The night that changed a tweeter’s life
Karachi: On Twitter, he is known as ‘Really Virtual’, but people worldwide know him as the guy who live-tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad.
Before tweeting about the raid, the biggest achievement of Sohaib Akhtar’s life was to open up a coffee shop in Abbottabad, as he quipped he did not like the coffee there. But all that changed on the night of May 2, 2011.
Sitting opposite the corporate lawyer and session moderator, Ayesha Tammy Haq, Akhtar spoke about how he did not know for an hour that a raid was under way. “Around 1am, I saw a helicopter hovering quite low in Bilal Town where I live, which is a rare event. And I tweeted my thoughts.”
For a minute, the helicopter took a few circles and then he heard a loud explosion that shattered a window of his house. And Akhtar tweeted that as well.
“I tried giving it the benefit of doubt by thinking that it might be a UFO but it turned out to be more than that.” He, however, took the whole incident a lot more seriously when he started getting calls from the people he knew.
“They informed me that a raid had apparently taken place around my area and a terrorist had been caught,” he shared with the audience that listened intently to his every word.
Curious to know what happened next, Ayesha asked him what he did after that. “Nothing,” he replied, “I tweeted that, went offline and read a book.”
The next morning, Akhtar woke up to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by the US Navy Seals in a midnight raid. But what disturbed him more was that he had 25 missed calls and above a hundred emails on his account. And to top it all, he reached a whopping 105,000 followers on Twitter within a few days.
Everyone wanted to know him all of a sudden. While he was taken aback by the “sudden attention”, he said that it was overwhelming to the point of being harassed.
The people in the audience wanted to know if he was “bugged” by the intelligence agencies or was he threatened with dire consequences, to which Akhtar politely replied, no.
“The first people to meet me were Mosharraf Zaidi and Omar Warraich. The media was the only department that harassed me. So I wrote answers to all the repeated questions that news channels were asking me and posted them online.”
Akhtar also made it to Time magazine’s issue about the raid and the man who live-tweeted it.
Ayesha asked him if he was afraid. “I was for a while. Afraid of the impact this incident would have on Abbottabad and our country.”
The incident not only earned Akhtar many followers, but instilled a feeling of responsibility in him as well.
“Some people tweeted that Pakistan is in the Middle East and that I’m an Arab tweeting from God-knows-where. But I clarified that. Similarly, there were equally outrageous remarks about our country that I clarified as well.”
For people outside Abbottabad, the reality that the Osama bin Laden was found and killed in their own country was difficult to accept. But Akhtar said the people in Abbottabad forgot about it a few days after the incident. But the changes were evident and hard to ignore.
“For instance, there were security checks that are usually found in Lahore and Islamabad. People were not used to that. Similarly, foreigners were thoroughly checked etc. So all of that was difficult to adjust to.”
What is most striking about Akhtar is his down-to-earth nature. He was sitting easily and had no airs about him as he spoke about the incident and his life after it.
Married and father of a daughter, he said he had met with the judicial commission on the raid as well.
When asked about what Justice Javed Iqbal had told him as the investigation got over, “He said tweet on,” he replied smiling. — Saher Baloch