Abbottabad: Sleepy garrison town that found itself at the centre of the story

Omar Waraich
Tuesday 03 May 2011 00:00
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Sohaib Athar seems very relaxed about his new-found fame. His phone is clogged with messages from the world's media, demanding that he tell his story. But the IT specialist, who runs Abbottabad's Coffity café with his wife, could scarcely be less troubled. He did notice when his name began trending across the world. But he shrugs when reminded that his Twitter following has soared from a few hundred followers to some 55,000 in less than 24 hours.

One of this sleepy garrison town's few social media enthusiasts, Mr Athar was jolted on to his keyboard by the sound of a mighty helicopter buzzing low over his home. In a tweet that has become one of the most read, he wrote: "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1am". For the next half hour, he live-tweeted what he was hearing, without the faintest inkling that his messages were the first public record of Osama bin Laden's final moments.

One of his friends got an even clearer view. "There were two black gunship helicopters," says Zabiullah Khan, 20, with unflappable certainty. "I couldn't see them clearly in the night, but it was obvious that they weren't Pakistani. We don't have gunship helicopters."

It was the first time in memory Abbottabad has seen such action. Nestled between the wild North-west and the bustling Punjab, this town named after a British colonial officer has been immune to the wave of violence that has rocked much of the country.

The buzzing overhead went on for some five to six minutes, recalls Mr Athar, the now-famed tweeter. Then there was a loud explosion. "I heard the blast and everything shook in my room," he says, animating with his hands. He was certain it was an explosion. He had heard hauntingly similar sounds back in his native Lahore, and had fled to Abbottabad to escape them. Two of his friends, living 6km apart, were also rattled. The explosion was caused by one of the helicopter's crashing into the compound, apparently because of a mechanical fault. "We rushed out of the house immediately," says Muhammad Riaz, echoing the words of several residents across Abbottabad who hastened out on to the streets in panic. "When we came outside, I saw the helicopter on fire, there was smoke rising out of it." Mr Riaz says he lives "five minutes" from Bin Laden's lair.

For the most part, the compound in Bilal Town's Thanda Chuha went unnoticed. The area is a comfortable middle-class neighbourhood, populated by doctors, retired army officers and other professionals. It lies less than a kilometre from the military training academy at Kakul. It has a 12ft wall, bounding about an acre of land, on which lies a multi-storey house. Mr Riaz says a Pashtun man he calls "Akbar" owns the house. But like others, he says he never glimpsed Bin Laden.

On Monday morning, the neighbourhood was cordoned off by a heavy army presence. Only residents and army officers were allowed to pass. Journalists were kept at a distance.

One Der Spiegel journalist who forged his way through and took pictures of the shrouded wreckage was arrested for an hour and had his photographs deleted.

The residents are experiencing a mix of emotions. Mr Athar says that, for the most part, people are neither smiling nor saddened. A feeling of bewilderment courses through the town. Some demand proof.

"We heard rumours before, then he shows up in a video," says Azim Durrani, a university student. For Mr Athar, the irony is sadly striking. "I left Lahore because of the bombs, then I come to Abbottabad and find out that Bin Laden lived here."

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