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Abbottabad — not where you'd expect to find a terrorist

Posted: May 4, 2011 - 8:27pm

When I heard the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Abbottabad on Sunday night, my immediate reaction was to turn to my brother-in-law in disbelief at where the leader of al-Qaida was found.

(He asked that his name and that of my sister not be used for their own safety.)

President Barack Obama made a formal statement Sunday on television that bin Laden was located in a compound about 35 miles north of the capital, Islamabad. People across the United States celebrated the death of the man who, according to U.S. authorities, is the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks 10 years ago that killed almost 3,000 people.

Since then, media and American officials speculated that bin Laden may have been hiding out in Afghanistan, a country that initially welcomed him during the 1980s Soviet invasion, or in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the Northwest Frontier Province, in northern Pakistan.

My brother-in-law, an engineer who now lives in the San Francisco area, is originally from Abbottabad — his family is Hazarewal, or people from the Hazara region in Pakistan that includes Abbottabad. They speak “Hindko,” one of the regional dialects of language found in Pakistan. He and my sister had been visiting Pakistan since mid-March for vacation, and he ended up visiting the city twice — just last weekend and earlier last month with my sister and their daughter.

They often visit Abbottabad because they want their daughter to have a sense of her father’s roots and make her own memories in his ancestral village.

On Sunday, he seemed stunned to find out bin Laden had been run to ground in his place of birth because the city is known mainly for its tourism and peaceful residents. And he said it’s considered safe — to live in and travel to. A lot of travelers go through Abbottabad on their way to the other picturesque northern cities in Pakistan.

His experience there has been that radical Islam is scarcely a presence in the city.

However, Abbottabad (pronounced AHB-ta-bad) is no stranger to intense media coverage. Aid workers and relief convoys poured into the city after a 2005 earthquake in nearby Kashmir, which devastated the city’s infrastructure. My brother-in-law had mentioned how after the earthquake, a lot of people moved to Abbottabad looking for jobs.

Usually, in mountainous towns like Abbottabad, the locals welcome tourists and foreigners who want to know more about their history and culture. It’s a place people will come out of their houses and bring you into their living rooms, give you heaps of mithai, or sweets, to eat, and endless cups of chai, or tea, as they tell tales of life in Abbottabad.

At least that was my experience eight years ago when my sister was married during the wintertime in Islamabad. The groom’s family wanted to have another wedding reception in Abbottabad for their immediate and extended family. So my family, who had arrived from all over Pakistan and the United States for the wedding, took car caravans to the city for a few days. The time was filled with food and fun.

As I remember it, the city was a quintessential Northern Pakistani town, with a lot of green trees and warm and friendly residents. The windy streets — with homes scattered on each side hidden behind white walls — were the same you’d find anywhere in rural northern Pakistan. Vegetable and fruit vendors crouched behind haphazard stalls selling their produce. People weaved in and out of chaotic traffic amid horse-drawn carriages, yellow taxies and “rickshaws,” or three-wheeled carts.

But that wasn’t my first visit to the city. I’d enjoyed fleeting visits when I was younger. My family and I visited when I was 12 or 13 because my uncle, a former Pakistani army major, was stationed there with the Pakistani army.

Not only is Abbottabad a tourist attraction, it’s also a cantonment for the military and their families living in neighborhoods around the city. The old part of the city is in the south of Abbottabad, while extensions have been added into the northern part and to the hills surrounding the city, according to my brother-in-law.

Moreover, the military presence in the city is highly visible because some Pakistanis send their children to military academies. And Abbottabad boasts one of the best military schools, the Pakistan Military Academy, in the country.

But the question that everyone’s asking now is how was bin Laden able to hide in a large compound on the edge of a city heavily fortified with a cantonment, Pakistani military in the surrounding areas, and a reputable military academy?

That remains to be seen.

Abbottabad may not be as bustling as Lahore to the south, which is the cultural epicenter of Pakistan, or as calm and cosmopolitan as Islamabad, but it projects its own charm from people who value education, peace and a contented way of life.

“Abbottabad” was named after Maj. James Abbott who founded the place in the 19th century when Great Britain controlled Pakistan. It is a combination of two words: his name “Abbot” and “abad,” which means “abode” in Urdu. Abbott even wrote a poem on the city when he left, extolling its beauty:

“I adored the place from the first sight

And was happy that my coming here was right...”

Maybe for a British officer. But not for the most wanted man in the world.

• Butt is a reporter for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.

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