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A sleepy Pakistani city awakes to violence, a unique place in history

From Aliza Kassim and Giang Nguyen, CNN
Soldiers stand guard in Abbottabad on May 3, the sleepy city where U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden.
Soldiers stand guard in Abbottabad on May 3, the sleepy city where U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Residents say Abbottabad is simpler and safer than most Pakistani cities
  • They recalled helicopters flying overhead early Monday and several blasts
  • Many hours later, news came out bin Laden had lived and was killed there
  • There is talk about the historic development, but life returns to normal

(CNN) -- Life tends to be simpler, slower, safer in Abbottabad than in many Pakistani cities.

Drivers take their time on the winding mountain roads. Streets are largely empty at night, with people routinely turning in by 9 p.m. And violence found in tribal areas near the Afghanistan border, in the disputed territory of Kashmir, and denser cities including Lahore and Islamabad typically has no place in Abbottabad.

Until Monday morning, that is. That's when Abbottabad went from a sleepy northern Pakistani city 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad to the site of a bloody and historic firefight. There, in a city heavily populated with Pakistani army personnel, a handful of American special forces executed a daring 40-minute raid in which they killed Osama bin Laden, the world's most well-known terrorist leader.

The electricity was out in Abbottabad early Monday, recalled city resident Sohair Athar. This was not an especially unusual occurrence, he said. Nor was the buzz of a helicopter overhead, especially given the abundance of such flights since massive floods ravaged the region.

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But the freelance software engineer, who also owns a coffee shop in town, noticed the helicopter didn't land immediately, as they usually do. Instead it hovered, prompting him to write on his Twitter feed: "Go away helicopter - before I take out my giant swatter :-/."

Shortly thereafter, Athar -- who had come to the typically restive city of Abbottabad in part for peace and security from Lahore -- heard a loud explosion.

"I thought to myself, I had moved all the way to Abbottabad from Lahore only to avoid bomb blasts and violence, and now this had even followed me even here," Athar told CNN.

Fayez Noor, a 24-year-old student at the Institute of Information and Technology, heard three explosions in all. After the first one at 1:08 a.m., he texted a friend to ask him what happened. The last -- coming just three minutes later -- was the biggest.

"My house, which is three kilometers (two miles) away (from the bid Laden compound), shook and the glass in the windows rattled," Noor recalled.

Helicopters were seen, too, heading out. Noor said that one flew over his house, while Sahndana Syed, a doctor in the city, saw one final chopper flying off very low.

"Initially, I was too afraid to go out," Syed said. "I was terrified."

But within just a few minutes, by 1:15 a.m., the power was back on.

"I did not think much of it, other than these were odd occurrences," recalled Athar. "I shut my laptop and walked away."

As people went to sleep, Pakistani TV stations reported it was all part of a Pakistani military exercise. It was not until after dawn that the facts became evident: one of the world's most wanted fugitives, bin Laden, had been living in their midst and was now dead, killed by U.S. forces.

"It came as a big surprise," said Syed, the 28-year-old doctor. "Nobody knew."

By the next day, the blockage of streets around the housing compound where bin Laden lived was the most visible reminder of the raid. Residents talked over tea about the fact the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, and other attacks, just a few hours earlier, had lived in their midst -- and that a foreign military, too, had descended on their city.

Noor said that some in Abbottabad are angry at the Pakistani government, not just for letting other nation's military strike in their hometown but also for the fact its own military, despite having a major base down the street, never acted on its own.

Still, for the talk, the college student said that it didn't take the city long to return to normal.

"The truth is, we're all going about our lives as though nothing happened," said Noor. "I went to college today (with) my friends here, and traffic is at is always is."

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