Exclusive: Benazir Bhutto’s last testament
Like most women in politics, I am especially sensitive to maintaining my composure, to never showing my feelings. A display of emotion by a woman in politics or government can be misconstrued as a manifestation of weakness, reinforcing stereotypes and caricatures.
But when I stepped down onto the tarmac at Quaid-e-Azam international airport in Karachi on October 18 last year, I was overcome with emotion. After eight lonely and difficult years of exile, I could not stop the tears pouring from my eyes.I felt that a terrible weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was a sense of liberation. I was home at long last. I knew what I had to do.
I had departed three hours earlier from my home in exile, Dubai. My husband Asif was to stay behind with our two daughters, Bakhtawar and Aseefa. Asif and I had made a very calculated, difficult decision. We understood the dangers of my return, and we wanted to make sure that, no matter what happened, our children would have a parent to take care of them.
It was a discussion that few husbands and wives ever have to make, thankfully. But Asif and I had become accustomed to a life of sacrificing our personal happiness and any sense of normality and privacy. The people of Pakistan always come first. My children understood it and not only accepted it but encouraged me. I said farewell not knowing whether I would ever see their faces again.
I told my children: “Do not worry. Nothing will happen to me. God will protect me.” I wanted to reassure them, but I also told them: “Remember, God gives life, and God takes life. I will be safe until my time is up.”
The stakes could not have been higher. Pakistan under military dictatorship had become the epicentre of an international terrorist movement with two primary aims.
First, the extremists aim to reconstitute the concept of the caliphate, a political state encompassing the great Ummah (Muslim community) populations of the world, uniting the Middle East, the Persian Gulf states, south Asia, central Asia, east Asia, and parts of Africa. Second, they aim to provoke a clash of civilisations between the West and an interpretation of Islam that rejects pluralism and modernity. The goal, the great hope of the militants, is a collision, an explosion between the values of the West and what the extremists claim to be the values of Islam.
Few on the aeroplane that carried me from Dubai to Karachi knew that in my briefcase I carried with me the manuscript of this book exploring the dual crises confronting the Islamic world – both internal and external. Within hours of my reaching Pakistan, some of the pages would be symbolically charred by fire and splattered with blood and flesh of dismembered bodies thrown up by devastating terrorist bombs.
The carnage that accompanied the joyous celebration of my return was a horrific metaphor for the crisis that lies before us and the need for an enlightened renaissance both within Islam and between Islam and the rest of the world. WHEN I returned, I did not know whether I would live or die. I knew that the same elements of Pakistani society that had colluded to destroy my father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and end democracy in Pakistan in 1977 were now arrayed against me for the same purpose exactly 30 years later.
Indeed, many of the same people who had collaborated with an earlier military junta in the judicial murder of my father were now entrenched in power in the Musharraf regime and the intelligence apparatus. There could have been no more dramatic statement to me than General Musharraf’s recent appointment as attorney-general of the son of the man who had sent my father to the gallows.
We had, of course, been discouraged from returning. Musharraf had told me in private meetings and conversations that I should come back only after elections he was planning.
When it was clear that I would not postpone my return, he sent messages to my staff that I should have no public demonstration or rally and I should fly directly by helicopter from the airport to Bilawal House, my family home in Karachi.
He said that he was concerned about my security and my safety, but his supporters did very little to provide the necessary protection we needed: jammers that worked, street lights that worked, roads that had been cleared of empty cars that could carry improvised explosive devices – protection to which I was entitled as a former prime minister.
I had become aware, through messages sent by Musharraf, that suicide squads might be sent from the North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas to try to assassinate me immediately on my return. I had actually received from a sympathetic Muslim foreign government the names and cellphone numbers of designated assassins.
I was told by both the Musharraf regime and the foreign Muslim government that four suicide bomber squads would attempt to kill me. These included, the reports said, squads sent by the Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud; Hamza Bin Laden, a son of Osama Bin Laden; Red Mosque militants; and a Kara-chi-based militant group.
Musharraf’s regime knew of the specific threats against me, including the names and numbers of those who planned to kill me, and the names of others – including those in his own inner circle and in his party – whom we believed were conspiring. Despite our request, we received no reports on what actions were taken before my arrival as a follow-up to these warnings.
