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Bin Laden's Memory Lives On In Hideout Town


Abbottabad, One Year Later
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WATCH: RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reports from Abbottabad in Pakistan, a year after Osama bin Laden was killed in the town.

ABBOTTABAD -- Swaths of rubble are all that remain of Osama bin Laden's compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.

The heavily fortified complex, where bin Laden is believed to have lived with his children and three wives, was destroyed by Pakistani security forces in February, following his death at the hands of U.S. special forces in a raid on May 2, 2011.

While most of the physical reminders of bin Laden's presence in the town have been destroyed, visitors have ensured the memory of the world's most-wanted fugitive lives on a year after his death, despite resentment from locals seeking to move on.

Ghulam Nabi, a young bearded man, crouches over a broken pipe near the demolished site, drinking water from the palms of his hands.

Nabi, taking a break from his work in the nearby fields, says he only lives a few minutes from bin Laden's former hideout -- once a two-story compound surrounded by high concrete walls, security gates, razor wire, and cameras.

The 20-year-old, who has lived in Abbottabad for the past eight months, says superstition lures dozens of daily visitors who consider the water at the compound "sacred."

"Many people visit the compound daily, even from places like Lahore and Karachi," he says. "I have never met them, but I see them from my rooftop. Many of those people believe the water is holy."

Nabi himself is skeptical of such claims.

"It's just water from a broken water pipe," he says. "For the people who visit the compound, there is nothing for them to see, so they drink the water and eat the herbs growing in the garden."

The 'Osama Cricket Stadium'

Not far from where Nabi is seated, three young boys are absorbed in a game of cricket -- the country's national sport.

The shabbily dressed youngsters have made a field on the compound, where one of them swings a plank of wood while the other two throw him pebbles, their substitutes for a bat and ball.

One of the boys, who declined to give his name, says the demolished site should be transformed into a playground.

"This place should be called the Osama Cricket Stadium," he jokes. "This compound is the only place where we can play cricket. There are so many fields and houses in the area, so they should make a playground here."

While these boys use the site for recreation, others trudge up to the compound every day in a bid to make some money, gathering scrap metal and concrete which they haul back to local bazaars.

Graphic showing Osama bin Laden's former compound as U.S. special forces launched a nighttime raid on May 2, 2011. Click to enlarge.
Graphic showing Osama bin Laden's former compound as U.S. special forces launched a nighttime raid on May 2, 2011. Click to enlarge.
For some of the children, the cash they receive in exchange for the materials is an essential contribution to their families' livelihood.

When bin Laden's compound was bulldozed by Pakistani authorities on February 25, many locals expressed relief that life would go back to normal.

Many were left increasingly frustrated by the tightened security that followed the raid on the compound, with locals having to go through numerous security checkpoints just to move through the town.

For Pakistan's military establishment, the empty complex was a painful reminder of the unilateral operation that killed the former Al-Qaeda leader just a short distance away from one of Pakistan's most prestigious military academies.

'Just Hype And Drama'

Many locals remain tight-lipped when talking about bin Laden even today. But of those who do talk, many question whether he even lived in Abbottabad.

In one of the town center's barber shops, men busily discuss conspiracy theories surrounding bin Laden's death.

An elderly man, sipping tea on a couch, says bin Laden was a hero. But the man, speaking anonymously, suggests that he was killed a long time ago and was never in Abbottabad.

"Osama was killed three or four years ago," he says. "The recent attack against the compound was just hype and drama. We [residents of Abbottabad] don't believe he ever lived here."

The old man adds that if bin Laden was indeed killed by U.S. forces, then evidence would have been brought forward.

He questions why no photographs of bin Laden's body were ever released or why his remains were dumped at sea, adding that only hard evidence will change his mind and those of countless others.

In Washington, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan is quoted as saying that some of the declassified documents seized from bin Laden's hideout will be posted online by the United States Military Academy at West Point. Brennan says the documents show that bin Laden urged his movement's leaders to flee Pakistan's tribal regions and seek refuge in areas free of "aircraft photography and bombardment." He claims that "bin Laden knew" that "Al-Qaeda [was] losing, badly."

Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by Radio Mashaal correspondent Khalid Khan in Abbottabad
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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