Girls in bright dresses pushed each other on swings, and boys in pastel tunics played soldier with toy rifles. Neighbors hugged, families gathered and vendors sold scoop after scoop of sweet custard. This week is the first time in three years that people in Pakistan's Swat Valley have been able to celebrate Eid al-Fitr -- the joyous three-day festival that follows the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and its daily fasting -- without looking anxiously over their shoulders for armed religious vigilantes in pickup trucks. But the Taliban-free holiday has been bittersweet for many Swatis, still shellshocked from the summer-long army operation that drove the Islamist militants from this verdant northwest valley but also left a path of death and destruction and sent hundreds of thousands of inhabitants fleeing for their lives. "It doesn't really feel like Eid, because we cannot forget so soon," said Sadiq Khan, a fruit seller in the town of Batkhela. "They are still finding bodies in the Swat River. We had to spend weeks in those hot tents, and some of our women had to give birth on the road as we ran from the fighting. There is too much sorrow and shame for us to celebrate." Two months after the Pakistani army declared that people could return home from their makeshift camps and lodgings, Swat still looks like a war zone. In towns and villages leading to this regional center, dozens of buildings lie in ruins. Some were schools destroyed by the militants; others were homes and shops blasted by army shelling. The main road through the valley winds past peach orchards, rice paddies and fragrant eucalyptus groves. But drivers must navigate a succession of military barricades concocted from boulders, trees, car parts and iron pipes. Every few miles, soldiers flag down long lines of vehicles, peer inside and check each passenger's face against photos of fugitive Taliban leaders. Although there is no visible sign of the armed and turbaned militants who once freely roamed Swat, enforcing Islamic laws and meting out punishment to miscreants, the specter of the Taliban hovers close. Three weeks ago, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a police training center here, killing 16 recruits. Although the 7 p.m.-to-11 a.m. army curfew has been briefly lifted for Eid, few people go out after dark and most shops remain closed until midmorning. "There is less fear now, but people are still worried the militants will come back, so they don't feel completely free," said Shah Zia ul Haq, 40, a shop owner in Balogram whose house was partly destroyed by army shelling. "My family is still in mourning because my brother was killed when he went outside after curfew one night. We still don't know what happened to him in the dark." The enjoyment of Eid here was also marred by a political and religious dispute over exactly when the holiday began and people could end their month of daily 15-hour fasts. Officially, Eid is declared when a national committee of Islamic scholars announces that the new moon has been sighted. But local committees in the northwest -- led by conservative clerics aligned with Afghan and Saudi religious practices -- strove to prove the moon had appeared sooner. As a result, Swatis who obeyed the local mullahs broke their Ramadan fast on Sunday and began celebrating; others remained fasting until the government declared Eid on Monday, leading to awkward social situations, semi-opened markets and general annoyance. "Everything is confused," said Noor Rehman, a butcher in Batkhela, where many shops were closed Monday. "Some mosques announced it was Eid yesterday, but others said we should still fast. It is because the government is too weak. We need to have one Eid to unify the country." During three years of Taliban control here, Eid began whenever the militants said so. But their arbitrary behavior took far more abusive forms, which Swatis remember vividly. People recounted how militants bombed a girls school, dragged hashish addicts off to be whipped, beheaded a government clerk as a spy, and beat a couple who ventured outdoors and could not convince the stern moral vigilantes that they were married. In Mingora, a once-thriving town full of banks and colleges that became Taliban headquarters, people said they dreaded passing a certain traffic circle where each morning the militants left dead bodies, often with notes pinned to them warning that no one should touch or remove the corpses for a certain number of days or hours. No one dared disobey. "Sometimes they had no heads," said Rozi Khan, 50, a cobbler bent over a sole-less leather shoe at his customary sidewalk spot, half a block from the notorious circle. "Whenever I saw a body, I just put away my tools and went home," he said. "Things were tense all the time, and there were few customers anyway." The atmosphere of this post-Taliban Eid in Mingora was a mix of muted celebration, religious contemplation and reemerging commercial freedom. Many shops remained closed, but Indian movie posters were back up on the walls, and young men browsed through racks of pop-music CDs where just a few months ago only recordings of Islamic chants were sold. At the Saidu Baba Shrine, a famed sanctuary of cool white marble, a steady stream of men and boys entered all day. They knelt to wash in a stone trough of running, ice-cold spring water, then knelt again to say their Eid prayers. A white-bearded man outside the shrine recalled the days when Swat was peaceful and full of foreign tourists who came to see its ancient Buddhist ruins, climb its green craggy hills and enjoy its bracing alpine air. He also mentioned proudly that England's Queen Elizabeth II had visited in the 1950s. "That all seems like a dream now, like rocking on a swing with your eyes closed," said the man, a retired police officer named Sherzada. "We tell our young people about those times, but they don't believe us. I worry that our new generation has been so psychologically damaged by all this violence and disturbance that they will never be the same." Just down the hill from the shrine, a dozen adolescent boys in new yellow and blue tunics were playing in an old cemetery. As they hid behind the jagged gravestones and jumped out in ambush, each brandished a plastic, Taliban-style assault rifle -- the hottest-selling gift item in Swat this Eid. (Washington Post)