With the Indo-Pakistani ceasefire in Kashmir now nearly two months old, villagers in the remote mountain territory have seen their lives drastically altered for the better. Roads on the Pakistani side once closed because of Indian shelling are now open, and schools and hospitals are open again.
When the ceasefire along the military Line of Control between the Indian and Pakistani-ruled parts of Kashmir took effect in late November, villagers in the scenic Neelam Valley were relieved.
Gohar Rehman, a resident of Authmuqaum village near the frontline, says the ceasefire has eased their troubles and suffering. "Circumstances are much favorable for the people," he says. "People are feeling pleasure and happy after the ceasefire."
According to Pakistani military officials, shelling by Indian forces across the Line of Control has killed more than four hundred civilians in the past five years.
The two sides have periodically exchanged artillery fire across the border for the past several years.
But the Pakistani commander of the Neelam Valley, Brigadier Waqar Raja, speaking to a group of journalists during a rare, military-sponsored trip to the Kashmir frontline, says not a single bullet has been fired from either side since the ceasefire.
"The peace initiative… by the government of Pakistan has helped in lowering the tension along the line of control," says Mr. Raja. "The one good example is that we traveled today on the same road on which nobody could have traveled a month back."
Roads are not the only things that have changed since the guns have silenced. Kashmiri villages once reduced to ghost towns have sprung back to life.
"The life has come to normal and the people are coming back, the civil administration, they have come back," says Colonel Habib Shah, a commander in Authmuquam. "We are constructing civil hospitals, we are reconstructing this… college."
Nevertheless, not everyone is relaxing, and tensions remain as the two armies face each other across the snow-capped mountains.
Brigadier Raja says Kashmir could turn back into a war zone and both militaries are still on alert. "You can see the signs of destruction by the Indian shelling," he says. "That across the river, if you see those high places covered with snow, those are the Indian locations."
Many people in the region wonder if efforts to peacefully end the dispute over Kashmir will be sustained.
The mostly Muslim region of Kashmir has been the cause of two wars between India and Pakistan. The nuclear rivals came close to another war in 2002 over the divided territory, which both sides claim in its entirety.
India blames Pakistan for sponsoring a 13-year armed insurgency in Indian-ruled parts of Kashmir. It says Pakistan's military makes the illegal movement of insurgents easier so they can attack Indian targets.
Brigadier Raja denies any official Pakistani backing to what he calls Kashmiri "freedom fighters." He says Pakistan has done enough in recent years to plug the 740-kilometer mountain border. And he points to India's security and high-technology surveillance systems on its side of the line, which also have failed to block the alleged infiltration of insurgents.
"Indians have apparently failed to plug the line of control so far," says Mr. Raja. "Obviously to expect Pakistan to control this situation is not possible."
Pakistani military authorities and villagers in the Neelam Valley hope coming peace talks will permanently resolve the Kashmir dispute. At their ice-breaking meeting earlier this month in Islamabad, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee agreed to resume official talks to settle all bilateral disputes. The coming talks follow a series of peace initiatives from both sides last year, including the ceasefire in Kashmir.
But even as villagers in Kashmir celebrate the end of the shelling, some say they have been forgotten and are not getting the help they need from the two governments.
Ruqaya Bibi, a resident of Authmuqaum, says Pakistani authorities have ignored the civilian victims, including her family. She says Indian shelling killed her father and injured her three sisters, leaving the family without a breadwinner. She says the civil administration and military authorities have ignored her appeals for help.