I wrote a letter to Musharraf. I told him that if I was assassinated by the militants it would be due to their sympathisers in his regime, whom I suspected wanted to eliminate me and remove the threat I posed to their grip on power.
Even as we landed, the general’s people were calling to stop me from returning, stop me from giving a speech at the tomb of the Quaid-e-Azam [Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder], to cancel my cavalcade from the airport to the mausoleum. But I knew that those who believed in democracy and my leadership were awaiting me in the streets of Karachi.
As the sky darkened and my armoured campaign truck progressed almost by inches through the growing masses, I noticed that street lights began to dim and then go off as we approached. The jamming equipment that was supposed to be blocking cellphone signals (that could detonate suicide bombs, or even remote-controlled toy planes filled with explosives) for 200 metres around my truck did not seem to be working.
My husband, watching the live coverage on television in Dubai, begged me not to expose myself directly to the crowd from the top of the truck. I said no, that I must be in front and greet my people.
Sometime after 11pm I saw a man holding up a baby dressed in the colours of my party, the PPP. He gesticulated repeatedly to me to take the baby, which was about one or two years old. I gesticulated to the crowd to make way for him. But when the crowd parted, the man would not come forward. Instead he tried to hand the baby to someone in the crowd. Worried that the baby would fall and be trampled upon or be lost, I gesticulated no, you bring the baby to me.
Finally he pointed to the security guard. I asked the security guard to let him up on the truck. However, by the time he reached the truck, I was going down to my compartment in the vehicle’s interior because my feet hurt. We now suspect the baby’s clothes were lined with plastic explosives.
My feet had swollen up after standing in one place for 10 hours, and my sandals were hurting. Downstairs I unstrapped and loosened them. A little while later my political secretary, Naheed Khan, and I went over the speech that I would be delivering later at the tomb – one of the most important of my life.
I was saying that perhaps we should mention my petitioning the Supreme Court to allow political parties in the tribal areas to organise as part of our plan to counter extremists politically. As I said the word “extremist”, a terrible explosion rocked the truck. First the sound, then the light, then the glass smashing, then the deadly silence followed by horrible screams. My first thought was: “Oh, God, no.”
A piercing pain tore my ear from the force of the blast. An eerie silence descended. Then a second explosion – much louder, larger and more damaging – went off. Almost simultaneously, something hit the truck, which rolled from side to side. (Later I saw two dents clearly visible on the left side of the truck, where I had been.)
I looked outside. The dark night was bathed in an orange light, and under it crumpled bodies lay scattered in the most horrific scene.
I now know what happened to the baby. Agha Siraj Durrani, a PPP parliamentarian, was watching the access to my truck. When the man tried to hand the baby up, Agha Siraj told him to get lost. The man then went to a police vehicle to the left of the truck, which also refused to take the baby. The man moved to the police vehicle in front of the first. Awoman PPP councillor, Rukhsana Faisal Boloch, was on this vehicle, as was a cameraman.
As the man tried to hand the baby to the second police vehicle, the first police vehicle warned: “Don’t take the baby, don’t take the baby, don’t let the baby up on the truck.”
Both these police vehicles were exactly parallel to where I was sitting inside the truck. As the man scuffled with the police to hand the baby over, the first explosion took place. Everyone in that police van was killed, as were those around it.
Within 50 seconds, a 15-kilogram car bomb was detonated, scattering pellets, shrapnel and burning pieces of metal. According to some eyewit-nesses, snipers began firing.
There seemed to be some chemical in the air. Although I came out of the truck about eight minutes later, I suffered like others from both a perforated eardrum and a racking dry cough, the likes of which I had never had before. Dr Zulfikar Mirza, who helped take the dead and wounded to hospital, told me of the strange state of the bodies. The clothes of some were totally burnt off. Others were clothed, but when one moved to pick up the body, it would melt and disintegrate. Many with pellet wounds subsequently died, making us suspect that the pellets had been soaked in poison.
I was whisked away through back-streets in a jeep. Security boys clung to it, providing a human shield around me. We were unarmed and we wondered whether assassins might have a backup plan to kill us, knowing we had to reach my home.
