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Memories of Abbottabad, Bin Laden's Hideout

The world will remember the Pakistani city of Abbottabad as the place where Osama Bin Laden was finally tracked down, but for the BBC's Mishal Husain it holds many happy memories, from long before al-Qaeda and its leader first emerged. 

May 16, 2011

 

The world will remember the Pakistani city of Abbottabad as the place where Osama Bin Laden was finally tracked down, but for the BBC's Mishal Husain it holds many happy memories, from long before al-Qaeda and its leader first emerged.

May 7, 2011: My first sight of the came after we drove down a narrow dirt road, winding through a neighbourhood of newly built and relatively affluent homes.

As the road cleared into an open ploughed field, with just a few houses dotted around, there was no mistaking that we had reached our destination.

The satellite vans were back-to-back, and crowds had gathered around the perimeter walls of the compound, and in front of the imposing green gates.

I stood in front of the building and tried to imagine if there was anything that would have made it stand out to me, if I had passed by before Bin Laden made it so notorious.

Fortress-like home

The walls were slightly higher than those of the neighbours and there were a few lines of nasty-looking barbed wire at the top.

The grounds were also more substantial than the houses nearby - clearly this establishment belonged to someone affluent enough to dedicate a large proportion of their land to a garden.

Among the crowds gathered outside, was a group of young women who said they came past here every day for their evening walk.

What did they think of the news that it was home to America's most wanted man?

"I just don't believe it," said one. "Osama Bin Laden was just too important a man to be living here in Abbottabad."

Didn't they think there was something odd about this fortress like home?

"No," said another resident of the city, "with all the bomb blasts in this country, plenty of people live behind walls like this."

On the night of the American raid, they told me, the sound of the helicopters was heard for miles - many assumed it was some kind of night-time Pakistan Army exercise, but then the firing began.

Some told us they had seen burning debris on the ground, but by the time the area around the compound was opened to us, it had been well cleared.

There was no sign of life inside and a heavy police presence at the gates.

On the map

As the sun set in the valley and we headed back to our hotel, I passed the main entrance of a very different Abbottabad establishment - one whose name I have known all my life.

Burn Hall was my father's school from the early 1950s, when he came here to be educated by Christian missionaries. It still exists today, although it is now run by the army and educates girls as well as boys.

Stories about Burn Hall and the charismatic, if slightly forbidding, Catholic Fathers who taught there were a feature of my own childhood, especially on our annual fishing expeditions to the north of Pakistan, when we would invariably pass through Abbottabad.

This was where we stocked up on essentials, packing a few more supplies before we began the ascent into the mountains and then into the valley that was our regular summer haunt.

Abbottabad always struck me as a very un-Pakistani sounding name, until I grew old enough to realise it was actually named after a certain James Abbott, a British officer who became a legend in this region in the 1840s and 50s. He was knighted for his efforts to bring it firmly under the control of the Raj.

High price

Curiously, although many pre-independence, British-sounding names were changed over the years, this one remained, a reminder of the colonial past.

I am sure few of Abbottabad's current residents know much about General Abbott though and, in any event, it is now Osama Bin Laden who has put their town on the map.

Close links to the Pakistan Army are very evident here, from the roadside tank that alerts you to the nearby military academy to the monument that proudly recreates and pays homage to one of the country's nuclear missiles.

In the shadow of this giant weapon-shaped sculpture, I encountered more disbelief about the events here.

"The Americans must prove to us that Bin Laden was here," said one man, the proprietor of a small grocery store that charmingly labelled itself a "tuck shop".

His friend agreed: "If they can really come here, catch him and take him away, all in the space of half an hour, surely they can show us the body?"

But those doubts do not mean that people here have any great sympathy for Osama Bin Laden.

Almost a decade after the 11 September attacks, many Pakistanis feel that they have paid a high price for their country's alliance with the United States - both in the security situation and in the free fall of their economy.

Today I cannot pack my own three children into the back of a car and drive into the mountains of northern Pakistan, as my parents did so freely with me.

But I am looking forward to the day when I can, once again, make that journey.

When we pass through Abbottabad, I'll have to tell the children, though, that it now has a place in history as well as one in the story of our family.

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