To mark the new year, I decided to write my first blog. 2007 has been such a painful year for Pakistan, it’s hard to know where to begin. Like many things here, I’ll begin backwards, and see how far we get.
Five days after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the country is still experiencing mass grief. I can’t ever remember sorrow on such an enormous scale, not since her father Zulfiquar Bhutto was hanged. I was only ten years old then and was in school that day. It was terrifying to see my teacher break into sobs in the middle of a class lecture, and terrifying to battle the protests on the streets to get home, only to find my family so stricken it was like returning to a home that had been overtaken by ghosts. Now I feel ten years old again except that the ghosts have multiplied.
It’s true that most people (including myself) had grown extremely disillusioned by daughter Bhutto. Her power-sharing ‘deal’ with General Musharraf – even if he subsequently ‘stepped down’ as general – severly compromised trust in her motives for returning to Pakistan, as did the United States’ role in negotiating the deal. The US has been pumping billions of dollars annually to the dictator but with its own elections looming and Musharraf’s unpopularity at home mounting, it needed an ornament of Pakistani democracy to hold up to the world in order to have a ‘legitimate’ partner in its ‘War on Terror’. Benazir was seen as playing the part of US-picked democratic ornament: what a crude finishing touch to an appalingly constructed house. Still, her death is profoundly disorienting. Like her father, she was charismatic. Like him, she could mobilise people like no other secular democratic leader. She was disappointing yet she is being mourned. There aren’t many people who can elicit both emotions at the same time.
International news channels are reporting that she was killed by Al Qaeda. There isn’t a Pakistani who agrees, except those in the government. Al Qaeda is the convenient bogeyman for both the Superpower and its allies to cover up tracks that need covering up. Her murder has to be investigated objectively, with all preconceptions shed. Last night was the first time since it happened that I switched on the television and didn’t hear either Sky News or CNN link it to religious extremists. Wow. In fact, they were showing the amateur video that has been broadcast on local TV networks for two days now, the one of the man who stood two meters away from her van as it drove away from Liaquat Bagh, with her standing out of its sun-roof, waving to her fans. The man was holding up a gun. As three shots were fired, Benazir ducked into the van. What a relief to hear international news agencies question the Pakistan government’s claim that she was not shot, but died of concussion after banging her head against a lever on the sun roof. All that blood from a concussion? What a pack of lies. When will the world stop supporting this regime and listen instead to the agony of ordinary Pakistanis?
A string of eerie coincidences. Benazir’s blood-soaked body was rushed from Liaquat Bagh to the Rawalpindi hospital, where Dr. Mussadiq Khan tried to save her life. Dr. Mussadiq Khan is the son of the doctor who received the blood-soaked body of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, back in 1951. That is how the park gets its name, Liaquat Bagh. Benazir was shot in almost the exact same spot as Liaquat Ali Khan was shot. In fact, she was shot just two kilometers from where her father was hanged. That makes three leaders or former leaders killed in virtually the same place. Dr. Mussadiq Khan’s sons are also doctors. Himself stricken by the coincidence, the doctor prays that his sons will never have to pray the same.
I didn’t get very far into 2007 after all. I wanted to talk about the lawyers, political party workers and activists who are still in jail, even after the lifting of Emergency, as well as those who’ve been released but after spending days, even weeks, in illegally detention, with no justice received. I wanted to talk about the ugly murder of Ismail Gulgee, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated artists. His wife and a maid were also found dead in their home. The tragic and gruesome deaths happened just before Eid but have been overshadowed by the train accident that happened on the same day, itself a huge calamity, and then by Bhutto’s death. I wanted to talk about some good things … like the sculpture of Shahid Sajjad, or the Puppetry Museum in Lahore, or some of the great food we ate last year, or my new book, just out. But perhaps another time. For now: Democracy. Peace. We sorely need a new year.