By the time Pakistani soldiers temporarily lifted the cordon around Osama bin Laden’s house in the garrison town of Abbottabad on Tuesday, triggering a media stampede, the most obvious traces of its infamous resident had been effaced.
The US soldiers who had swept in aboard four helicopters on Sunday night had scoured the three-story building, taking away computer hard disks and a trove of documents — as well as bin Laden’s bloodied body, which was later buried at sea.
The following day, Pakistani intelligence — angered at not having been informed of the raid and embarrassed that it took place under their noses — made a second sweep. Tractors carted away furniture and other belongings, but it was impossible to erase every trace of the drama that ended the manhunt.
Beyond the gates, children in flip-flops and salwar kameez fished chunks of blackened helicopter debris from the surrounding fields, flung there after a US helicopter that failed to take off was blown up by its own soldiers.
One boy produced a jagged, soot-encrusted chunk of metal, perhaps part of an exhaust, from a drain.
“This is silver,” 12-year-old Yasser said.
A nervous-looking intelligence official, loitering nearby, grabbed the child by the hand and led him away.
Fascination with the raid was not confined to Abbottabad. In Washington, fresh details were being revealed by the White House, some of which contradicted the earlier version of events surrounding the killing of their most wanted man.
In the immediate hours after bin Laden’s death, US officials had said that he had put up a fight and shot at the Seal 6 team that had stormed the second and third floors of his hideout. Other details suggested he had used one of his wives as a human shield.
The White House confirmed yesterday that neither was true. Another narrative to change -somewhat concerned the property itself. Up close, bin Laden’s house, a tall, unlovely piece of architecture, was not quite the US$1 million mansion described by officials. The walls were high, certainly, but not unusually so for northwestern Pakistan, where privacy is jealously guarded. The paint was peeling and there was no air conditioning.
However, it was the only house in the neighborhood with barbed wire and surveillance cameras, and it towered over its only neighbor, a small, ramshackle dwelling made of rough bricks with plastic sheeting for windows. The people inside were scared and apprehensive.
Zain Muhammad, an elderly man perched on a rope bed on the porch, said Pakistani soldiers had come in the night and taken away his son, Shamraiz.
“I’ve no idea where he is,” he said. “The soldiers won’t allow us to leave, not even to fetch water.”
The residents had had their suspicions about the house across the street, they said: The thick walls and barbed wire, and the two secretive brothers who owned it, described as ethnic Pashtuns.
“They told us they had to protect themselves because they had enemies back in their home village. They said they had to screen off the house to protect their women. A lot of us thought they were smugglers,” Abid Khan said.
The house, it turned out, had been on the radar of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for more than eight years. Construction started around 2001. Two years later, ISI agents raided it in search of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a senior bin Laden lieutenant, but left empty-handed, an ISI official said yesterday.