To a current follower of the news, that may be a simple, straightforward, headline.
But, to me, it brought forth a complex set of feelings and memories.
I grew up in Karachi, in the early 70’s. We would drive by the Bhutto residence in Clifton almost every day, en route to my aunt’s house at Sea View apartments on the ocean. My aunt’s late husband had been Director administering the Pakistani space and upper atmospheric research organization (SUPARCO) at that time.
It was during that time, just entering my teen years, that I had the chance to meet and see both Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Benazir’s late father) and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (Gaddafi/Qadhafi) during their visit to Karachi. This was around the time of the Islamic Summit that Zulfi Bhutto, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, had pulled off.
In more recent years I have met and seen charismatic people, one on one, or in group settings. But, even comparing people with awesome personalities, from Bill Clinton and Colin Powell, to Steve Jobs and others, no one has exuded charisma and sheer human magnetism as Bhutto, and even Qaddafi, did back then.
My late Mother’s best friend (like a sister to her really) also lived in a house behind the Bhutto residence, so the Bhutto name and family was quite “visible” to us going about our day to day lives. Even as the megalomaniac that Zulfiqar Bhutto was, there was none of the modern-day security cordon around his house – as people like Musharaff and even his lowly minions can’t seem to live without.
Bhutto was busy charming the Pakistani public (while destroying the economy through socialist policies), and his younger son was being groomed to take over from him some day. Benazir was a character somewhat on the political sidelines at that time.
As a young teenager, I adored Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and scorned the religious political parties that were out to oust him.
Like all great leaders, what brought down Bhutto was not the brilliance or strength of his opponents, but his own hunger for power, pride and greed. He rigged an election, that he would have easily won anyway. That set in motion events that would lead to his eventual overthrow – by his own handpicked General Zia-ul-Haq.
Bhutto had thought Zia was a puppet, but Zia was one of the most cunning people I ever met. Not only did he overthrow Bhutto, hang him for murder, but went on to rule for 11 years.
My first meeting with General Zia was as a student at Aitchison College, Lahore in the 1977-78 timeframe. He was the Chief Guest at Aitchison’s Founder’s Day annual event. Along with many others, I too had created a science project for the exhibition at that time. It was a very elementary Lie Detector Test device. It consisted of some strands of wiring wrapped around two wooden handles that a user had to grasp. As they answered, the theory was that the sweaty palms, caused by telling a lie would change the resistance of the device, making a small electrical ammeter show a deflection.
Sure enough, Zia stopped by our booth and made it to my desk. I recall how much more repulsive he was in person, even more than in his photographs. Those droopy eyes of a weak calf, that insincere laugh, that ugly visage. I was not ready to be a political prisoner (at least then) so I kept my disgust to myself.
But, it did not stop me from being a smarty-pants. Zia took the lie detector test. I am probably the only person in the world who ever gave a sitting President of a country or a dictator a lie detector test! I asked him his name and what day it was, to calibrate” the device. He played along. I asked him a couple of questions and he answered truthfully and the meter showed no deflection. Finally, I asked him, “Will you end martial law and hold elections?”
He answered, “Yes.” The ammeter literally jumped off the scale and a light came on the console, “LIE”. We all laughed, but deep in my heart, even as a 15 year old, I knew Pakistani democracy would be shedding tears for years to come.
During that time period, Bhutto’s main political heir, his younger son, died in mysterious circumstances – a suspected victim of poisoning. His older son then tried to grab the mantle, but made things worse for himself by orchestrating a terrible hijacking that backfired on his reputation. That opened the door for Benazir Bhutto to become the family’s political dynasty leader — though not without feuding for a long time with he mother, Zulfiqar Bhutto’s widow, Nusrat Bhutto.
I had the chance to meet General Zia several times over the years – and could not stand the man. I despised him for how he had raped the name of Islam (some at the behest of his American government bosses) to create a fundamentalist movement, to help create fervor against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He also used the name of Islam to crush the liberal Pakistani society into an intolerant one, where the tiny fraction of zealous fanatics could hold a whole nation hostage to their version of 1400 year old laws.
