Making Way for Bin Laden Town

If no one paid much attention to the comings and goings at Number Three, Street 8, Garga Cantonment over the past six years, they certainly do now.

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Aamir Qureshi | AFP | Getty Images

The former residence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a military city 50km from Islamabad, has become one of the most recognised addresses in Pakistan. The sepulchral three-storey white edifice, imprinted on the minds of hundreds of millions of television viewers the world over, has also become one of the most visited.

Not only have the world’s media descended on the grubby compound with its tattered concrete walls and tired-looking security cordon, so too has a steady stream of Pakistani sightseers and small-time entrepreneurs.

Parents take pictures of their young children in front of the heavy iron gates. Neighbours let the curious on to their roofs to get a better view of the compound and the detritus strewn around it. Young men wearing traditional salwar khameez clothes lie on their chests to sneak a better view behind barriers put up by police.

The City of Pines, as Abbottabad is known, is as a tourist haven. The hill station has a theatre, golf courses and a ski-lift. There is even a short elegy bearing testament to its swaying trees and melodious bird song by the nostalgic army officer after which it was named. But none of these has earned it the celebrity that Bin Laden has brought it.

Saleem Khan, an enterprising 13-year-old schoolboy, spent his evenings this week eagerly seeking customers for souvenirs left behind by US Navy seals who stormed the building on Sunday night. Others have hunted the nearby fields for anything left from the raid.

“This came from the helicopter [that broke down and was left behind],” Mr Khan says proffering a conical metallic object with two wires sticking from its base, on offer at Rs1,000 ($11.80). “It’s a good deal.”

Mr Khan is no expert on US Blackhawk helicopters. An inscription on the base which reads “Toyota” is an immediate giveaway.

“This came from a car wreck somewhere in the neighbourhood,” challenges one of his prospective customers.

The motley fortress-like compound with high walls studded with barbed wire may not offer anything out of the ordinary in a country where the elite live in well-fortified surroundings. But it has overnight star appeal.

“This place is the big attraction right now. People have had this larger-than-life image of Osama bin Laden. Now, he is dead and everyone wants to know how he lived his life,” says Mukhtar Awan, a college student.

Some local residents say the compound should be given over for government use. Others expect it to be razed to obliterate the stain of extremism.

But for others, the City of Pines is forever changed. Graffiti artists have updated its colonial-era name to “Bin Laden Town”.