6,800 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains.
“Twenty thousand people in Kalam were affected by the militancy,” the president of the Kalam Hotel Association, Dr Dawood, told The Express Tribune. “Earlier, young women would visit alone their own and stay out at night, and there were no complaints on safety. The downfall started when Sufi Muhammad initiated his Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi movement, the root cause of the militancy.”
Dawood, however, was ecstatic about the return of guests to the region. “This is a blessing of God because our people were so helpless that they wanted to migrate to other parts of the country for a livelihood. Now, they have hope,” he says.
There is still, however, a long way to go. Two brothers, aged nine and 10, who were selling boiled eggs at the roadside are happy to earn 100 rupees daily but, Dawood says, earlier kids would earn as much 300 rupees per day just by selling local foods or fruits from the valley.
The forests are also thinning due to neglect and Dawood says the forest department needs to start a plantation campaign in the forests.
The valley has enough space to accommodate tourists – there are 160 small and big hotels in Kalam – but the area is not as accessible as other tourist attractions such as Chitral. “A helicopter service from Islamabad, along the lines of one for Chitral, must be initiated. Chair lifts and roads need to be built,” Dawood suggests.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2010.