A Swarm of visitors at an ancient cave famous for its healing water near Janatee Cheena in Lar Bagh, Tirah valley. — Dawn
A Swarm of visitors at an ancient cave famous for its healing water near Janatee Cheena in Lar Bagh, Tirah valley. — Dawn

Gone are the days when residents of Tirah valley in Khyber region would walk for two to three days to reach Bara-Kajorai area to meet relatives and friends or buy household goods before returning to their multi-storey houses made of clay, mountain rocks, and long, thick logs.

The newly-built 110km Bagh Maidan Road has brought them the much-needed relief by cutting the distance for vehicle users to three and a half hours only.

Miraj Afridi, a 38-year-old auto parts dealer in Bara area, told Dawn he’d heard a lot about the natural beauty of Tirah valley from his grandfather and other elders but he had never got a chance to travel to his ancestral place before the Mastak-Bagh Maidan Road was built.

He added that the Kohat-Hangu-Orakzai Road used to be the only artery to Tirah but it was a long route with bad condition.

Mr Afridi said he frequently visited the valley to stay with relatives and at times, friends accompanied them to go places in the picturesque Tirah.

Mohib Ali of Bara, who works with an insurance company, said Tirah valley had great tourism potential, which could be exploited by the government through infrastructure development.

He said visitors had to stay with relatives, friends or acquaintances as the region badly affected during the two years long ‘rule’ of the local Taliban had no hotels or guesthouses.

The Taliban militants had stormed and captured the valley in Jan 2013 and remained there until a military operation made them to either retreat to the nearby Orakzai region or flee to areas bordering Afghanistan.

The entire population of Bagh-Maidan area, which fled after the Taliban onslaught, returned only after the security forces flushed the militants out after fierce clashes.

The militants torched, blew up and looted more than 80 percent of private properties before fleeing leaving behind only ruins of multi-storey houses, including the precious timber used in their construction, and the furniture.

“The Taliban targeted especially those, who either sided with their rival armed outfit, Ansaarul Islam, or sought the support of security forces to resist them,” said Nauroz Khan, a medical practitioner and a peace activist in Bagh Markaz area.

Not only has the road shortened distances to the relief of residents but it promises the return of the militancy-hit valley to normal as well, says trader leader Haji Sharif

He said his newly-built house near the historic commercial centre was demolished by the Taliban militants after seizing all valuables, including doors, wood windows, sanitary fittings, kitchen items, and even a solar system.

“I had spent almost my savings on the house’s construction,” he said.

Life limped back to normalcy in the valley after thousands of internally displaced families returned in late 2014 and began reconstructing damaged houses, mostly on self-help basis.

The traders and shopkeepers resumed business activities at the Bagh Markaz with the help of meagre financial resources. The militants had looted and torched the entire market before fleeing.

Haji Sharif, president of the recently-formed Bagh Markaz Traders Union, told Dawn that the construction of the new road from Mastak to Tirah helped bring normalcy to the militancy-affected valley.

“Now, we can leave for Peshawar or Bara in the morning and return in the evening,” he said.

Initially, traveling to the valley was not hassle-free as only local residents were allowed to enter the valley and that too with a registration card issued to them from the department dealing with displaced persons in Peshawar.

Security forces had also established 17 checkposts along the new road to effectively prevent the entry of undesirable elements to Tirah.

The passengers and traders complained of the frequent checking at checkpoints and offloading of the merchandise, bound for Bagh Markaz, for extensive searching, saying the exercise wasted their time. The problem later eased due to the removal of many checkposts.

The travelers are now required to show CNICs and register their vehicles at the Sarhadi One checkpost in Mastak area on the way to Tirah before doing the same at the Sarhadi Two checkpost in Dwa Thoe area, the entry point to the valley.

The non-Tirah residents are required to leave CNICs with the security personnel at that point and collect them at the time of departure.

Miraj Afridi said the checking relaxation at checkposts had encouraged non-Tirah residents to visit the valley in large numbers since Eidul Fitr last year.

He said though the figures of people visiting Tirah weren’t official maintained, the number had gone into thousands.

Resident Fazal Rabi, who works as a social activist after finishing university education in Peshawar, said the thick forests, crystal-clear natural water springs, lush green valleys, and vast agricultural farms offered a lot to potential tourists.

He regretted lack of basic facilities like hotels, guest houses, restaurants, electric supply, drinking water, telephone and mobile phone service, and quality link roads to scenic spots saying they all are hampering tourism promotion in the valley.

The resident, however, said outsiders, mostly joy-seekers, thronged the valley and its surrounding areas considering themselves to be safe after the restoration of peace in the region.

Dr Niaz Ali of Darra Adamkhel area, who had come to Tirah along with friends, told Dawn in Bagh Markaz that he had visited Naran, Kaghan, Nathiagali, Swat and Murree so many times but he had found Tirah as beautiful and attractive as they’re.

He, however, insisted that was a lot of room for improvement to attract tourists in large numbers. “Though here for three days, we have been completely cut off from our families as the mobile phone signals are very poor and the landline phone service is nonexistent,” he said.

This correspondent saw both residents and tourists make a beeline to an ancient cave, located eight kilometers from the main Bagh Markaz, to fetch water from a small pond there believing it cures diabetes.

Medical practitioner Nauroz Khan laughed off the belief as ‘misconception and rumour’ saying the pond water has never been tested.

He said he believed the cave would become a tourist attraction for being located on the elevated part of a rocky hill with another natural spring running down the valley and surrounded by lush green fields and orchards.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2019