Saturday, 29 March 2014

Picknicking at Osama Bin Laden's with a Western Whore

Not being able to decide on a story, -were we cousins twice removed, or were we in-laws?- my travel mate Waqar and I decided to tell this particular group of guys driving us the truth on one account -that we were not related by blood or marital contracts- but a lie on another one: We told them we were both Germans. "These guys don't speak any English anyway, they cannot even tell the difference between the sound of German or English", Waqar remarked. At that particular moment we came down from the touristy town Murree in the mountains, entering Abottabad in the plains.
I imagined that the group of men would be thinking, "where would two Germans on a holiday possibly go when in Abottabad!" and drop us of right at the new picknick place, the newly evicted house of the world-famous multi-millionaire and terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. It was june 2011. Only a month ago the man had been killed in his hide-out by American military conducting a highly illegal action encroaching on Pakistan's state sovereignty.

In his youth Osama did the tourist himself, apparently on this picture he is the second from the right in a green shirt and blue trousers. From a visit of his family and him to Sweden.
Reactions to his death in Pakistan were very mixed, while most Pakistani citizens were repulsed by his actions, the man held appeal to some, especially because so many conspiracy theories about his true nature existed. His death caused another batch of these theories to florish. What was certainly ironic was that families from far and near started sreaming to his former residence every day so they could sit on patterned blankets and drink lemonade through straws from 33 centilitre bottles while comtemplating the building. We had heard that a small crowd of business-minded locals had put up shop selling snacks and souvenirs. I was ready to do the tourist and queue up to get my Osama Bin Laden commemorative spoon, all the while affecting to ignore the CIA agents said to be numerously milling around the place as well, still trying to figure certain things out as they were.

While I thought we would be taken right to the gates of Disneyland, the guys whose car we were in did not make that detour for our convenience. They let us out at the total opposite of town. We had to figure out how to make our way to the amusement park by ourselves. When asking for directions we were told that the only feasible way to go would be to take a taxi, so we hailed one down. It was Pakistan after all, and fares were not that expensive. What happened though was that after cursing through unknown streets for a while, we arrived from the wrong side of the street, the side where the military academy was situated that so famously flanked OBL´s former household. That very military academy that was so much fuzzed about by international observers for various reasons. They stated that an internationally wanted criminal hiding out in a building adjacent to such an institution for so long was highly unlikely. This is also one of the elements that made so many hair-brained theories spring up with locals ("could it really have been Osama Bin Laden?", "was he really dead?", "did the man exist at all?").
When the taxi driver stopped and said that OBL´s building was hundred meters from here, we did not think twice about where we might have landed. So, as soon as we opened the door and stepped out... - okay, as soon as I opened the door, and stepped out, pale and blue-eyed as I am, like a sore thumb, at once identifiable as a foreigner, I was spotted by the guards of the military academy. We were under immediate arrest from that point on. That much for my planned afternoon of picknicking. The worst was maybe that it had not been Waqar's idea at all, and I had got him into this all.

For the following few hours we were put into a small room, where we were interrogated in detail. Waqar figured out quickly that the rather friendly uniformed men we were surrounded by were from the army, whereas the men in civil clothing, invariably uncongenial and affecting to be highly suspicious about anything we said, were representatives of one of Pakistan's intelligence agencies. He whispered the fact to me with nothing less than terror on his face. Everyone around us was armed. The soldiers had their machine guns, while under the white, crisp shirts of the men in civil clothes the outline of harnesses with guns could be detected.
While the soldiers would have let us off the hook after twenty minutes' chat, the men in civil clothing were intent on keeping us much longer. They looked through all the pictures on our cameras asking questions about the people depicted. We tried to satisfy their curiosity as much as we could so as to assuage their suspicions about us, while not divulging anything too personal about anyone shown on the photos either. What was it their business? Waqar had to give his electronic mail and social media profiles and passwords, which was quite stressful for him, thinking of all the anti-state criticisms he liked to post on them. I tried to reassure him that the Pakistani secret services, of all secret services in the world, surely had higher priorities than queer activists, but it was hard even convincing myself of that in that particular situation.

Waqar was even more nervous than me, sometimes he was even shaking. "A few months ago, they found the body of a journalist who criticized one of the intelligence services. It was a big scandal all over the country. We must be careful, it could happen to us." It sounded paranoid to me, but then, my friend was the local, and it would be unwise to lightly dismiss his view of things. He even expressed the fear that they might put rat poison in our tea. I sensed he was overly scared and gave him as much of a reassuring half-hug as I could, the presence of mustachioed men with Islamic ideas about non-married people of different genders touching holding me back, even though our relationship was otherwise entirely non-sexual.
As for myself, I tried to maintain a certain degree of optimism. I kept thinking, "they will let us go soon". But it was only by ten or eleven that we were escorted to a hotel.
The worst point was probably, when, as we were checking in, one of the guys in civil clothing arrived at the hotel in his Mercedes with two other armed men. At some point during what followed, the second interrogation of the day, I called the embassy of my country in Islamabad, to inform them that something was going wrong. Yet, at about one o'clock he brought us to another hotel, lengthily talked to the hotel clerk, and left us.

Waqar's family was called every day for the following week to find out about his whereabouts. His family were also made to feel that they were under surveillance, as they were made to hear a beep as from a recording machine every time they picked up the phone. The first thing the intelligence service apparently asked Waqar's elder brother was,  "Do you know that your innocent, sweet brother is travelling with a Western whore? This is so completely unislamic, you should not let this happen!"

1 comment:

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