|Police at bin Laden's house at first threatened to arrest us if we took pictures |
The locals of this town refuse to believe Osama bin Laden died here. This was the first impression I perceived after reaching scenic Abbottabad, a town which headlined world news after Monday's death of Osama bin Laden. My taxi driver, an ethnic local from the Hazara nation, doubts the whole saga. “It is not possible to raid without landing the helicopters. There is no proof of a dead body. It’s all a sham to target Islamic countries. How could he live in a military town going unnoticed," he said pointing to every army building we passed by. Finding the church on the busy mall road of Abbottabad is easy. The main sign board with a cross is right in front of a bus stop. A nearby Presbyterian Church, with a cross on its entrance gate, makes it even easier to identify the presence of the tiny Christian community in this predominantly conservative Muslim region. Father Akram Javed Gill was as keen as I was to see the bin Laden mansion which was only a few kilometers from his Church. We drove together in his car to Bilal town where the world’s most wanted man was captured and killed. However it seemed a bit strange passing by all the DSNG (Digital Satellite News Gathering) vehicles parked outside the town jurisdiction. The check post
We soon found out why. As we tried to enter the area, policemen and army soldiers stopped our car at a check post. “Who are you? Prove your identity," they told the priest, who showed his identity card. Surprisingly one of the constables used to guard the Catholic Church and knew the priest well. Father Javed tried to befriend with him and move forward, explaining he must see his parishioners living in the same town. That's when another officer saw my bag. “What’s inside?" he asked me. Seeing no point in lying, I handed over my ucanews.com press card and said there is a camera and a notebook inside. “No journalists allowed … we shall book you for two days if you were found here again," said a senior officer. Disappointed, we turned back. Nobody knew when the army would give access to the mansion and we joined the news crew waiting on the roadside. My concern grew when I saw a Chinese photographer circled by local ethnic Hazaras and policemen enquiring about the photos he had taken. Immediately I stuffed the camera inside the pocket of my qameez (a local tunic like shirt) which already bulged with my purse. Though it looked a bit awkward, this was the only way to save the shots I had taken on the way. But suddenly the priest had an idea and we headed to a travel agency where one of his parishioners worked. Father Javed knew some freelance journalists who used to hang around here. These Hazaras, local ethnics, had been reporting and taking photos since day one. “They have their ways,"he told me. It was 11:15 am. He called them and then again we had to wait. Time usually runs slowly when you are doing this. The couple finally showed up after about an hour. There is no front way, they told us “but we know a back route through drains and farm lands." We jumped at the opportunity.
The back way
|The church of St. Peter Canisius in Abbottabad is used by around 150 Catholics |
Getting into the priest’s car, we headed again for the town but this time turned into a narrow alleyway at the back. It was a bumpy road which soon was blocked with a rock. We parked our car and carried on by foot. These journalists had spent their childhood in these street mazes and were very helpful. After some time we reached the suburbs of the residential area and the marshes started. The temperature was increasing every minute and the clogged drains had left a very thin terrain making it more difficult to tread. We hopped on protruding stones on thick, black ponds lying side by side. Turning one of the corners, Father Javed slipped with his leg straight into a ditch. Luckily he wasn’t injured and we found a tube well nearby gushing clean water straight from the surrounding mountains. Resting there for a while (while the priest cleaned up), we continued through farmland and finally saw the buildings of Bilal town. Father Javed had lost his enthusiasm by then and decided to rest beneath the trees at a water channel. I wanted to go straight there but a stationary vehicle on the way made our Hazara guides suspicious. The whole area was teeming with intelligence agencies; we’ll go through farms and you turn after taking the best possible shot using a zoom lens, they told me. During the whole thing they kept chuckling about why bin Laden would choose to die in their city when he had the rest of the world to choose from. Thankfully the mansion was not very far and after walking for a while, I saw the white building with red tents around it just as I had seen on news channels. I took a few shots trying not to attract any attention and turned back somewhat satisfied but not satiated. If only there was a close-up, I thought on the way back. After leaving our friends with a bundle of thanks, we settled back at the parish house where I wrote an update
(which was published that afternoon). I was typing the story when the priest received a phone call that the colony would be opened to the public at 3 pm. Before I could start trying to convince the priest for a revisit, he proposed we give it another shot and we decided to that as soon as I finished the work and he took some rest we would go.
|Father Javed washes his feet after a slip into a drainage ditch |
At 4:30pm we entered Bilal town and after traveling down a couple of lanes, we saw hordes of reporters and their vehicles gathered on the open ground fronting bin Laden’s mansion. A group of teenagers were arguing as I walked passed them. “He was a fake." "No, he was real." Pausing for a moment, I asked Abu Bakar, an eighth grader, what really happened here. "My mom teaches in a school where, she says, all teachers talked about the epic drama and a conspiracy," he said. The light was fading and I had to cut off the conversation to rush to the mansion. Still it kept ringing in my mind; would we be the only country in the world to condemn the US raid in Abbottabad and take bin Laden’s death as a myth? Maybe he is a concept – a perspective of looking at the whole world saying me and my religion are better than every one of you. Persons can die but ideas don’t. Taking photos around the mansion, I walked freely this time without any fear of police or terrorists. This is my land, my country. We shall carry on the struggle against evil and atrocities with our pens and keep documenting history and the Church will survive every threat associated with being a minority in Pakistan. No matter how the government and people portray what happened on May 2; we have one religious warlord fewer and so are one step closer to peace.
|Another view of the scene of bin Laden's last stand |