Bin Laden neighbors in Abbottabad saw little amiss

It is easy to imagine how Osama bin Laden lived a peaceful, if sequestered, life in this city.

Outside the high walls of his compound, chickens meander across neat fields of potatoes and mint. Forested hills line the horizon. And the neighbors, by their own admission, kept to themselves, figuring that the two brothers in the large house were simply rich men.

The third man, neighbors said, never came outside.

One day after Pakistan awoke to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed in this garrison city, authorities allowed journalists to approach the exterior of the compound where he spent at least his final days. Police refused to open the metal gates.

It was hardly a palace: The security walls were made of unpainted concrete and crude bricks. The white paint on the house was peeling. A large dirt yard, separate from the main structure and visible from the roof of a nearby house, looked as though it was meant for livestock. A blue water container sat on the roof, and bars lined the windows.

The scalloped metal awning on one third-story window hung askew, suggesting it might have been damaged the morning before, when a U.S. assault team swooped into the property. Mangled remnants of one helicopter — destroyed after what U.S. officials described as “mechanical failure” — lay in a field outside.

Yet despite the placidity of the area, most neighbors seemed to agree on one thing: It was unfathomable that a terrorist of bin Laden’s stature could have lived in their midst — on property that is part of the military cantonment, not far from the border with Pakistan’s archenemy, India — without being detected by authorities.

“He cannot,” said Sardar Mohammed Aslam, 65, whose property sits across a verdant field from the bin Laden house. “He would be noticed very easily.”

The military and intelligence agencies are viewed as all-knowing in Pakistan, and monitoring is considered common. Pakistani officials have denied knowing bin Laden’s whereabouts, and they say that intelligence they supplied earlier helped U.S. forces carry out the mission.

Residents said the military played little role in their day-to-day lives. The neighborhood in which bin Laden lived, Bilal Town, is a civilian development that lies inside the Abbottabad military cantonment, but it is not restricted or fenced. Neighbors said that it is overseen by a civilian-staffed board, a common arrangement in Pakistani military cities.

Still, on the main road that provides the only access from the development to the city, occasional military patrols and identity checks are routine, residents said. Bin Laden, they conceded, could have avoided them if he never went out. Police do rounds in the neighborhood, but they typically only enter houses if suspicious activity is reported, residents said.

And there was apparently little reason to report anyone in bin Laden’s house. Neighbors said two mustachioed, fair-skinned brothers lived there. Most agreed they were Pashtuns — members of the tribe that straddles the Pakistan-Afghanistan border — though some said they spoke Urdu, which would suggest they were from other parts of Pakistan.

At least four children came out in the streets every afternoon to play, said Attiq ur-Rehman, a physician who lives a few houses away. The house had four water meters and two electricity meters, suggesting “large consumption,” he said, but even that was not viewed as suspicious.

“That house is in an army area. What kind of standards does the Pakistan army have — they’re fools? If you think they’re fools, okay, Osama’s here,” said ur-Rehman. He said that he and others in the area have concluded that bin Laden was not there and that the United States staged a “drama.”

By all accounts, early Monday was dramatic. Raja Kamran Khan, a community leader who lives along the main road, said he was awakened by helicopters — a sound never heard before at that hour — then a series of loud blasts. At first he thought India was attacking, he said.

The blasts shattered two windows at Aslam’s house. Samina Yasim, a relative who lives with him, said she was sure she was about to die.

Upon reflection, Khan said Tuesday, Abbottabad may have been a wise choice for a refuge. The military would never imagine bin Laden would hide next door to them, the United States could not target the city with drones, and the area is not known for religious radicalism, he said.

“The guy was hiding. He was not going out to get milk and potatoes,” Khan said. “The guy could find peace here.”

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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