In an attempt to crush the Bhutto family’s strength in the province of Sindh, he and his henchmen of the ISI also created yet another Cancer in Pakistan – the vile and murderous MQM, or Muhajir Qaumi Movement. The goal of this organization was to terrorize Karachi, and weaken the People’s Party. The things this organization did to its victims would make Adolf Hitler and his beastly friends shudder in fear. Yes, that was what America’s friend, General Zia, was up to in Pakistan.
As a student leader, Chief Organizer of the largest independent students organization in Pakistan, called QSF (Quaid-e-Azam Students Federation) at the University of Engineering and Technology, in Lahore, I was among those who bore the brunt of this out of control Islami Jamiat Taliba (a militant student organization run by the fundamentalist, anti-democracy, pro-Zia, pro-Taliban Jamate Islami).
I met Zia once again, but very briefly – when he was Chief Guest at an annual event of my engineering school. Needless to say, this visit was arranged by the Islami-Jamiat who then ran the students union.
After one particular incident this axis of Zia and the Jamiat became even more clear. One day Jamiat students were arrested shooting at my party workers and the police raid led to about 40 of their people being arrested with hand grenades and rifles to use on my party workers. As I left my apartment that night for my own safety, I literally ran into them being brought back to their dorm rooms by state vehicles less than 8 hours after their arrests.
I barely made it out. They went inside and ransacked everything. They destroyed my dorm room as well as others. My belongings were burnt and everything of value, including supposedly un-Islamic expensive audio music systems, cameras and electronics were stolen. My copy of the Quran, given to me by my Mother in 1977, was tossed on the floor by the Jamiat thugs. They just wanted blood and loot. The Quran, with its message of peace, was just an object to toss aside.
So, much that I wanted the Soviets out of Afghanistan, I also knew what price we in Pakistan were paying. These militants, along with 6 MILLION illiterate and unlawful Afghans flooded the streets of Pakistan, bringing with them prostitution, drugs, and assault rifles for sale to anyone. Drugs and internal strife, crime and violence, tyranny and fundamentalism, were all Zia’s and Ronald Reagan’s gifts to Pakistan.
When the Soviets were defeated, as it is wont to do, America picked up its bags and left. Zia tried to cling to power, thinking he could stave off America’s now apparent interest in democracy in Pakistan. By now the US was happy to see Benazir Bhutto return from exile.
I was no fan of Benazir Bhutto, whom I only saw as running on her father’s legacy, with nothing to show for her own work. Her two times as Prime Minister proved me correct. But, at that time, I was happy to see someone coming to challenge a dictator, Zia, whose days were numbered, but who seemed intent on staying in power.
Around that time I met General Zia once again, at a State dinner with some newspaper owners. I was there with the late Mir KhaliI-ur-Rehman, the Pakistani equivalent of Rupert Murdoch. Mir sahib was the owner and founder of the Jang Group of Newspapers and legend and an institution in his own lifetime. When he introduced me to to Zia, General Zia showed no one was safe from his and his henchmen’s eyes. He said to me, “Oh, I know you, I am familiar with your work.”
The background to that comment was Benazir. I was then working directly with MKR’s younger son, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the now owner/Chairman of the Jang Group of Newspapers (and the well known and currently blocked GEO TV network).
Upon BB’s return from her exile, I was able to have one of the Jang photographers get me color photos of Benazir’s arrival at Lahore Airport – just in time for me to write a quick article and put the items on a flight to Karachi.
The materials arrived in Karachi in time for my late friend, and editor of MAG Weekly, Wahab Siddiqui, to run the photos as the cover story of MAG (literally hours after Benazir had landed) with the article I submitted.
Some things never change. Just like the corrupt dictator Musharaff is going after the media, surely enough, back then, I got a visit at home that night from “security personnel” who were there to ask how and why the pictures of Benazir’s arrival were front cover story news in Mag Weekly the next day.
I was lucky that I was not treated to the Zia Special as many of my fellow journalists were treated back then (nails pulled, beaten, tortured) but it was a good reminder that I still lived in a dictatorship. Zia’s later comment about knowing my work showed that even a “hobbyist” journalist was not beyond the range of his radar screens.
Eventually, thankfully for Pakistan, General Zia died in a plane crash — as dictators not needed by the USA anymore have a strange habit of doing. Benazir came into power — and squandered a historic opportunity to create her own legacy, do good in Pakistan, or improve the lot of women in that region.
