Twenty years ago, Pakistani intruders occupied the heights overlooking this area and rained fire in a bid to cut off the Srinagar-Leh highway, triggering the Kargil War. Sixty kilometres west of Kargil, Drass with Mushkoh Valley, Tololing and Tiger Hill, became one of the major theatres of the war, witness to some of the bloodiest battles as Indian troops beat back the Pakistanis to regain the icy heights.
Today, Mushkoh Valley is a picture postcard again. People here can never forget the war, but they have moved on.
With the government and Army stepping up the pace of development work and boosting tourism, residents of Mushkoh Valley and Drass — it is considered the coldest inhabited place in the country with temperatures dropping below -40°C during winter — have jobs, the children have schools, and the towns have a future.
The Kargil War Memorial, built by the Army, is in Drass and draws a stream of visitors, giving rise to eateries, even hotels, that are adding to the transformation of the area.
In Mushkoh Valley, Nisar Ahmed points to a meadow where women are at work. This, he said, was a battlefield in 1999. “People (tourists) come visiting and spend time here to know what actually happened in 1999. Back then, this was a battleground. Hardly anyone would venture into the fields,” he said.
The mud-and-brick houses are long gone. Concrete houses with modern amenities have come up. Villagers say most people have jobs and development works were undertaken after the war. “There used to only one high school in Drass where children from Mushkoh would go every day. Now we have a high school here. The children don’t need to go to Drass. I studied in Drass, but my children go to school here,” says Ghulam Mohidin.
In neighbouring Drass, the main market is a beehive of activity. Shopkeepers say the town changed after the war. A year after the war, Nawab Ali from Dehradun opened a dhaba in the main town. “So much has changed here. Now we have too many eateries. When I came here, there was hardly anyone. This place has changed completely,” he said. “Who would have thought that there will be so many good hotels here. One charges around Rs 3,000 a night, yet there is no end to the demand.”
Ali Mohammed agrees: “People come to visit the war memorial in Drass from all parts of the country. It has become a major attraction. Even during the agitation in Kashmir in 2016, we had people coming here via the Manali and Leh route. This town is changing.” His son joined the Army after the war. “He got a job and it really helped the family. We have our own car now.”
As Naib Tehsildar, Barkat Ali was the top officer of Drass at the time of the Kargil war. “In every field here, we have witnessed change. From tourism to roads, everything changed for the better.”
Ghulam Nabi, also a resident, says credit for the change must go to the Army. “They started small projects in the valley which helped the locals. Then they provide massive jobs to the youth. Even today, they help local residents in every possible way. A lot of money came to us. People who used to have one or two horses are now owners of four-five horses.”
Deputy Commissioner Kargil Baseer ul Haq told The Indian Express that in past two decades, the Drass town has witnessed complete turnaround.
“Now we have very good hotels and houses in the town. Living standard of people have gone up and area has seen lot of development activities, even lot of tourists are now visiting the town,” he said.
Mushkoh Valley and Drass look to the future, but worry each time tensions rise between India and Pakistan.
A Mushkoh Valley resident spoke for all: “Recently when tensions escalated, the local Army unit asked us to start readying the bunkers. Everyone here knows that if there is shelling again from the other side, we will be back to the old times. Nobody wants to see that again.”