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D I S P A T C H E S

+ "Rumors and Half Truths"


from Marcela Gaviria

click here for a larger map You never know what is behind a wall. On the Gul Bahar Road to Peshawar, hidden behind an alleyway, there is an unassuming wall made of brick. Behind the wall, is a private home, Atara House. Home to Ibrahim Shinwari, his wife, and his five little girls. This is my first glimpse into the private lives of Pakistanis.

Mr. Shinwari is a wealthy trader, who has made a small fortune (by local standards) smuggling goods through the trans-Afghan trade. He takes advantage of the free port status in Afghanistan to avoid custom duties and brings anything from Omani sandals to Japanese television sets from Afghanistan and into Pakistan where they are sold in the markets of Peshawar, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Karachi, and Islamabad.

We are here to find out if Shinwari has heard anything about human smuggling, or more specifically, about smuggling of Al Qaeda troops through the trans-Afghan trade routes.

We enter a modest garden filled with beautiful bougainvilleas and vines. Standing at attention are several male helpers, dressed in khaki Shalwar Kameez. Soon, Mr. Shinwari comes out to greet us. "Salam Aleikum." He shakes all of our hands, including mine. Men don't always extend their hand to women, and so I am now used to holding my hand to my heart when I meet someone. It is a custom that I now do almost naturally, every time I respond "Aleikum Salam." It's practically the only thing I know how to say, except for "Thank you," which in Urdu is "Shokria." But this language does not come easy to me. I find that I say "Salam Aleikum" when I meant to say "Shokria" and vice versa.

We sit in the middle of the garden with a large fan circulating fresh air and a modern television propped up next to it. Shinwari's little children come out to greet us. The two little ones, with the big brown eyes, look to be around five and seven. The twins, who can only be 11 or 12, are already covering their hair. And the oldest one, perhaps she is 15, is fully covered.

The daughters bring out tea. And then cookies. And then more tea. They serve each cup perfectly, and efficiently. The younger ones make eye contact. The older ones never mutter a word and come in and out of the garden like ghosts. I never see the wife.

The initial conversation is quite strained. It's hard to know what to talk about. It is impolite to ask a Muslim about his family, especially when it comes to talking about the women. We remark about the fine breeze and the wonderful garden. Of course that doesn't last long, and soon we are prying into the details of who, what, when, where, and how.

We learn of a rumor that is circulating widely among merchant traders. It's hard to confirm but Shinwari believes that Osama bin Laden escaped on the night of a total blackout on the road from Afghanistan to Pakistan. It was the second or third day of November, just before the heavy bombing began in hills near Jalalabad. It's hard to prove, but according to Shinwari, the talk is that the Pakistani ISI, the local equivalent of the CIA, helped smuggle their old ally out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan's remote tribal areas.

They waited till midnight, when there was no traffic on the roads, and piled bin Laden and his family into a convoy of six to eight cars. They pulled out all security checkpoints in the area hours earlier. And as an extra precaution, they reportedly switched off all the electric power from a 60-mile stretch from Jalalabad across the border. Bin Laden made it safely into the tribal areas.

We talk of many other rumors and find out that this story we are covering has many leads that evaporate into thin air. We have been asking questions for a few weeks now, and it seems that there are four versions to every event.

Yesterday was typical. CNN was announcing that 12 Al Qaeda members had been captured under our very noses just a few hours ago. We were perplexed. Our fixer, Shameem, is incredibly plugged in. Surely he would have heard about this.

Today we ended up at the police station trying to verify the story, reported worldwide, including a few mentions in English-speaking newspapers. It ends up that the "Al Qaeda" men who were arrested were simply members of a pro-Al Qaeda group called Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen.

Another day has passed sifting through the rumors and the half truths. I yearn for one true fact.


< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

London
(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

Pakistan
(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

+ Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

Pakistan
(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

Frustrations
9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

Indomitable
23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

Yemen
(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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