Bhutto’s Last Day, in Keeping With Her Driven Life
Before Assassins Struck Dec. 27, Pakistan’s Ex-Premier Kept Up Frenetic Pace but Also Found Time for a Prayer
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Gripping the podium with both hands, Benazir Bhutto spoke in a shout that filled the cavernous park and echoed into the streets beyond.
“Wake up, my brothers!” she implored, her trademark white shawl slipping off her head to her shoulders. “This country faces great dangers. This is your country! My country! We have to save it.”
When the former Pakistani prime minister had finished speaking, she descended from the stage and paused. She then turned, waved and kept on walking.
Inside the park, a crowd of thousands was still cheering. Outside, a pair of assassins lay in wait.
In the hours before they struck on Dec. 27, Bhutto’s day had unfolded typically — for her and for Pakistan. The pace was frenetic, the stakes were high, and the issues were familiar: extremism and democracy, militancy and the military.
Since her return from exile more than two months earlier, Bhutto had been in nearly constant motion, trying to outflank her political opponents and hoping desperately to stay one step ahead of the sniper’s bullet that, she told friends, was “always waiting for me.”
If she succeeded, she believed the reward would be a storybook comeback. She would return to her old job, and to the realm of world leaders, after eight years as a glamorous sidelight in the salons of London, New York and Washington. The country, meanwhile, would return to democracy after its own eight-year drought under military rule. It would also turn the tide against extremism, beating back the growing threat posed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But the odds, for her and for Pakistan, were long.
On the day she was killed, Bhutto was pressing ahead on two main fronts. The first was to get the message out that she believed President Pervez Musharraf’s allies planned to rig the elections scheduled for Jan. 8. On the agenda for the day was a meeting with election observers from the European Union and another with two U.S. lawmakers — Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.). At the latter meeting, scheduled for the evening, she intended to hand over a dossier of evidence that she said supported claims her party had been making for weeks that the elections would be fixed by means of ghost polling stations, voter intimidation and other irregularities.
The second front was terrorism. Bhutto met for 45 minutes that day with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the two shared their concerns about the growing danger of extremism. More than perhaps any other Pakistani politician, Bhutto had been fixated on the problem both in public and in private. She spoke about it constantly.
For her, the threat was personal. She knew there were people out to get her. And on Dec. 27, there was reason for special concern.
The day before, in the northwestern city of Peshawar, a young man carrying explosives had been detained outside the site of her rally. The man told police he had been to a wedding just before he arrived to hear Bhutto’s speech and had not had time to dispose of some leftover celebratory dynamite. Police did not believe him.
That night, Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, called from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to say he was nervous. He wanted her to stop attending the rallies and let him go in her place, sources said. She refused.
But by next morning, she was having doubts. She was due to hold a rally that afternoon in Rawalpindi, and the city made her nervous, friends said.
For one thing, it was the home of a military she had distrusted her entire life. For another, her father — former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — had died there, hanged in 1979 by the man who had overthrown him, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. And Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, had been assassinated in 1951 in the very park where her rally was to take place.
For Bhutto, who could be superstitious, those were bad omens.
More came later in the day. In the afternoon, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s supporters had been gathering on a street corner in Rawalpindi when a sharpshooter began firing from a nearby rooftop. Four Sharif activists were killed. Five others were injured. Sharif’s party quickly blamed Musharraf’s allies, alleging in interviews that they believed the attack marked the beginning of a campaign of political violence designed to scare opponents away from the polls.
But whatever her reservations, Bhutto decided to go ahead with her rally.
In the early afternoon, she huddled with her inner circle at her Islamabad home, eating a lunch of potato curry and chapati bread, said Babar Awan, a top official in Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) who had been at her side for two weeks.
Her aides were anxious, thinking ahead to the rally. But she was calm.
“She kept telling me to relax and eat,” Awan said.
The agenda for the lunch was to review the prepared text of her speech. Bhutto seemed intent on not rushing, enjoying the moment.
“She was so overly satisfied that day, so overly confident and full of jubilance,” Awan said. “She looked so beautiful that day, in all the ways that a woman like her — bright, energetic, bursting with ideas and hope — could look beautiful.”
At one point, Bhutto brought her notes for her speech to the large picture window overlooking the mountains and read them there quietly. “I call on my homeland of Pakistan to come out and fight for Pakistan’s future,” Awan said her notes read. “I’m not afraid. We cannot be afraid.”
She then prayed.
Around 3:45 p.m., Bhutto and her entourage of top party officials left in two cars for Rawalpindi.
After suicide bombers attacked her homecoming reception in Karachi on Oct. 18, killing more than 140 people, Bhutto had considered abandoning public rallies. Instead she would tape her messages and deliver them on radio or television.
That plan soon fizzled, however. Mass rallies are central to Pakistan’s political culture. For her party to have a chance, she believed, she could not forgo them.
When the time came for Bhutto to address the Rawalpindi crowd, she set her notes aside and spoke spontaneously. People who had been following her career for years said it was the most passionate they had ever seen her.
“Her speech was beautiful,” said Kamran Nazir, 19, a student and PPP activist. “It was about saving Pakistan. It was about having hope, no matter what.”
Just before dusk, Nazir followed Bhutto out to the park gates. As the crowd surged around her vehicle, he saw her head rise from the sunroof, and he saw her hand begin to wave.
Advisers had warned Bhutto not to come out of her bulletproof sport-utility vehicle on the way in and out of rallies. But she insisted.
“She said, ‘The people come with a lot of expectations and love. I can’t resist that. I need to reply,’ ” said Farzana Raja, a top PPP official who was with her that day.
The crowd — chanting “Long live Bhutto!” — was making her happy. But it was worrying Mohammad Qayyam, a local police constable who was trying to clear a path for Bhutto’s SUV while scanning the crowd for threats.
Like nearly everyone else there that day, he didn’t see the man in the sunglasses walk up to Bhutto’s vehicle and fire three shots from a handgun at close range. Nor did he see a second man, his head wrapped in a scarf, who blew himself up moments later.
All he remembers is seeing the bodies, dozens of them, suddenly scattered along the ground.
Qayyam passed out, waking up later at Rawalpindi General Hospital, the same hospital where Bhutto had been taken for emergency surgery.
Outside the operating room, a group of PPP leaders joined hands and prayed. “Please, God, let our leader be okay,” they said. “Please, God, let her survive this.”
After about 40 minutes, Awan saw a doctor, Muhammad Mussadiq Khan, who told him the surgery was still going on. Somehow, Awan didn’t believe it.
“Put me straight,” he said.
The doctor repeated what he’d said.
“That’s not true,” Awan said. “Put me straight.”
Then the doctor delivered the news that, within minutes, would reach around the globe.
“It’s all over. We did everything we could. She didn’t make it,” he said. “Benazir Bhutto has expired.”
Wednesday, January 16, 2008; A10