Residents of the troubled Swat Valley are breathing a little more easily following the announcement of a cease-fire between the Pakistani government and Taliban forces last week, though uncertainty remains over how long peace can last.
The kidnapping and subsequent release of a senior government official on Sunday underscored the fragile nature of the deal negotiated last week by the government of the North West Frontier Province and hard-line cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammad.
During the 10-day cease-fire, Mr. Mohammad is attempting to convince Taliban militants – led by his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah – to accept a long-term agreement to stop fighting if the government implements Islamic law. The two sides are discussing whether the sharia to be imposed will simply help speed up a currently logjammed judicial system, or institute the Taliban's tougher stances such as banning girls' education.
The deal was greeted optimistically by provincial lawmakers as a respite from violence that has left more than 1,200 people dead, displaced at least 250,000, and seen the destruction of more than 150 schools.
Nestled between snow-capped peaks, the former princely state of Swat, which formally acceded to Pakistan in 1969, was once a thriving tourist venue.
Today, in the district's main town of Mingora, the hotels are abandoned and crumbling.
A similar fate has befallen many of the schools, police stations, roads, and other infrastructure that once made Swat a regional beacon of modernity and development.
Taliban fighters decked in combat gear and balaclavas can be seen roaming freely around the outskirts of the town, maintaining their own checkpoints, some few hundred yards away from heavily barricaded government ones.
It was at one such Taliban checkpoint at the entrance of Mingora that Khushal Khan, the newly minted district chief, was abducted on Sunday night along with his six bodyguards. Mr. Khan was released later in the night.
"It shows where the balance of power lies," notes Javed Khan, a local journalist for the Urdu daily, Ausaf. "A kind of welcome to Swat."
The incident comes on the heels of the killing of Geo TV journalist Musa Khan Khel by unknown assailants last Wednesday – after the cease-fire – which shocked Pakistanis and brought a wave of condemnation by rights groups and press clubs throughout the country.
In the streets and bazaars of Mingora, people have started to go about their daily business, still heeding the moral codes imposed by the Taliban. CD and DVD shops remain shuttered, as does the town cinema. The faces of models have been scratched out on the few surviving billboards, while the "ladies' bazaar," a street of fine silk-cloth shops remains devoid of female customers – a consequence of a religious edict issued by Mr. Fazlullah on his nightly FM radio broadcast.
Many who failed to comply with edicts have fled, or were abducted by Taliban militias, beheaded, and strung-up in the infamous Ziba Khana Chowk ("Butchers' roundabout").
The undercurrent of fear that pervades the town is exacerbated by reports of a network of Taliban informers.
Fear of the Taliban, meanwhile, is matched by a seething anger toward the Army over civilian casualties and its failure to protect the people.
At a school where government officials are distributing flour and other essentials to people who have lost their homes, men gather around to vent their misery and tell of their losses. "Where was the Army when the schools were being blown up? Where were they when they were needed?" asks one.
A peace deal was needed to bring the fighting to an end, some argue. "Peaceful citizens were dislodged and half the population left. In such a situation, any peace deal was welcome," says Ziauddin Yusufzai, a school principal.
Some analysts, however, remain skeptical of a lasting peace. "This is a deal that both sides have negotiated in bad faith," says Riffat Hussain, a military analyst at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, predicting that the government and Taliban will simply use the cease-fire to entrench their positions.
The Taliban's long-term aims, he says, may be to "carve out Swat as a political enclave for their influence and rule. They will then have a sanctuary for the more extreme forces of Baitullah Mehsud to further destabilize both FATA [Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and Afghanistan," he says, referring to the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan.
US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, last week called the truce "hard to understand."
On Monday, all boys' and some girls' schools reopened in Swat with the permission of Taliban forces, though attendance was reported to be low – around 40 percent – owing to ongoing fears and the number of people who have fled from the area.
For now, however, there is some relief. "We're happy to be back at school. Education is our basic right, and we are thinking about our future," says Mylala Yusufzai, a schoolgirl.