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Ex-pats in Pakistan process Bin Laden's death

Originally published in The Express Tribune on May 9, 2011

KARACHI-Amid reports of pro-Bin Laden rallies in Quetta and Karachi and threats of retaliation from al Qeada, hundreds of thousands of ex-patriots in Pakistan are vigilantly going about their lives.

Summer Nicks, 39, is lean, blue-eyed and Australian, with the kind of skin that blushes at the mere suggestion of UV rays. After visiting Pakistan as a tourist in 2001, he moved to Azad Kashmir in October 2005 to implement an UNCIF-supported scholarship program. Two days after he arrived, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook the area. Instead of working in education, Nicks got involved in relief operations. He planned to be in Pakistan for a few months, but by the time his contract ended, he was smitten with the country and the culture. Currently he lives in Karachi, where he’s producing a sci-fi film.

“It’s no big drama,” he said of Osama Bin Laden’s death. “I interact with regular people everyday—shopkeepers, rickashaw drivers, restaurant workers. I haven’t even heard people talking about it. In six years, I’ve seen some radical things, but at the end of the day, people still open up their shops.”

The Australian High Commission in Islamabad never closed in the week following Bin Laden’s death. A website travel bulletin mentioned the US State Department’s advice to its citizens, to limit travel outside homes and hotels, but the Commission’s only advice to Australians was to “exercise enhanced vigilance.”

Nicks pays scant attention to the official advice, and he said he has never felt specifically targeted. “Pakistanis know what the world thinks of them. They’re happy to have foreigners here, to tell everyone how they really are.”

On September 11, 2001, Nicks was backpacking through Quetta, an area noted for sectarian violence. Even on such an auspicious date, Nicks witnessed what he terms “the best of Pakistanis, when people always expect them to do the worst. People were coming up to me saying, ‘we’re so sorry about what happened in your country, please don’t think we’re all like that,’ They thought I was American.”

Another Australian, Jeremy Higgs, 26, came to Karachi three years ago on a two-month internship that morphed into a full-time job. “I work in the development sector, heading an NGO that helps people with disabilities. My work is interesting, I live comfortably, I have friends and a support network. I have everything I need here, why would I leave?” he said.

Higgs has felt cautious at times, such as Monday, when many people initially assumed that bus burnings and shuttered shops were related to Bin Laden’s death rather than local political assassinations. “But it had nothing to do with Bin Laden,” Higgs said. “And I’ve never been threatened here, so why should I feel threatened?”

Shane Brady, an Irish aid worker, initially came to Pakistan to work with earthquake victims. Now he’s been living in Islamabad for over five years. Brady’s NGO has Abbottabad offices just up the street from the Bin Laden compound.

“It was a big surprise to me that they found Bin Laden in Abottabad,” he said. “I was working from those offices just last month.” But even living in the nation’s capital, Brady doesn’t fear retaliation from Pakistani groups.

“I don’t think Bin Laden was particularly popular in Pakistan anyway. In fact, I think he was quite irrelevant,” Brady said. “I don’t think his death will greatly affect the situation on the ground, although it doesn’t bode well for the future of US and Pakistan relations.”

Brady’s Islamabad office closed for a day, but on Tuesday everyone returned to work. According to a written statement by Hira Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pakistan has only issued 578 visa to Irish citizens between April 2008 and Dec. 2010. The nearest Irish Embassy is in Iran, and it hasn’t issued any post-Bin Laden statement.

According to Brady, being a foreigner has been an asset in Pakistan until Raymond Davis’s arrest. “White people receive special treatment, it’s positive discrimination. It’s a colonial hangover, they’re generally considered up at the top of a strict social hierarchy. The only way it has ever been a liability for me is that movement is restricted, and sometimes you have to have security details that get in the way of the work you’re trying to do,” he said.

The most prevalent foreigners in Pakistan are the British. During the same 32-month period, Pakistan issued 14,842 visas to UK citizens, as compared to 3,045 visa issued to American citizens.

Chris Cock came to Pakistan on holiday over 18 years ago. He married a Pakistani that he met on that first trip, and despite his British citizenship, he’s lived in Pakistan on and off ever since. Currently he’s working as a journalist and raising two children in Bhawalpur.  He receives advisories from the British High Commission every week. Following Bin Laden’s death, he was advised to avoid the vicinity of the US Consulate in Karachi, as well as travel through Khyber Punktunkwa, which includes Abbottabad.

Cock has noticed increased security around Bhawalpur, but he considers the Bin Laden situation, “a big nothing, really. He was a spent force. His death is symbolic for Americans, it’s created embarrassment for Pakistan, but as far as foreigners go, I don’t think there’s any risk of increased threat.”

According to Cock, the reaction to Bin Laden’s death has been anticlimactic to that of Raymond Davis’s arrest. “Raymond Davis was tricky. Most foreigners would probably say that they felt the tension then,” he said. “The first three months of this year, we’ve seen the assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shabaz Bhatti. There’s a general perception that the threat level has risen, but how much of that is subjective or objective? The media has been less than responsible.”

Mazi Aku, a leader among Lahore’s community of Nigerian garment manufacturers, said he worries more about general exploitation in Pakistan than he does about blasts. As for the Bin Laden situation, he said, “people have just gone about their business normally.”

But despite subdued reactions thus far, many foreigners prefer to keep a low profile, although this seems to be due to visa processes as much as security issues. Ex-pats in Quetta refused to speak to the press, and a Russian intern in Karachi agreed to be interviewed, then requested that her interview be “erased.”

A British NGO worker, who declined to give her name, specializes in Islamic law in Islamabad. She has been surprised at Pakistanis’ subdued reactions.  “The only effect that Bin Laden’s death has had is that the American NGOs I work for are quite paranoid and have tried to ban me from traveling to Karachi. Which I find hilarious, considering that they just had me in Quetta for a week,” she said. “I think a lot of organizations thought it was going to be bad.”

More than official advisories, she relies on the advice of locals. “The British government doesn’t think you should be here at all,” she said. “But if a Pakistani tells me not to do something, then I won’t do it.”

If visa numbers are any indication, the number of American nationals in Pakistan lags behind that of Saudi Arabia, Afghan, Kuwait and India. Even so, the Karachi-based US Consulate reports a thriving, if quiet, community of Americans, and local institutions such as the Pakistan American Cultural Center, the American School and the American Women’s Club support that information. But despite extensive effort, the Express Tribune was unable to find an American in Pakistan willing to speak on record. Perhaps Americans in Pakistan are among the most vulnerable targets for any sort of violent Bin Laden backlash. But Pakistani history has shown that, despite stated motives, violence doesn’t distinguish by religion or ethnicity, actual or presumed.