A BB Murder Fantasy
In the spring of 1995, for about eight months I became Benazir Bhutto’s neighbour. I rented a top floor flat in an apartment building that overlooked Bilawal House, Benazir’s Bhutto’s Karachi residence. It was named after her first-born son. I was newly married, it was my first proper apartment in Karachi, it had a huge terrace and if I really strained my neck I could get a glimpse of plastic shopping bags fluttering over Clifton beach. I was happy. When people asked me where I was moving to, I told them with the flourish of an upstart: Corniche Apartments, top floor, bang opposite Bilawal House, I can look into Benazir’s living room. That was a bit of an exaggeration, but I could see the bougainvillea that covered its boundary walls and a patch of grass in its lawns.
Soon after moving into the apartment, I walked on to the terrace one weekend and got the shock of my life when I saw a police constable standing on the rooftop. He was bending forward, trying to take a peak into my flat. I wondered about all the reasons I could have been busted for. What is happening on the roof? I asked the constable. BB sahiba is coming, he pointed towards Bilawal House? And what do you want from me? I asked. For some vague historical reason when you see Pakistani police in close proximity, you feel the opposite of secure. I am only doing my duty, he said. Can I get some water please?
Every weekend we woke up to the sounds of sirens heralding Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministerial convoy and the policemen’s boots on our rooftop. It was only a minor irritant in the beginning, but as her weekend visits to Karachi became routine and stories about her security concerns made headlines, my imagination started to run wild. It was around the same time that someone was found trying to plant a bomb in a gutter near Bilawal House. It turned out that the man’s name was Ramzi Yusuf, the same person who had tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. Nobody had heard of Al-Qaeda back then, but Yusuf’s was an impressive name. There was a worldwide hunt on for this guy and here he was in our neighbourhood, trying to scout the gutters for his next hit.
I woke up one day with a fully formed, flawless plan on behalf of her potential killers and shared it with my wife. They will come to our apartment on a Friday night, they will tie our hands behind our backs, gag our mouths and hold us hostage. They will spend the night here and when she arrives on Saturday they will shoot a couple of rockets from a shoulder-held launcher from our roof terrace. They can’t miss her. And then? My wife asked. Of course they will shoot us before they leave, I said. Wouldn’t you if you were them? Who would want to leave behind any eyewitnesses after killing a prime minister?
And what about Zucker? My wife asked, worried about our noisy little German Schnauzer who was still trying to come to terms with life in an eighth floor flat with a dodgy lift. They probably wouldn’t shoot him, I tried to reassure her.
Benazir Bhutto’s second term in office was worse than her first. She had learned from her past mistakes and stopped caring about appearances. In her first term, her husband Asif Zardari had proved to be her Achilles heel even though he held no official post. In her second term, she decided to induct him in the cabinet and made him the Minister for Environment. Mr. Ten Percent jokes had become stale by then. Now he was selling rivers, forests and air. Her government was carrying out a catch-and-kill operation against the MQM in Karachi. According to her detractors, and they are as die-hard as her supporters, her party’s slogan roti, kapra, aur makaan had transformed into ‘take the money and run.’
Her transformation from people’s Princess to pirate’s wife was swift. Journalists gleefully reported on the arrival of ponies from Argentina, private zoos in the Prime Minister House and how Zardari’s cronies were bleeding the country’s financial institutions dry. When they got bored with stories about graft and greed there was always her newfound spiritual quest to report. One month, she was visiting fortune-tellers and spiritual healers. Another, she was slaughtering black goats to fend off political intrigues.
In the words of my friend and journalist Hassan Mujtaba, the daughter of the east had become maya memsahib.
In 1995, the assassins of my deranged imagination never arrived. But there were others who first got her brother Murtaza Bhutto, less than a kilometre away from Bilawal House, and then her government was sacked on the charges of, amongst others, conspiring to kill her own brother. Her husband Asif Zardari went straight from Prime Minister House to a prison where he would spend more than eight years and according to his captors would try to commit suicide by cutting off his own tongue.
Within two years of each other we ended up in London, Benazir in political exile that would last more than eight years, myself, for more banal reasons. She came to our office in Bush House for an occasional interview. I went to some of her press conferences. Like those perennially disgruntled ex-pats we shared one trait: we kept threatening to go back.
I last saw her in a west London flat, at a press conference, shortly before she departed for Pakistan. There were more than 100 journalists crammed into the small living room of the home of her security adviser, Rehman Malik, a man who’ll go on to do as brilliant a job as the country’s interior minister as he did with Benazir’s security. She was asked questions concerning the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, about the judicial crisis in the country and about her party’s election manifesto. She did what she was best at: feeding bites to the western media in her measured but shrill voice.
