Three years after Liaquat Bagh, the assassinated former Pakistani prime minister’s friend remembers Benazir Bhutto.
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n the window ledge over my computer is an artist’s rendering of Pakistan’s flag. It is flying at half mast against an angry sky and the five-pointed star‚ which represents knowledge (or light‚ depending on the definition), has fallen off‚ tumbling in space. Attached to the image is a silver bookmark‚ a present from Benazir Bhutto‚ and a little lapel pin with the familiar red‚ black and green of the Pakistan Peoples Party over a framed insert of Bhutto’s face. I look at it every day.
The winter sun was streaming into my daughter’s house in New Jersey and my little grandchildren were still opening Christmas presents when the call came in. “Have you heard the news?” said Kayce Jennings‚ widow of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings. “Benazir has been killed.” The tears that spilled down my cheeks‚ I realized even then‚ had been waiting there‚ anticipating the dreaded news. Bhutto had narrowly escaped being killed in two bomb blasts just weeks earlier on Oct. 18‚ 2007. That attack on the day she ended her self-exile from Pakistan was the country’s worst suicide bombing in terms of death toll. It left at least 149 of her supporters dead and some 400 wounded.
This time they got her. On Dec. 27‚ 2007‚ my beautiful‚ brave‚ wise‚ generous‚ intelligent and stubborn friend of 20 years was gone. And with her death‚ the best hope‚ too‚ for a stable‚ democratic Pakistan.
Over tea in New York three years ago‚ I had begged her not to go back to Pakistan to contest the elections originally scheduled for Jan. 8‚ 2008. But she was adamant. “I must‚” she said. “If democracy is not restored‚ Pakistan will slip into a radical Islamic state.” It was not long after her death that Swat valley‚ danger to which she spoke of in the last speech of her life‚ came under fundamentalist siege‚ and a new phrase—Pakistani Taliban—emerged in the Western press.
If only then-president Pervez Musharraf had provided Bhutto with adequate security‚ even after she had been so obviously targeted in Karachi on her homecoming. If only she would have had our Secret Service protecting her; but I wonder now if she would have tolerated their protocols. The U.S. Secret Service would have kept her distanced from the adoring crowds that followed her everywhere‚ and certainly would not have allowed her to stand so vulnerably through the sunroof of her SUV at Liaquat Bagh‚ Rawalpindi‚ where she was gunned down. She was famous for that sense of intimacy and had overruled her anxious advisers time and again, especially on one night-time‚ spot-lit campaign tour through Peshawar in the 1980s‚ the turf of her sworn enemy and fundamentalist warlord‚ Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. “I believe in destiny‚” she told me. “God will call me when it is my time.”
I remain convinced that it was not her time. Her “destiny‚” which we used in the U.S. title of her memoir‚ Daughter of Destiny (Daughter of the East in England)‚ was to continue the civilian democratization of Pakistan established by former prime minister and her father‚ Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. She had picked up the banner after his assassination at the hands of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. She did not carry it lightly. “What I’d really like to be is a historian and spend all day in a library reading and researching‚” she had once told me. “But I cannot abandon the people of Pakistan.”
What always struck me about her was that though she had spent her entire adult life in politics‚ she was not a politician. She was more pragmatist than ideologue‚ more generous than self-serving. I never‚ ever believed she was guilty of the corruption charges leveled against her. It was against her nature and character. And she didn’t need the money.
What I am left with are memories of our many years together‚ starting in 1986‚ when I first went to Karachi to work with her on her memoir. She was furious during our first meeting at 70 Clifton‚ the Bhutto family’s famous Karachi home. My husband and I had been robbed on the street the night before‚ our first in Karachi‚ and Bhutto was convinced General Zia was behind it. “Zia uses harassment and intimidation to silence me‚” she said in an angry voice. “He will not succeed.” I was sufficiently cowed by her anger to not point out that it was we who had been intimidated and harassed‚ not she‚ but the scene gave me an insight into her deep-seated and understandable hatred of her father’s assassin‚ and his fear of her. “Never use your name in public or on the phone. They tap our lines‚” she warned me. “If they identify you‚ they will use you to get to me.”
