TIRAH -- Six years after fleeing the Tirah Valley in then-Khyber Agency because of militant fighting, Daulat Khan is ecstatic to be home again.
The 58-year-old tribesman, whose beard and hair have turned white since he left for Saudi Arabia, has returned to his old routines, such as enjoying the breezy mornings and the colourful and lush scenery of his native Maidan Village.
Most important, Khan once again attended Friday prayers at the main Maidan Bagh mosque on October 18.
"I am going to offer my Eid prayer today after seven years, as the Maidan mosque was shut when I left the Tirah Valley," he said while getting ready with his sons and grandchildren.
"Today I feel my village is free and my family is back home, and we are back among our own friends without any fear," Khan said.
"I had heard the Maidan mosque was opened after six years this past January when I was abroad, and today I am offering Friday prayers after seven years, so one can feel the happiness," he added.
The reopening in January of the main mosque in Maidan has been seen by local tribe members as a symbolic sign of the return of normality to the area.
The mosque suffered damage in 2013 from combat between Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) and Ansar-ul-Islam (AI), which used it as a headquarters. It was then taken over by the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which overpowered the other groups the same year.
The Tirah Valley, hampered by poor communication and a lack of road links, remained a safe haven for all brands of militants, including al-Qaeda and "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) terrorists.
The Pakistani military flushed out most of the militants after a series of operations from October 2014 to July 2017.
Operation Khyber 4 was launched in the area in July 2017 as part of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad to clear TTP splinter group Jamatul Ahrar, which had been hiding along the strategic Rajgal Valley. The operation ended with success later that month.
About a year and a half later, on January 25, tribe members of the Tirah Valley for the first time in six years heard the calls of azan from the Maidan mosque.
Return to normality
Maulana Noorul Haq, the former prayer leader of the Maidan Bagh mosque, on October 18 once again led the Friday prayers and thanked security forces for their efforts to renovate and reopen the mosque.
In his sermon, he focused on the peace and Islam and urged tribesmen to unite against the militants who had destroyed the peace of the valley and displaced thousands of residents.
Thousands of tribesmen such as himself had left for the Middle East and other countries in the Gulf to earn a living for their families after terrorists took over their land, animals and businesses, he said.
He expressed satisfaction that the terrorists have been flushed out and that bazaars and businesses are back to operating as usual.
Khan's nephew, Zar Gul Afridi, was 12 years old when he last prayed at the Maidan mosque. Now as a young man of 18, he is happy to offer his Juma prayers.
The reopening of the mosque "is historic for the people of Maidan, as this mosque was a symbol of unity for us", he said.
Noor Rehman Afridi, a tribesman who returned to Tirah from Doha, Qatar, after five years, also lauded the return to peace in the region.
"We appreciate the efforts of the army for the restoration of peace and assure it of our all-out support, but it's also important that the administrative writ of the state remain and a proper governance system is restored," he said.
Raham Gul, who returned to the mosque with the help of his grandsons, said he was "very happy to pray here again".
"I felt I wouldn't be able to again as gun-toting militants overran it a few years back, but we are thankful to the army for restoration of peace that allows us to pray again," he said.