She was, of course, asked about her deal with Mr. Musharraf, which was going to allow her to return without facing charges for the rampant corruption that allegedly occurred under her watch. It was a question that had become the bane of her existence.
Suddenly, her calculated, irritated voice mellowed and she spoke like the naive, passionate leader that half the nation swooned over despite all the talk of Swiss bank accounts and country estates in Surrey: I lost my father. Both my brothers were killed violently. Scores of my party workers have died in the struggle for democracy, and now our citizens are being killed indiscriminately every day. We have to stop this. And in order to stop this I’ll talk to anyone that I have to. As a journalist who had covered nothing but mayhem in Pakistan the whole year, for a moment she managed to beguile even a cynic like me.
Doing the rounds of interviews as a so-called Pakistan expert after her assassination, I tried to evoke that moment again and again without much success. The questions always reverted to similar themes: her corruption, her recklessness, how would the investigation proceed. She was mostly being blamed for her own death.
Any sudden death can tinge one’s memory and judgment, but there are certain facts about her that are conveniently ignored. Even if all the allegations about her corruption and arrogance are true, one should keep in mind that she was active in politics for 30 years, out of which she was in power only for four and a half years. The rest of the time she struggled against two of the most well entrenched military dictators in the region. Still she managed to raise three kids, took care of an ailing mother and stayed in the most notorious arranged marriage in South Asia.
The reason we don’t see very many dossiers on the financial corruption during General Zia and General Musharraf’s regimes is that when Bhutto was in power the intelligence agencies went into over drive documenting or sometimes inventing her misdemeanours. When the generals or their cronies are in power all the intelligence leaks just dry up.
The Pakistan government and the international media’s security analysts are crying themselves hoarse over how she shouldn’t have stuck her head out of the sunroof of her bullet-proof vehicle. Too arrogant and too reckless they say. To me that sounds like a clear case of blaming the victim. After all nobody accuses airline passengers of being reckless when they choose to take a plane despite all the plots to blow them up that keep getting discovered. Benazir was a self-confessed fatalist. Senator Babar Awan who was with her during the Karachi attack remembers that when her security people asked her not to step out from her bullet-proof truck to an open platform she asked a simple question: is God inside the truck and not outside it?
That Benazir Bhutto is no more is evident in the clinically efficient way the Musharraf regime has dealt with her party in the aftermath of her assassination. The People’s Party leadership wanted to take her coffin to her hometown by road, in a procession. That would have been the biggest political rally in the history of Pakistan. Instead she was put away in a waiting C130, transferred into another waiting helicopter, flown to her ancestral village and buried before hundreds of thousands of her supporters could reach there to attend the funeral. When the party leadership announced that they wanted elections to take place according to schedule, Musharraf went ahead and postponed it for six weeks, apparently giving his supporters a chance to regroup and not get wiped out in the face of a Bhutto sympathy wave. Suddenly it seems there is nobody in Pakistani politics who can argue, bargain, cajole, and cut a deal with the establishment. Benazir Bhutto could do all that and then go and sell it to her supporters like it was their own triumph.
For the purpose of those lost in the forensics’ labyrinth, or waiting for the UN inquiry report about her murder, one can point out that more than 50 years ago Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali was assassinated in the same Rawalpindi park (hence the name Liaquat Bagh) and the last I heard my colleague Mazhar Zaidi was trying to unearth the mystery by going through some recently declassified CIA documents. He remembers that even then the Pakistan government had conceded to the opposition’s demands and called in Scotland Yard experts. In our own lifetime we have seen General Zia’s plane blown up in mid air. Experts were called in from the USA, but we never found out what happened. Benazir Bhutto’s own brother was gunned down while she was the Prime Minister. Scotland Yard was called in then too, yet his murder remains a mystery. The only time Pakistan security agencies did their job was when General Musharraf was attacked. Within months his attackers were tracked down, arrested, put on trial and hanged. And the man responsible for the investigation, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, promoted to the top job in the army.
More than a decade ago, we survived as Benazir Bhutto’s neighbours. But as we watch the nightmare unfold after her death, it does feel that someone has tied our hands behind our backs, gagged us, not quite killed us, but made us promise at gunpoint that we shall never name her killers.
This article was originally published at sacredmediacow.com. It has been updated and re-published here with the author’s permission.
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