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D2: At Abbottabad

May 3, 2011


By OMAR WARAICH / ABBOTTABAD Omar Waraich / Abbottabad Mon May 2, 6:45 pm ET

Sohaib Athar was jolted upright by the low-flying buzz of helicopters passing over his home next to Abbottabad’s Jalal Baba auditorium. In this sedate garrison town ringed by jagged peaks, the gentle thrum of the day is reduced to a whisper by night. “The helicopter was circling around for five to six minutes,” Athar tells TIME. “It’s not commonplace here.” In what soon became among the world’s most read tweets that day, Athar alerted his Twitter followers: “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM” on Sunday morning Pakistan time. For the next half hour, he live-tweeted what he was hearing, without the faintest inkling that his tweets were the first public record of Osama Bin Laden’s final moments. In less than 24 hours, Athar’s name was trending and his followers had swollen incredibly from some 800 to now 55,000 – and counting.

Moments after Athar first heard the helicopter, the force of a loud explosion rattled him. “I heard the blast and everything shook in my room,” he says, sitting in the Coffity cafe that he and his wife run. The sound was keenly recognizable to the couple; it was the reason why they had left their native Lahore, where suicide bombs have wrought terror regularly over the past two years. “But unlike the aftermath of those blasts, there were no ambulance sirens.” All he could hear was the sound of a car racing through empty, quiet streets. And then the familiar sound of a helicopter in flight returned, before it, too, faded away. (See Osama bin Laden’s obituary.)

Naturally alarmed, Athar reached out to friends over Facebook, asking them what they had heard. Two of them, living as far as six kilometers away, felt the explosions. Zabiullah Khan, 20, a college student says that he saw the helicopters arrive. “There were two black gunship helicopters,” Khan says with a tone of 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.” He was convinced that the helicopters were American. “I began to wonder if the Americans were invading us,” he says, recalling the recent history of strained relations between the two countries. His fears were heightened when he saw what he says was a flash moments before the explosion.

The home where Bin Laden had been hiding since at least last summer is located in the Bilal Town neighborhood of Abbottabad. (Update: An American source tells TIME that he may have been at the location upwards of five or six years.) It is less than a kilometer away from Pakistan’s Military Academy at Kakul – the country’s equivalent of West Point Academy. “It’s a respectable middle class area,” says Azim Durrani, another student who heard the raid. “The people who live there are doctors and different kinds of professionals. They drive Corrolas and Hondas.” The morning after the raid, the army was keen to not allow anyone else to catch a glimpse. Within moments of President Obama’s speech, they had setup checkpoints athwart all nearby major roads and sealed the neighborhood itself. A Der Spiegel journalist who managed to forge his way through was arrested for one hour, his camera confiscated, and the images of the notorious compound wiped. ABC News managed to broadcast images from what appeared to be a bloody bedroom in the compound. (Watch President Obama’s announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death.)

The compound doesn’t quite fit the descriptions of a mansion, as some have labeled it. The walls are 12 feet high walls and about 13 inches thick – enough to shield the tall terrorist leader from public view. The property itself is spread over an area slightly smaller than an acre. The house is a great deal smaller, rising over two-storeys. In other ways, it was unremarkable but sometimes noticed. Muhammad Riaz, 34, a construction worker who lives in the neighborhood says that he had viewed it with some suspicion. Unlike other homes in the Thanda Chuha area of Bilal Town, he was unfamiliar with its occupants. “I know that it was owned by a Pashtun man, who had come from elsewhere, called Akbar,” Riaz says. “It’s just five minutes away from my house.” Like others, he denies ever glimpsing Bin Laden.

See pictures of the battle against the Taliban

See TIME’s 2001 cover story on the 9/11 attacks

For Riaz, the mystery of the explosion swiftly faded. “We rushed out of the house immediately,” he says, echoing the words of several residents across Abbottabad who hastened out on to the streets out of panic. “When we came outside, I saw the helicopter on fire, there was smoke rising out of it.” The images were also broadcast that night on Pakistani television. The helicopter, Riaz says, had fallen out of the sky and plunged on to the compound, damaging at least a boundary wall. U.S. officials have said that the helicopter suffered a mechanical failure. None of the Americans involved in the raid were hurt, President Obama said in his speech. Part of the reason for the rigidly enforced perimeter was that Pakistani authorities were attempting to remove the wreckage from the scene, behind hastily erected tarpaulins. (Update: A U.S. source tells TIME that the helicopter crashed not because of mechanical failure but because the compound’s walls were too thick and high that, when the aircraft hovered above them, its rotors could not generate enough aerodynamic lift to keep the chopper aloft.) (See pictures of people celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death.)

When Athar and his friends realized who the target of the half-hour raid was, they were shocked. “I don’t know what to say,” says a visibly incredulous Durrani. “What does one say in these situations?” For years, he had heard of Bin Laden’s name. He had heard that he might even be in Pakistan. “We never thought he would be here, though.” The raid itself seems so surreal as to merit a fantasy comparison. “It reminds me of the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that I play on my Xbox.”

Similar feelings of bewilderment were much in evidence throughout the rest of the town, as residents tried to return to their ordinary lives, but often wearing expressions of head-scratching bemusement. Other residents demand proof. “We heard rumors before, then he shows up in a video,” says Durrani. While a series of opinion polls in previous years have registered frightening levels of support for Bin Laden, the reaction to the current news has not reflected this. There used to be great shows of support for the man some perceived as a champion of their anti-American hostility. In Abbottabad, feelings about Bin Laden’s death almost don’t register. “We aren’t happy and we’re not sad,” says Mohammed Ishtiaq, a junior government officer, echoing many. (See pictures of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout.)

In some ways, Abbottabad was the ideal hiding place for bin Laden. Squeezed between the Pashtun-dominated frontier, where militancy has thrived in recent years, and the bustling heartlands of the Punjab, the Hazara region is an oasis of relatively prosperous calm. From the capital Islamabad, the journey is a slow three-hour drive, snaking up and around sometimes dizzying bends. Along the way, visitors pass sensitive military installations, but also plush fields that reveal a view of rising mountains. Named after Major James Abbott, a 19th century colonial officer, the town is an exhibition of colonial and martial traditions. Burn Hall, a near replica of a British boarding school, is sprawled over several acres on the west of the town.

It was the orderly calm and surrounding beauty that lured Athar and his wife here. Bin Laden’s presence and death may give him reason to revisit that view. “It’s ironic,” he says. “I left Lahore because of the bombs, then I come to Abbottabad and find out that Bin Laden lived here.” Like many Pakistanis, he is now confronted by two pressing questions. Why weren’t the country’s much-vaunted intelligence agencies able to track the arch-terrorist down? And if they did already know where he was, why did they choose to hide it?


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