Written by Roger Allen
The whole world had been, for a long time, wondering what had happened to Osama Bin Laden. After the terror attacks of 9/11 it was assumed he’d mostly been living in a range of caves dodging bombs.
It wasn’t till one of his message runners made a slip up that he was located and shot dead by the US special forces in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
+ + + + + +
It was in Abbottabad that reporter Tom Parry and myself dined one balmy evening on our way back to the capital Islamabad. We’d been sent by the Daily Mirror to cover one of the world’s worst earthquakes.
The epicentre was near the town of Muzaffarabad with 90,000 dead 140,000 injured and four million without homes. As we bumped into the stricken town I was horrified.
“Christ look at the state of that place,” I said.
Moudasa, our translator and guide, a roly-poly chap dressed in a white robe, said: “No that’s always been like that, the damage is further into town.”
+ + + + + +
After a day working among the rubble and displaced we found a hotel that was still in one piece. To say it a was a dump would be an understatement; it was dirty, half built and the bedding was jumping with fleas.
To combat the health issues Tom and I wandered away from the hotel a short distance to a row of shops still standing. In one we found bed sheets and a blanket. Along with the sleeping bags we had with us we hoped we’d be safe from the acrobatic insects.
A smell of cooking drew me towards a rag-tag row of stalls. One that caught my eye was selling freshly cooked samosas.
Three men with smiley faces stood in a brick doorway opening on to the street. A pile of piping hot samosas were being put into a paper bag. Behind them was a boiling pan of cooking oil and a man with a long black beard feeding the triangular snacks into the pan.
The production line was very efficient: as the food came out of the pan it was swiftly onsold to the waiting crowd. We had chances upon the best samosas stall in the ruined town.
We brought a bag bursting with flavour. The first bite was soft and mellow, a mix of potato, peas and onions, comfort food. The second bite released the spice and heat, the perfect combo. Alongside the the pyramid of samosas was an open top jar with vivid green liquid. I spooned some onto the open part of my snack, the kick of zesty flavour was sensational, it was clean and powerful, coriander, chilli and lemon, pickerels of sweat broke out on my forehead. This was the perfect antidote to a day of misery.
HERE’S HOW YOU MAKE THEM as Abdul, the samosa maestro, told me through the interpreter.
The next morning we left out hovel hotel to drive to the epicentre of the quake, a town called Balakot. The drive in a battered minibus with dodgy brakes was one of the most terrifying I ever had. Out of Muzaffarabad we climbed up and up and up into a very unwelcome mountain range. Aid trucks barrelled along on both sides of the road forcing all other drivers to pull over or be knocked of the road.
Our report and photos for the day was truly tragic: a man crouching on a pile of rubble looking into the distance. The rubble had been his house, under it was his wife and four children.
It made a powerful story.
+ + + + + +
The journey back to Muzaffarabad was even more dangerous as it was dark. I lay in the back of the minibus and shut my eyes waiting for the crash.
The morning arrived with still no water to wash in so we decided that it was time to leave, head back to the capital Islamabad. As we gathered up our belongings and began loading the car a wave of heavy black smoke engulfed us.
As we turned to see what was causing it flames began leaping from the front of the hotel. It was ablaze. We drove off watching guests fleeing half naked.
Back over the road of death to Abbottabad, just to make the hellish road trip more exciting the driver put on a DVD, a film, with the screen on the dashboard. He laughed madly at our fear before turning it off. As night fell Moudasa suggested we stop for the night in a guesthouse he knew. With hot running water and a clean set of clothes it was time for dinner.
Tom and I stood in an empty dining room. Three silver salvers sat on a dirty table cloth, a man in an equally dirty apron emerged from a door beside the table.
“Hello, please please sit sit down, what would you like all food please,” said the jolly thin chef with a long black beard. He looked about 80 years old but was probably in his 40’s. Just as Tom pulled out a chair to sit down Moudasa rushed into the dining room.
“No, no come come with me,” he cried.
Twenty minutes later we were sat in a dark noisy restaurant with plain tables, white plastic sheets across them. Down one side of the room were alcoves with curtains drawn across the front. This was where the women dined out of sight of the male munchers.
We three sat at a large table where immediately a pile of hot flat bread arrived along with a range of pickles and sauces. Moudasa chatted to an elderly man pointing and laughing.
“So I’ve ordered a range of things all very good” he said followed by a hearty laugh.
We, Tom and I, had come to love our guide Moudasa. He was a poet, a writer, a guide, and a scholar….. or so he said, but the main thing was he was a very funny man which made the job we’d just covered a lot easier.
After munching our way through the bread with the side dishes of lemon and chilli pickle, yogurt with lime juice and coriander, four bowls of food arrived.
This what we ate:
- Karhai Ginger Chicken
- Moong Daal
- Chickpea Tomato Curry
All washed down with the freshest lemon juice. Here is how you cook them: (Click on the pics!)
Karhai Ginger Curry
As we were leaving the restaurant I spotted the man from our guest house. I pointed him out to Moudasa.
“Yes it is, I told him his food was very bad so I brought him here to pay for our dinner, that’s what he must do,”
We left as the poor chap was doling out notes to the owner of the restaurant.
On the flat roof of the guest house Tom and I sat drinking the last of our illegal whiskey.
The moon was so bright it lit the fields around us. The mountains in the background sat brooding with white snow-capped tops. Across the field stood a large compound with a high wall, light flickered around the edge, to left a mile away was the town of Abbottabad the Sandhurst of Pakistan.
+ + + + + +
Back in the capital the following night we had a farewell dinner with Moudasa.
“I take you to my favourite place, very good,”
Twenty minutes of bumping along in a tuk-tuk we arrived in a dark back street with one building only lit by very bright neon strip lights – that’s where we would have dinner.
Moudasa, in his white robe, strode up to the entrance of the café, Tom and I stood outside while he went in to talk to a man at the door. To the right of the door was a wooden platform with whole goats, sheep and chickens hanging from large metal hooks dangling from the plastic cover above the butchery.
A fearsome man sat quietly on a metal chair watching us closely. In his hand was a very big cleaver.
Moudasa reappeared, “Come, come all good,” he beamed as he ushered us inside.
The clatter of cutlery and chatter stopped as we traversed our way through the tables. The room was small and cramped, the one empty table on the back wall was ours.
Condensation on the windows made it impossible to see out or in. As we took our seats the hubbub started up again. I glanced at Tom with a doubtful look. He just shook his head looking at the table.
After a platter of grilled meat with long hot blackened chilli and lots of black tea we paid up at the front desk.
The room of unsmiling men turned to look at us we made to leave. All the men to a man were wearing very long black beards and black turbans.
Outside on the street I asked Moudasa who they were.
“Oh they are the Taliban, they are fighters back from the mountains, that is why I went in first to ask if it’s okay to bring in infidels,” he said with one of his stock in trade laughs.
“So we just had tea with the Taliban, in their café?”
“Yes but it’s okay, they liked you”
Didn’t seem that way to me I said.
Six years later breaking news announced Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US Navy Seals in Abbottabad. Tom checked the maps found our guesthouse along with the Bin Laden compound, we’d sat drinking whiskey 400 meters away from the world’s most wanted, if only we’d known . . .