Mushkoh first shot to fame during the India-Pakistan Kargil War as an inhospitable battlefield. Fifteen years later, the valley, with the Tiger Hills in the backdrop, is a popular tourist spot.
A war brings miseries, but in Drass, it has brought affluence too. It has changed the town that had been the epicentre of the armed hostilities between the two neighbours, from its architecture to its lifestyle. Spread on both sides of the crucial Srinagar-Leh highway, it is at many places completely exposed to the Pakistani positions.
A rusted white signboard still greets visitors to “the second coldest place in the world”—as Drass was known until 1999. But few other signs remain of that town.
Abdul Rahim admits the war brought “money, large amounts of money”. “Before 1999, we led a hard life. It was a struggle to arrange two meals,” he says.
The first jobs that came were in the Army, with villagers employed as porters or their horses rented for ferrying men and machines to the outposts of Tololing and Tiger Hills.
An urban legend in these parts, laughs a local, G N Zia, is that people were earning so much renting out horses “that a villager fed a Rs 1,000 note to his horse”.
Having learnt its lessons, the Army fortified Drass with security installations and modern equipment after the hostilities ceased, as well as extended its Operation Sadbhavna meant to win over people, to the region.
“It was on a massive scale and lots of jobs were provided to youths,” says Zia. “The Army’s developmental projects changed the face of this town.”
The most visible change are the new concrete homes. With shelling from across the border a constant feature of their lives, few here lived in anything more than crumbling mud and stone houses earlier.
After the ceasefire announced in 2003 by India and Pakistan, the money coming in was used by the locals to build concrete houses with large glass panes and tin roofs.
Then the tourists on their way to Leh started stopping by. “They would always pass through here, but seldom would anybody stop,” says Rahim. “Now many people come only to visit Drass. Those on way to Leh necessarily stop here.”
Ironically, the biggest draw for the tourists are the sites connected to the 1999 conflict, with India’s first televised war having left many aware of Drass. They come to see the Kargil War memorial and museum at Bhimbat, and to visit Mushkoh, located 8 km away. A visit to Mushkoh needs written permission from the Army.
“Mushkoh was famous after the war as well. But after it was revealed that Pervez Musharraf (then Pakistan Army chief) had stayed there for a night, more people want to see it,” says Zia.
He also remembers the time the town had only one dhaba. “Now we have around a hundred eateries and a dozen hotels.” Some bear names of the crucial theatres of the war, such as Tiger Hill café.
Naik Subedar Sanjay Kumar, who was awarded Param Vir Chakra for his Kargil war efforts, says: “Very few people lived here then and we had only a few shops. But now it looks like a big city.”
These days, following ceasefire violations, there is some tension in Drass that peace could be temporary. There is no getting away either from the signboards set up by the Army at regular intervals, saying ‘Caution: you are under enemy observation’.
However, the shadow of the war has long lifted.