I entered the house that my husband had built for us after our marriage, which was named in honour of our son Bilawal. Going up the stairs, I saw the pictures of my three children peering back at me, and I realised the absolute terror they must be experiencing, not knowing if I were dead or alive.
I had been traumatised by my father’s arrest, imprisonment and murder, and I know that such mental scars are permanent. I would have done anything to spare my children the same pain that I had undergone – and still feel – at my father’s death. But this was one thing I couldn’t do; I couldn’t retreat from the party and the platform that I had given so much of my life to. The enormous price paid by my father, brothers, supporters and all those who had been killed, imprisoned and tortured – all the sacrifices had been for the people of Pakistan.
I spoke to my husband and assured him that I was not injured. I could not speak to my children. Thankfully they had gone to bed and had not seen the blast on television. My daughter told me later she went to bed happy thinking of the warm reception I was getting, only to wake to a text message from a friend: “Oh, my God, I am so worried. Is your mother all right?”
With her heart pounding, she ran to the room of her father, who gathered her in his arms, reassuring her, “Your mother is fine.”
WHEN all the bodies had been counted, the number of those killed went up to 179 dead and nearly 600 wounded, some disabled for life.
Later I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned. According to this report, three men belonging to a rival political faction were hired for half a million dollars. They were, according to my sources, named Ejaz, Sajjad and another whose name I forget.
One of them died accidentally because he couldn’t get away fast enough before the detonation. Presumably this was the one holding the baby. However, a bomb maker was needed for the bombs.
Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in Karachi central jail. According to my second source, the officials in Lahore had turned to Akhtar for help. His liaison with elements in the government, according to this source, was a radical who was asked to make the bombs and himself asked for a fatwa making it legitimate to oblige. He got one.
The bomb blasts took place in the army cantonment area in Karachi. When army officials arrived on the scene, the wounded hooted them down. Rightly or wrongly, the perception in Pakistan is that the military is responsible for the rise of militancy and all the horrific consequences that it entails for Pakistan and its people.
Militancy started with the Zia military dictatorship in the 1970s. Its heirs destabilised democracy until military dictatorship was once again imposed. The Musharraf dictatorship, notwithstanding its public pronouncements, has presided over the mushrooming growth of militant groups and militant acts that have exacted a heavy human toll.
At times I worry whether we as a nation can survive the threat of disintegration. Since the overthrow of my government in 1996, the militants have made many inroads into the very structure of governance of Pakistan through their supporters and sympathisers. Pakistan is a tinder-box that could catch fire quickly.
Sixty years after its creation, the case study of its record with democracy is a sad chronicle of steps forwards and huge steps backwards.
Democracy cannot be sustained in the absence of a stable and growing middle class. The growth of India into a regional and international economic power occurred – not coincidentally – as its middle class exploded into a huge economic and political force.
How can a nation build a middle class? The first key is to build an education system that delivers hope and real opportunity. Good public educational opportunity is the key to the economic and political progress of nations, and it can be so in the Islamic world as well. But in Pakistan $4.5 billion is spent on the military each year – an astounding 1,400% more than on education.
Militant madrasahs did not flourish there because Pakistani citizens suddenly became more religiously orthodox than ever before in our history. The militants took advantage of parents from low-income social classes who wanted a better life for their children. If parents are so poor that they cannot educate, house, clothe, feed and provide healthcare for their children and the state fails to provide such basic human needs through public services, they will seek an alternative. The militant madrasahs have become, over time, an alternative government for millions of Pakistanis.
These political and military training camps invest little time and resources in primary education. Rather, they manipulate religion to brainwash children into becoming soldiers of an irregular army. They teach hatred and violence. They breed terrorists, not scientists. They undermine the very concept of national identity and rule of law.
When I was prime minister, I invested enormous political resources in stopping these paramilitary political madrasahs, but unfortunately, in the years since I left office, as many as 20,000 new ones have been built in Pakistan alone. IN the epic debate over the inevitability of a confrontation between Islam and the West, I am a reconciliationist. The notion that the culture of Islam is antithetical to democratic values – put forward by those who believe in the “clash of civilisations” – is not only unsubstantiated by Koranic reference and Islamic clerical interpretation but also plays into Islamic extremists’ views that the West is disrespectful and antagonistic to Islam’s beliefs and history.
