BAJAUR AGENCY, Pakistan — As the rest of Pakistan suffers a bloody bout of elections-related violence ahead of historic polls today, one of the country’s most dangerous regions is experiencing a rare period of relative peace.
One of the seven restive and semi-autonomous tribal areas on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the Bajaur agency was for years the epicenter of a fierce and decisive battle between Pakistani security forces and strong Taliban fighters who had hunkered down there, using it as a base to launch attacks on international troops in Afghanistan.
In Aug. 2008, Pakistan’s army launched an offensive to retake the strategic border post at Loysem, then controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP. The move provoked a four-year-long conflict that saw some 300,000 of the roughly 900,000 residents displaced, and at least a thousand militants killed, the government says.
But now, the militants are declared gone — to Afghanistan, Pakistan says — nearly 80 percent displaced persons are back following the ouster of Taliban, and things are gradually returning to normal.
In nearby Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last week, a Taliban-planted bomb killed six people and injured another 60.
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But Bajaur, so far, has largely been spared the elections-related violence that has killed scores across Pakistan in recent weeks.
Indeed, bazaars of the administrative headquarters of Khar, Nawagae, Inayatkalay, Salarzai, and other areas were packed with people.
In the main bazaars, few women are out with their family members. But in the suburbs, especially in the fields, women can be seen working and walking — and only loosely covering their hair.
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“Thank God, the situation has changed, and we can live a normal life,” said Zaman, a local farmer.
The Pakistani Taliban, led by Mauvli Faqeer Mohamed, were struggling to assert influence in Bajaur following their ouster from Afghanistan with the US invasion. They were generally not welcome in Bajaur, until a CIA drone attack on a religious seminary killed between 70-80 people on Oct. 30, 2006.
It remains one of the deadliest drone attacks on Pakistani soil.
“That drone attack actually turned the tide in favor of Taliban,” said Zafar Ali Tarkani, a schoolteacher in Khar. “The [Taliban] exploited anti-US sentiment after this attack, and strengthened themselves in Bajaur.”
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But not long after, locals here grew wary of the Taliban. Their fighters were killing tribal leaders — and kidnapping and torturing locals they suspected of having links to security forces.
The residents of Salarzai, nine miles north of Khar, were the first to form a so-called peace militia to fight the Taliban forces, but were defeated. Later, the army launched its operation.
“Memories of that evening are settled in my mind,” Zaman, a farmer from Leesum, said of the night Pakistani forces launched their assault. “It was horrific — shelling and heavy gunfire rattled the mountains.”
Indeed, the scars and even some ruins remain.
On April 20, a young female blew herself up outside the gates of this region’s main hospital, killing four.
Suicide bombings have periodically rocked the area since the army officially removed Bajaur from its list of “conflict zones.”
Faqeer’s followers still fire rockets at security forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, from the restive province of Kunar. Pakistani intelligence says Faqeer is in Afghan custody, though the Afghan government has denied the claim.
As a result of the sporadic unrest, security forces surround Bajaur and its administrative headquarters in Khar, 105 miles north of Peshawar. The road leading there is littered with checkpoints, some of which frustrate locals.
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At many of them, vehicles are required to park at least 100 yards from the security post, and passengers walk through the checkpoint one-by-one. Travelers cannot wear a jacket or chaddar (a sheet used by men to cover their chests), in a bid to thwart suicide attacks.
“It seems as though we are living under siege, and cannot move freely,” said Malang Jan, a Pakistani bus driver who is often required to cross the checkpoints.
“Long queues, security checks, unnecessary questions [from security personnel,” he said. “Sometimes, they pass orders to us like they are kings.”
However, he admits, he feels safer than when the Taliban were here.