When a woman involved in a polio vaccine drive turned up at Osama Bin Laden’s hideaway, she remarked to the men behind the high walls about the expensive SUVs parked inside. The men took the vaccine, apparently to administer to the 23 children at the compound, and told her to go away.
The terror chief and his family kept well hidden behind thick walls in this north-western hill town they shared with thousands of Pakistani soldiers. But glimpses of their life are emerging, along with deep scepticism that authorities didn’t know they were there.
Although the house is large, it was unclear how three dozen people could have lived there with any degree of comfort.
Neighbours said they knew little about those inside in the compound but Bin Laden apparently depended on two men who would routinely emerge to run errands or to a neighborhood gathering, such as a funeral.
There were conflicting details about the men’s identities. Several people said they were known as Tariq and Arshad Khan and had identified themselves as cousins from elsewhere in north-western Pakistan.
Others gave different names and believed they were brothers.Arshad was the oldest, and both spoke multiple languages, including Pashto and Urdu, which are common here, residents said.
As Navy SEALs swept through the compound early Monday, they handcuffed those they encountered with plastic zip ties and pressed on in pursuit of bin Laden.
After killing the terror leader, his son and two others, they doubled back to move nine women and 23 children away from the compound, according to United States officials.
Those survivors of the raid are now “in safe hands and being looked after in accordance to the law” the Pakistani government said in a statement.
“As per policy, they will be handed over to their countries of origin.”
It did not elaborate.
Also unclear was why Bin Laden chose Abbottabad, though at least two other top al-Qaeda leaders have sheltered in this town.
The bustling streets are dotted with buildings left over from British colonial days. These days it attracts some tourists, but is known mostly as a garrison town wealthier than many others in Pakistan.
Bin Laden found it safe enough to stay for up to six years, according to US officials, a stunning length of time to remain in one place right under the noses of a US-funded army that had ostensibly been trying to track him down.
Most intelligence assessments believed him to be along the Afghan-Pakistan border, perhaps in a cave.
Construction of the three-storey house began about seven years ago, locals said.
People initially were curious about the heavily fortified compound, which had walls as high as 18 feet topped with barbed wire, but over time they just grew to believe the family inside was deeply religious and conservative.
The Pakistani government also pushed back at suggestions that security forces were sheltering Bin Laden or failed to spot suspicious signs.
“It needs to be appreciated that many houses (in the north-west) have high boundary walls, in line with their culture of privacy and security,” the government said. “Houses with such layout and structural details are not a rarity.”
The house has been described as a mansion, even a luxury one, but from the outside it is nothing special.
Bin Laden may well have been able to take in a view of the hills from secluded spots in the garden, though.
The walls are stained with mould, trees are in the garden and the windows are hidden. US officials said the house had no Internet or phone connection to reduce the risk of electronic surveillance. They also said residents burned their trash to avoid collection.
Those who live nearby said the people in bin Laden’s compound rarely strayed outside. Most were unaware that foreigners, bin Laden and his family are Arabs, were living there.
Khurshid Bibi, in her 70s, said one man living in the compound had given her a lift to the market in the rain. She said her grandchildren played with the kids in the house and that the adults there gave them rabbits as a gift.
But the occupants also attracted criticism.
“People were sceptical in this neighbourhood about this place and these guys. They used to gossip, say they were smugglers or drug dealers. People would complain that even with such a big house they didn’t invite the poor or distribute charity,” said Mashood Khan, a 45-year-old farmer.
Questions persisted about how authorities could not have known who was living in the compound, especially since it was close to a prestigious military academy.
As in other towns, hotels are supposed to report the presence of foreigners to the police. Abbottabad police chief Mohammed Naeem said the police followed the procedures but “human error cannot be avoided”.