Keran village: From scars of bullets to border tourism destination

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Keran, Kupwara: Mohammad Afzal Khan spent his life fearing bullets in the day and near-continuous shelling in the night in Keran sector along the volatile border between India and Pakistan. He never thought of waking up to a peaceful dawn.

But Khan, now 74, lived to see the influx of tourists, sitting under the sun in open meadows near the cold-water stream of Neelum river that divides the two nuclear-armed neighbors. 

Khan’s home village of Keran has been in headlines for all destructive reasons. However, after India opened the ‘border tourism’, the small village in the laps of high mountains — 160 kilometers away from the capital city Srinagar — is bustling with tourists strolling on lush fields, near river streams, and jungle trails. 

“Soon after the insurgency started in the 1990s, we (villagers) had to bear the brunt. Many villagers even migrated to the other side of the river to escape from the daily atrocities,” Khan said.

Photograph by Junaid Kathju for The Kashmir Walla.

The abandoned homes of the families still stand in the village but in a ruined condition.

To reach the Keran village, one has to pass through the Firkiyan Gali, at an altitude of 9,634 ft. On the way, the scenery gives you an impression of the landlocked valley stuck back in time.

Locals said that while daily life has eased out, especially after the place was opened for tourism, the area remains under strict surveillance.

Arif Ahmad Sheikh, a local youth, said that there are CCTV cameras installed everywhere. “People across the river [in Pakistani] are very skeptical to have any communication with us. So, we don’t engage with them,” he said.

India shares a total of 3,323 kilometers of border with Pakistan: 221 kms is the international border and 740 kilometers of Line of Control (LoC) that falls in Jammu and Kashmir.

Notably, border shelling has killed hundreds of people in Kashmir and Jammu region since the 1990 and left scores handicapped. Besides, houses and livestock worth fortunes have been damaged due to the cross-LoC shelling in J-K.

The 2021 February ceasefire pact ignited hopes among the border residents of long-lasting peace with special occasions and festival celebrations returning to the LoC areas.

Photograph by Junaid Kathju for The Kashmir Walla.

However, a long road to the betterment of the area remains to be walked. The lack of development from the Jammu and Kashmir side was apparent as compared to the across.

After the 2005 earthquake, funds from Muslim countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia helped the inhabitants of Pakistan-administered-Kashmir to rebuild and modernize the area. Two years after the rebuilding process was complete, the other side was opened for tourism.

“It proved a game changer for them. In the past 15 years, that area has been booming with tourism while we have been spectators from this side,” one of the locals of Keran said.

Even today, Khan lamented: “Our village is still completely cut off from the rest of the world. Even today, we don’t have mobile-phone [accessibility] facilities in the region.”

However, Zaheed Wani, a 40-year-old businessman who opened a small restaurant on the banks of the Neelum river, said that tourism is slowly building in the area.

“It has been five months since the government opened this side for tourism. We have to go a long way to compete with our counterparts from the other side,” Wani added.

Photograph by Junaid Kathju for The Kashmir Walla.

Wani, who also provides tents and other logistical support for overnight stay, was offered a state award recently for promoting tourism in Keran after his video with a vlogger ‘Dream Chasers’ received massive response on social media. “After that video, many people started to come here. Before that nobody knew about this place,” Wani said. 

The pace of macadamization work on the road leading to Keran further deepens the belief of Wani that good days are ahead. “The new entrepreneurs like me are optimistic that our fortunes will also turn around soon,” he said.

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