What was life like in the Bin Laden compound?

The BBC's Orla Guerin looks around the perimeter of Bin Laden's compound

A secretive household where women were never seen, run by two tall and aloof brothers who showed rare and unexpected moments of kindness to local children, is part of a picture that is slowly building up about life in the Bin Laden compound.

As media access to the site has widened, more neighbours have divulged details about their interactions with the mysterious inhabitants of the fortified "mansion" in their midst.

Although the walled compound edged with barbed wire was set back in relative isolation, it was surrounded by three neighbourhoods: Thanda Choha, Bilal Town and Hashmi Colony. The residents of these areas provide sometimes contradictory accounts of their now infamous neighbours.

But one notable absence from all accounts is any mention of a tall, bearded foreigner resident in the compound.

People appear to have had absolutely no inkling that Osama Bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, was living just yards from them. And according to Pakistan's military, his Yemeni-born wife claims that she never left the compound in five years - and that he had also lived there for that duration.

Mysterious brothers

The inhabitants of the compound certainly lived an isolated existence and had very little contact with their neighbours, residents in the area told the BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Abbottabad.

The two brothers have been identified in numerous media reports as Arshad and Tariq Khan - although Associated Press reporter Nahal Toosi points out that there are conflicting local reports about their identity.

Some reports, such as the Guardian account, identifies one of them as the Bin Laden courier who the CIA was tracking, but BBC Urdu analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai says this information cannot be verified.

Bin Laden's Abbottabad house

Bin Laden compound
  • Built in 2005
  • No telephone or internet connections
  • Three-storey house surrounded by outbuildings and walls up to 5.5m (18 feet) high
  • Bin Laden's bedroom on top floor
  • Known locally as "Waziristan Haveli" or "mansion"

Other neighbours in the Hashmi Colony area told BBC Urdu's Aijaz Mahar that the brothers posed as landlords from the fertile Charsadda area of north-western Pakistan who had moved to Abbottabad because of its pleasant climate.

One thing is clear: their desire for privacy was so marked that most people left them well alone. They did not mix with others and were rarely, if ever, seen at local wedding celebrations or other community occasions.

A reporter from the Indian channel ETV Uttar Pradesh even reported that one neighbour said that when local children hit a cricket ball into the compound, they were not allowed to retrieve it.

Rumours circulated about the men. Local driver Qazi Faisal told BBC Urdu's Aijaz Mahar that people thought these brothers were smugglers. Another witness told him that after the raid he could see soldiers removing what he thought were weapons, gold and cash from the house.

"They just said 'hello' and 'good evening.' If I said Salaam Alaikum, [traditional Muslim greeting meaning peace to you], they would reply properly," their closest neighbour, 20-year-old Qasim, told BBC Urdu's Nukhbat Malik.

He said they were always courteous but all seven members of his family agreed that they never once initiated conversation. Although reports concur that they behaved appropriately and were polite, they also exuded a sense of menace, other neighbours say.

"He used to come and buy household things... I never felt like asking him anything," shopkeeper Faisal told BBC Urdu about Arshad Khan.

"They absolutely did not interact. We saw them roaming around but they were not approachable," he said.

Rabbits as gifts

US officials said their long-term observation of the compound revealed that the inhabitants burned their rubbish inside the walls, rather than leaving it outside to be collected. They also revealed that there were no phone or internet lines into the house.

Every now and then, what looked like bullet-proof vehicles would go in and out of the compound, but security gates would slide shut immediately afterwards, locals told the BBC.

Part of the compound - half burnt out - after the raid Media were not allowed inside the compound but parts of it were visible to observers

But there was also testimony describing moments of unexpected generosity.

One boy, 12-year-old Zarar Ahmed, told the BBC he used to visit the compound a lot, saying the family had three children - a girl and two boys.

"They gave us two rabbits. They had cameras outside, so that they could watch who was coming," he said.

He also said that the owner had two wives - one who spoke Urdu and one who spoke Arabic. Staff at the hospital where the injured were taken also told local journalists that the wounded from the compound spoke Pashto and Arabic.

A different account comes from al-Arabiya, which quotes Qari Mastana Khan of Bilal Town who says of the compound's inhabitants: "They were kind-hearted and would provide clean drinking water and food to poor neighbours. During the holy month of Ramadan, they invited us for iftar dinner [the breaking of the fast] at their house and served us delicious food."

The Pakistani military says they recovered 13 children from the compound - 11 boys and two girls - but it is not clear how many of these are Bin Laden's or if they attended school. Some neighbours told the BBC they thought the children were schooled at home.

The women in the home were never seen: most people assumed that this was because they were Pashtun, and they tend to observe strict purdah.

Goat delivery

A newspaper hawker told the BBC that he had delivered newspapers to the compound every day, and at the end of each month his bill was promptly paid, always by the same man.

Footage from inside Bin Laden's compound

He never stepped inside the compound but said he had seen a red pick-up vehicle drive through the gates with a goat inside.

Shopkeeper Mohammed Rashid told BBC Urdu's Aijaz Mahar that two goats were delivered every week, presumably for slaughter and consumption. He also said that 10 litres of milk a day was left for the compound, adding that there were lots of children there.

"They used to come to the shops and buy sweets and toffees, but not the female children. We have never seen the women from the house."

The residents of the compound clearly employed a number of domestic helpers. Abbottabad hospital staff have told the BBC Urdu service that among those being treated in the wake of the raid are two women believed to be maids employed by the family.

After the compound was opened up to the media on Tuesday, Associated Press correspondent Nahal Toosi was tweeting her observations.

"I am in a bldg across from cpd. Looks like servants quarters. Piles of clothes, pillows on floor. Broken clock on ground. Stopped at 2:20," she reported. She also noted a mouldy lentil stew in a pot, half-eaten bread and an old television set.

Other observations abound:

  • BBC Urdu's Aijaz Mahar saw an area where there were a lot of medical supplies, such as antibiotics, digestive remedies and children's medicines such as Calpol
  • BBC Urdu's Nukhbat Malik also noticed men measuring the compound - they said they were from the "Cantt board", the military cantonment authority, and initially told her they had not known of the existence of the compound but then said they had known it was there but not who was in it
  • Local police told al-Jazeera's Imtiaz Tyab that there was a kitchen garden and some chickens were kept too, indicating, they say, that it was a self-sufficient compound where the inhabitants could grow their own food
  • Nick Robertson of CNN observed on Twitter that neighbours say the "Osama entourage" passed themselves off as gold merchants
Compound images from 2004,5 and 2101
'Waziristan mansion'

The spacious and prosperous homes in these areas are known as "havelis" and, according to local journalists speaking to the BBC, the Bin Laden home was known as "Waziristan Haveli" or "mansion" - named after the semi-autonomous tribal area where many until now assumed the al-Qaeda leader was sheltering.

Satellite images between 2005 and 2011 reflect the change in the area and also show how the compound itself has expanded as more outbuildings, walls and privacy features have been built.

Notices on Pakistani property websites advise that land in the Hashmi Colony area, very close to the Bin Laden compound, is available. The area is seen as secure and stable.

About a kilometre north is Pakistan's prestigious Kakul Military Academy. And property is available here too. According to the seller, "it's a very secuir [sic] place near army farm house army jeeps takes 100 rounds in a day so very safe place to live".

There are few images of the interior. US officials released one picture of a bedroom on the second floor, showing a double bed strewn with pillows and cushions. The floors are blood-stained: this is said to be the room in which Bin Laden was killed.

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