IT’S now an island of white concrete in the midst of green fields dotted with smaller houses. A clear patch to one side of the plot has been turned into a cricket pitch.
The children playing there run through puddles of water and crushed and broken concrete as they field.
When one of them is asked if he knew who once lived here, he hurriedly says, “Osama,” his eyes chasing the ball just outside of his reach.
Who was he?
He hesitates, then mutters “He was from Saudia” and runs off.
Surrounded by greenery; the whispering of the pine trees and the picturesque mountains all around, at first glance this idyllic scene does not seem an appropriate hideout of the world’s most wanted man which then also witnessed US Navy Seals in action a mere year ago.
But a second glance reveals the tell-tale signs — the demolished concrete; the discreet but unknown men who stand around staring and whispering to each other; and the journalists who are walking up to shoot the remains for the anniversary story.
Exactly a year ago, the residents of this small town called Bilal Town woke up with the sound of an explosion, only to discover a few hours later that the noise was from a helicopter crashing during an operation carried out by US Navy Seals inside a high walled compound to eliminate Osama bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda and the world’s most wanted man.
Some of those local residents who woke up that night sit a little apart, wary and tired.
An old man sitting on a grassy patch is not happy to be accosted. Reluctant to talk, he then just erupts and says that Osama did not live there.
“There were ordinary people, families who were killed by them. But there was no Osama,” he says, as he gazes ahead, not willing to make eye contact.
But there is not just anger. There is fear too in his words and actions. He stops one journalist from taking a photograph and tells him to go shoot the “strangers” standing near the compound.
Later it emerges that he too was “picked up” for questioning a year ago. His sin? He lived in a small house opposite the famous OBL compound, a house the walls of which seem to have collapsed at some point for a number of the bricks are just stacked and not bound together. He came back within days, but his son’s interrogation is said to have continued for weeks.
A younger man, with a whisper of a beard, is more forthcoming. When asked if he too thought OBL never lived there, he launches into a long exposition on world politics which he first summarises with a few words: “Osama, Obama, money and drama.”
This is not the view of an extremist or right winger. In his exposition he dismisses “the so-called jihad” and points out that he did not consider OBL as anything more than a “fighter” of some kind.
But some of his views are shared by many Pakistanis across the north- western swathe. And it reflects less on their extremism and more on the gap between them and the rulers.Conspiracy theories flourish in the absence of information and this is why Pakistan is a hotbed of whispers, rumours and conspiracies, local and international.
Be it the mysterious deaths of Pakistani leaders or of wanted men such as OBL or events in Balochistan or Fata, the information provided by the state is so hazy, confusing and incomplete that only gossip can fill the gaps.
OBL’s death is a case in point.
A year later, there is little or no information on the May 2 action and the compound in Abbottabad. The only solid information has come via his Yemeni wife’s account; she said that he changed houses five times and fathered three children while on the run – in various cities of Pakistan. This too was leaked. The authorities have maintained a stony silence.
This has been the situation from the start in Pakistan when the Americans announced the news of his death.
Except for unseemly bickering among the military and the politicians and the avalanche of rhetoric about sovereignty and its violation, there was little else.
Saeed Shah, a freelance journalist who works for foreign publications and spent days camped out in Abbottabad, reminisces: “There was great pressure for news from the western outlets, but there was a vacuum of information on the Pakistani side.”
He adds that within a day or two of being there in Abbottabad even the neighbours of OBL were averse to sharing any tidbits because they had been warned off by the agencywallahs.
“All the information was coming out of Washington.”
Nothing has changed a year later. The information continues to come out of Washington – the photograph of the situation room; the names of those in the White House who were against the operation; the details of the Navy Seals action; the debate on what the death of OBL achieved and even criticism of President Barack Obama for taking out OBL. In 12 months, the world has learnt much about what prompted Washington.
But in Pakistan, there is an embarrassing silence.
The Abbottabad Commission is getting nowhere after months of meetings, trips and interviews. We are not even sure what it is looking into – the ‘violation’ of Pakistan’s sovereignty by the Americans or to hold accountable someone because the world’s most famous terrorist was caught from a house in an urban centre.
Such is the vacuum of news that it proves impossible to even find out who ordered the demolition of arguably Pakistan’s most famous but underwhelming house.
One local journalist says it was the army. Another says it was the Abbottabad Commission. A call to the commissioner of Hazara, Khalid Khan Umerzai, provides an interesting insight. When asked who ordered it, he chuckles – deeply and long _ before saying: “The government.” But which government?
“The government of the day,” he says, and the amusement in his voice does not encourage more questions.
He then does explain that the piece of land will be used to build housing for government officials.
A plot of land which is approached by a dirt track rather than a road will be used to address the housing woes of government officials at a time when the federal government is trying to get vacated houses inhabited by its employees and provide them a monetary compensation instead. Is there any logic to this?
A resident of Abbottabad has asked why the government could not use the land to build a library for children. People elsewhere have argued that the house be maintained as a reminder of a dark part of our history.
But such options remain unheard.
“A state that does not realise the importance of informing those it is accountable to does not bother to heed voices that are trying to initiate a debate on what the compound signified,” says a security analyst.
But perhaps there is a far more unfortunate reason at work here.
As a historian pointed out, nations rarely maintain physical reminders of their darker moments. Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp that was turned into the Holocaust museum, survived because it was located in Poland, which had been invaded by Germany during the Second World War.
Another reason such memorials come into being is because the status quo changes. The victims of yesteryear become the rulers and they want to hang on to their memories of their victimhood – Amritsar’s Jallianwallah Bagh is one such example.
But May 2 provides no such parallel. Those who shaped the policy that has led to questions about the complicity of someone powerful in OBL’s presence in Pakistan continue to be in power. The status quo has not changed.
“OBL’s presence in our midst simply raises questions about the policies of our continuing state structures,” said an analyst.
Which nation holds on to a building that simply is a reminder of unanswered questions?