From the beginning she took me with her everywhere she went—to campaign; to pay condolence calls; to dinner with relatives; to Al Murtaza‚ her family’s ancestral home in Larkana. During General Zia’s martial law‚ she had been imprisoned in Al Murtaza with her mother for six months only to be rearrested and held in an isolated cell in the desert before being moved to Karachi Central Jail. It was hard for me to comprehend the suffering of this striking young woman. “The scars to the soul don’t show‚” she said.
No matter how crowded her schedule‚ she always carved out at least an hour a day to work with me‚ often early in the morning when I would sit on her bed with a tape recorder and share her breakfast. Less productive was her bizarre exercise regimen. She had read in a Western magazine that one needed to only walk briskly 20 minutes a day to stay fit and stave off weight gain‚ so back and forth we would go on the 70 Clifton lawn‚ so out of breath that work was impossible. (She clung to that 20-minute plan‚ dropping out of an exercise class and startling the trainer with her explanation while visiting me in Long Island.)
‘You must come to Pakistan for a visit‚’ Benazir wrote to me‚ ‘after all this turmoil dies down.’ Two days later‚ she was dead.
Bhutto had a fierce temper‚ which‚ mercifully‚ was never directed at me. She was incredibly focused and rarely betrayed any emotion except for anything to do with her father. The tears welled up in her eyes during a visit we made to her family’s walled burial ground at Garhi Khuda Baksh where her father is buried‚ along with her younger brother‚ Shahnawaz, who was murdered in the south of France. That simple graveyard strewn with carpets of marigolds was later transformed into a huge mausoleum and two more Bhuttos were added: Mir‚ her brother who was assassinated in Karachi; and Bhutto herself. Two generations of Bhuttos, murdered.
Friends in New York would ask if I was scared traveling so often to Karachi and being around Bhutto‚ who posed such a threat to the military regime. I never was. Her courage was infectious and General Zia’s military-intelligence vans that followed us wherever we went became just irritations. Only once did I see her worried. This was a few days before I left Karachi with her prison diaries in a briefcase. “The regime has found out your first name‚” she told me in concern. “We can only hope they haven’t found out your last name.” In the elaborate adventure that followed‚ I was picked up to go to the airport by a member of her party‚ switched into another car en route‚ was handed off to two others at the airport whom I was told to follow at a 10-feet distance‚ passed through immigration by another party member‚ then ushered to the VIP lounge while my PPP escorts kept their eyes on the door. The diaries and I made it safely back to New York.
Through it all‚ or perhaps because of it all‚ Bhutto and I became close friends‚ largely‚ I think‚ because I was an outsider. Unlike others‚ I had nothing to gain by trading snippets of news about her nor was I seeking favors or prestige because of my relationship with her.
What amazes me to this day is that she was a political dissident when we started the book and‚ totally unexpectedly‚ prime minister by the time we finished it. Our friendship went on for another 20 years. I saw her every fall in New York where‚ along with other heads of state‚ she came to the United Nations. We met at the Waldorf Astoria during the years she was in office and at her mother’s sister’s apartment the years she wasn’t. During one of her years in power‚ I took my teenage daughters to Pakistan where we stayed at the prime minister’s guesthouse in Islamabad. Bhutto was pregnant with her first daughter and worried about how to lose the weight she had gained. Over dinner my older daughter told her about the diet she had recently been on and Bhutto enthusiastically wrote down the plan she had followed. “Thank you so much‚” she said to my dazzled daughter. “You have saved my life.”
In the end, of course‚ no one saved her life. I never thought Bhutto would manage to live out a normal lifespan‚ but her violent death came much too soon. I didn’t follow carefully the details of the aftermath because I knew they would be politically skewed and raise more questions than provide answers. Bhutto was as powerful a presence in death as she was in life. What did emerge clear and unbiased from a U.N. investigation in 2010 was the complete failure of Pakistan’s government at the time to afford her the protection she needed and asked for. And that is as suspicious as it is unforgiveable.
None of this will bring her back. Hospitals and airports may have been named after her in Pakistan‚ but her clear‚ rallying voice has been silenced. She was a woman of courage‚ conviction and commitment and I admired her as much as I treasured her friendship. I read and reread the e-mails we sent each other after she went back to Pakistan that last‚ fatal time. One of them is particularly poignant. “You must come to Pakistan for a visit‚” she wrote me‚ “after all this turmoil dies down.” Two days later‚ she was dead.
Francke is a former Newsweek editor. From our Dec. 27, 2010, issue.