And the assertion that social, political and economic interactions between Islam and the West precipitate conflict, as opposed to promoting understanding, is antithetical to what we know about human behav-iour and international relations.
Preventing a clash of civilisations, at least in terms of the Islamic world, requires that we put our trust in the power of trade, exchange, technology, education and democratic values to accelerate the process by which Islamic societies can build bonds and trust with western societies. Within the Muslim world, however, there has been and continues to be an internal rift, an often violent confrontation among sects, ideologies and interpretations of the message of Islam.
This destructive tension has set brother against brother, a deadly fratricide that has tortured intra-Islamic relations for 1,300 years. It is most visibly manifest today in a senseless, self-defeating sectarian civil war that is tearing modern Iraq apart and exercising its brutality in other parts of the world, especially in parts of Pakistan.
As the Muslim world simmers internally, extremists have manipulated Islamic dogma to justify and rationalise a so-called jihad against the West. The attacks on September 11, 2001, heralded the vanguard of the caliphate-inspired dream of bloody confrontation: the Crusades in reverse.
The attack was received in two disparate ways in the Muslim world. Much, if not most, reacted with horror, embarrassment and shame when it became clear that this greatest terrorist attack in history had been carried out by Muslims in the name of Allah and jihad. Yet there was another, troubling reaction: some people danced in the streets of Palestine. Sweets were exchanged in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Condemnations were few in the largest Muslim nation, Indonesia.
The hijackers seemed to touch a nerve of Muslim impotence. The burning and then collapsing towers represented, to some, resurgent Muslim power, a perverse Muslim pay-back for the domination of the West. To others it was a religious epiphany. To still others it combined political, cultural and religious assertiveness.
And now there is Iraq. One billion Muslims around the world seem united in their outrage at the war, damning the deaths of Muslims caused by US military intervention without UN approval. But there has been little if any similar outrage against the sectarian Iraqi civil war, which has led to far more casualties.
Obviously (and embarrassingly), Muslim leaders, masses and even intellectuals are quite comfortable criticising outsiders for the harm inflicted on fellow Muslims. But there is deadly silence when they are confronted with Muslim-on-Muslim violence.
Even in Darfur, where there is an actual genocide being committed against a Muslim population, there has been a remarkable absence of protests, few objections, and no massive coverage on Arab or south Asian television.
We are all familiar with the data that show an increasing contempt for and hostility to the West in Muslim communities from Turkey to Pakistan. The war in Iraq is cited as a reason. The situation in Palestine is given as another reason. So-called decadent western values are often part of the explanation. It is so much easier to blame others for our problems than to accept responsibility ourselves.
The colonial experience has obviously had a major impact on the Muslim psyche. But what outsiders did in the past does not exclusively account for the quality of Muslim life today. There is a rush to condemn foreigners and colonisers, but there is an equally weighty unwillingness within the Muslim world to look inwards and to identify where we may be going wrong ourselves.
It is uncomfortable but nevertheless essential to true intellectual dialogue to point out that national pride in the Muslim world is rarely derived from economic productivity, technical innovation or intellectual creativity. Those factors seem to have been part of the Persian, Mughal and Ottoman past but not the Muslim present. Now we see Muslim pride always characterised in the negative, derived from notions of “destroying the enemy” and “making the nation invulnerable to western assault”.
Such toxic rhetoric sets the stage for the clash of civilisations between Islam and the West every bit as much as do western military or political policies. It also serves as an opiate that keeps Muslims angry against external enemies and allows them to pay little attention to the internal causes of intellectual and economic decline. Reality and intellectual honesty demand that we look at both sides of the coin.
The burning twin towers have become a dual metaphor for both the intra-Islamic debate about the political and social values of democracy and modernity and the looming potential for a catastrophic showdown between Islam and the West. And for both of these epic battles, my homeland of Pakistan has become the epicentre – the ground zero, if you will – of either reconciliation or disaster.
© The Estate of Benazir Bhutto 2008