Instead, she watched her corrupt and vile husband become “Mister Ten Percent” who took that amount in kickbacks on every government project. Around that time I had the honor of becoming the founder of Internet and email in Pakistan. My neighbor and I had co-founded and co-owned the .PK Pakistan TLD (top level domain). Apparently, Zaradari, at that time was trying to corner the market on all electronic media, from FM and TV station licenses to paging (anyone remember beepers?) and email. My neighbor and I had to stave off a great deal of pressure to relinquish control and ownership of the .PK TLD but were able to resist. Eventually, the issue fizzled away, as did Zardari. He had bigger problems to deal with.
Thanks to his corruption, and Benazir’s lack of leadership, she got thrown out of power and the game of musical chairs for leading Pakistan began.
Nawaz Sharif, another person I had known personally for a long time, became Prime Minister. From someone whom you could play Cricket with in Lahore, he became a power hungry maniac too. He had been an insignificant local politician, whom General Zia had groomed and pushed into leadership. In particular, Jang newspaper in Lahore, and our mutual friend Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, had a lot to giving him prominent coverage making him popular. I recall that Nawaz Sharif had a really favorable news story and interview appear in Jang Lahore, with a really great set of photos (taken by my old friend and colleague at that time, Abdul Qayyum). I was with Mir Shakil when Nawaz Sharif called and requested if he could be given the original slides of those pictures – that is how good the photos were.
Shakil gave the originals to me and I drove to Nawaz Sharif’s home in Model Town, Lahore, that night. He invited me in, and could not get enough of looking at his pictures. He was practically drooling. His exact words to me were, “Imran sahib, please thank Shakil sahib for me and tell him, ‘I was nothing and today you made me a national leader’.”
Of course, when Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister, he did the usual “elected dictator” things Pakistani heads of state do. He squeezed Benazir and her supporters. He and his supporters made more money (but, to their credit, at least some great things and development projects took place in Pakistan in his tenure). Of course, the expected irony and twist was how today’s populist candidate defending Pakistan’s judiciary from attacks by Musharaff, himself had his supporters attack the courts and judges to have his way. Even more ironic, the same person, today defending media freedoms, who had asked me to thank Shakil for making him a leader had, back then, squeezed Shakil and Jang any time news coverage was not to his own liking.
Such is the guaranteed, hypocritical, “Do as I say, not as I do” way of Pakistani politicians… until, of course, they are out of power, and want to be your best friends again.
In that, Benazir Bhutto was no exception. She had been an ineffective, corrupt, weak, personality-driven head of state. She sold out Pakistan’s interests in many areas, to please foreign powers. She had been a marked woman for many of those actions a decade ago but most of today’s media reports seem to ignore the background of why the militants (and some ISI people) wanted her head for a long time.
I was highly opposed to her being helped back into a side role with Musharaff in power that the Bush government was working on this year. I found it shameful that our leaders in Washington had no desire for true democracy in Pakistan. They just wanted to ensure that the dictator Musharaff stayed at the helm.
They did not care Bhutto was ineffective. They did not care she was corrupt. They did not care she would be a figurehead. All they wanted was a show of democracy. So much for sincerely wanting democracy in Pakistan. I wrote highly critical articles about Benazir’s shamelessly jumping into bed with Musharaff. But, I was horrified when she was targeted in a mass killing suicide bombing a few weeks ago, and she had my fullest support to have the right to live and move and campaign freely in Pakistan.
Alas, even critic’s good wishes, and friends’ prayers, are no match for violent axis of evil when foreign influence like the CIA, black ops like ISI and pure vile murderous bastards like AlQaeda/Taliban are cooperating/competing with each other in a dance that only brings death to innocent victims, and more slush funds to them.
I knew Benazir would be a target. Much that I did not want her in power as a fellow cohort of Musharaff, I also did not want Musharaff to get away with having her killed, directly or indirectly. But, unfortunately, that is how it was going to play out.
The irony that brings the story full circle is that while Benazir’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was not assassinated literally, as he was afraid he would be, he had written a book, “If I Am Assassinated”.
Benazir never wrote a book of that name, but her date with destiny was in the realization of her father’s book title…. perhaps her last words may have been… “I am assassinated.”
May God have mercy on her soul, and many who died alongside her. And, may God protect Pakistan and Pakistanis from the evil and beastly bastards that befell Benazir Bhutto. Amen.