It is no wonder Pakistani newspapers and tour operators have called Neelum Valley the “Switzerland of the East”: there are snow-capped mountains, steep hills lined with pine and fir and fast-moving rivers packed with trout. But up until two years ago, the valley saw little tourism.
Pakistan is in the grips of insurgency and terrorism across the country. In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, it is a different story. Growing faith in a 2003 ceasefire between Pakistan and India along the 720-kilometer Line of Control has meant droves of Pakistani visitors arriving in the valley in buses, jeeps and cars. Valley residents have been busy building guest houses to meet the demand.
But the valley remains a heavily militarized zone – with thousands of Indian and Pakistan soldiers eyeing each across the Line of Control, sometimes on opposites sides of the valley and sometimes on the same mountain as Pakistanis control the lower portion and Indians control the heights.
Indian and Pakistani soldiers are occasionally killed in firing across the de facto border.
Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir in the last 66 years – in 1947-1948 and 1965. A third of the disputed territory is administered by Pakistan while the rest is administered by India.
Beginning in 1989, an insurgency and separatist movement flared up inside Indian-controlled Kashmir. Meanwhile, along the Line of Control, militants trained in camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir crossed to join the fight. Indian forces retaliated against the incursions – aiming to strike militants, their camps and Pakistani military posts.
Neelum Valley witnessed some of the heaviest artillery exchanges between and Indian and Pakistani troops in the 1990s – and residents still recall a valley of fear and death that was virtually shut off from the world. Residents on the Pakistan-administered side of Neelum Valley say Indian shelling hit their homes, schools and hospitals leading to deaths and injuries.
The region remains volatile. With no sign of an imminent solution to the Kashmir dispute, the artillery guns could boom again.