When I heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Abbottabad, my immediate reaction was to turn to my brother-in-law in disbelief.
My brother-in-law, an engineer who lives in the San Francisco area, is 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 Pakistan. He and my sister had been visiting Pakistan on vacation since mid March, 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 has been that radical Islam is scarcely a presence in the city.
Abbottabad (pronounced AHB-ta-bad) is no stranger to 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, giving you heaps sweets and cups of 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. 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.
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 taxis and three-wheeled carts.
That wasn't my first visit to the city. My family and I visited when I was 12 or 13 because my uncle, a former Pakistani army major, was stationed there.
Not only is Abbottabad a tourist attraction, it's 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.
The military presence is highly visible because some Pakistanis send their children to military academies. Abbottabad boasts one of the best military schools in the country, the Pakistan Military Academy. This is making everyone wonder how bin Laden was 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.
Even the name "Abbottabad" has a military provenance. It was named after Maj. James Abbott, who founded the place in the 19th century when 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.
Ameera Butt is a reporter for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.
© 2011 Merced Sun-Star Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services