There’s a trim, two-storey house at the end of a cul-de-sac on the East Rand. The facade is ordinary: railway house meets Boere-baroque. If you could see it, that is. The property is surrounded by a 10-metre high wall and laced with razor wire.
Behind the walls, in the out-building, the world’s most wanted man lived unobtrusively with his two wives and five children, until two years ago.
Neighbours say the family were quiet and minded their own business. The wife (or at least she might have been behind the burqa) traded puri recipes with the local Society of Gujarati Women. The tall bearded husband didn’t talk much. But when he did, he preferred to be addressed as “Gamat”. They liked Nando’s extra hot and seemed decent enough people.
OK, so that was obviously a lie.
But if you did live next to the world’s most wanted man, wouldn’t you want to know?
And more importantly, would you tell?
Or would you (as will no doubt soon be entered into the English lexicon) — Pull a Pak? And keep mum. Or even better, deny he’s even there.
Minding one’s business, especially when it comes to the Joneses — is the unwritten rule of polite suburbia.
It’s no coincidence the “neighbour” features in two of the Ten Commandments. His separation fence is hallowed ground, his business his own. Even when he may be making babies with his daughter or running a crack den.
The rule, it seems, goes. Even if you’re living next to Josef Fritzl or Ananias Mathe.
Nobody wants to say what they saw.
Because there’s really no good way to see a snitch. Impimpi.
Only time will tell whether Pakistan knew just who was swanning around in its backyard. But Osama’s neighbours in Abbottabad have wasted no time in sharing vignettes about the mysterious strangers who never went outside, “sounded like Arabs” and liked Diet Coke. As usual, hardly anyone thought something was amiss.
If it wasn’t the neighbours, it was the childhood mates. A boyhood friend intoned solemnly on television about the shy, quiet, respectful lad who he never imagined would one day grow up to become the puppet master of a quasi-Islamic death cult.
Ah yes. The criminally insane are such good neighbours. Just ask anyone who’s ever lived next door when the psychopath/axe murderer is eventually caught.
“Such a nice chap, kept to himself.”
“A decent family who went to church every Sunday, I still can’t believe it.”
“They were God-fearing … ”
“We never suspected a thing … ”
Sadly, all of the above are nearly always a lie, because the signs are there. No criminal worth their salt can avoid bragging about their exploits. Sometimes secure in the knowledge that “the community” will protect them when the boys in blue come calling.
But the nosey neighbour has gone out of fashion; relegated to the scrap heap of history by Google Street View and the smartphone. Why take over some muffins when you can Google em, right?
Who wouldn’t appreciate a witness not wanting to testify against a notorious cash-in-transit gang who may have seen their face or harm their family.
But what about the smaller crimes and petty larcenies we see our neighbours carrying on under our very noses, but we say nothing.
Like the loud and proud criminal whose deeds get overlooked because he buys uniforms for the local school football team and gives the odd granny a ride to church in his BMW.
What about the teenager who knows her boyfriend is a crook but won’t ask where those grocery parcels come from every month or that gold watch — so long as there’s enough money for airtime and maybe a new hairpiece.
In small ways, everyone’s guilty of similar Pakistani porky pies when it comes to dodgy neighbours.
And if we’re the ones who could do with a bit of surveillance?
Like the people of Abbottabad who claim they hadn’t the foggiest who was living behind the fence.
Because his kids stay off your lawn and his wife occasionally borrows you a tomato — mean it’s all right to turn a blind eye to illicit activities next door.
There could be many reasons. Maybe you’ve snitched before and nobody at the SAPS helpline was listening. Maybe the neighbour’s not so bad. After all, he just sells tik, he’s not a murderer or anything. Maybe he’s got children to educate with those criminal proceeds. Or a police commissioner to bribe. It’s tough being a tough.
But maybe sometimes, it’s just easier to look away.