Military history

CHAPTER 14

HIGHWAY TO HELL

As the lawyers danced, the Red Mosque boiled. The mosque-and-madrassa compound increasingly resembled an Islamic militant training camp in the heart of Islamabad, a city known more for its ability to incite sleep than jihad. Young men patrolled the high walls carrying long sticks. They burned piles of threatening videos like Free Willy because they were supposedly against Islam. Young female students, referred to as “ninjas” because of their all-encompassing black garb, kidnapped alleged prostitutes and dragged them to the compound for deprogramming. The Red Mosque’s leaders talked of Islamic law, of all-out war.

The government threatened to shut down the Red Mosque; the Red Mosque clerics threatened holy war.

But this was no simple story. Some of the savviest Pakistanis I knew believed that the establishment had engineered this militant uprising in the capital to divert everyone’s attention from the chief justice’s movement—especially in the West, easily distracted by militants waving shiny things. The brothers who ran the Red Mosque were certainly old friends of the ISI, since the time of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

So two groups vied for the nation’s attention—the lawyers and the zealots. The lawyers said the spy agencies created the zealots. The zealots said they were defending Islam.

In the middle of that tug-of-war of July 2007, as the lawyers and the zealots threatened to pull Pakistan apart, I decided to go on vacation. I figured I could get away with a short trip to Greece. I was so very wrong. Within those two weeks, everything would be over. Kind of.

First, Pakistani security forces stormed the Red Mosque compound. More than a hundred and fifty people, including women and children, were killed. One head cleric, who had always been a charming host to foreign journalists, died violently. His more elusive brother was arrested when he tried to sneak out the back in a clever disguise: a burqa. If this raid were an attempt to distract the country from the chief justice controversy, it would have devastating consequences. Islamic militants and many ordinary Pakistanis didn’t just see some kind of elaborate, duplicitous plot gone wrong. They saw Pakistani security forces purposefully killing Muslims inside a religious compound—an act that some felt demanded vengeance.

Sitting on the Greek island of Santorini, I didn’t know about any of the fallout yet. I just knew I was missing the action. I also knew I’d never make it back to Pakistan in time, not with a ferry ride, a long drive, and fires nipping at the edge of Athens. As I fretted, more news landed. The country’s supreme court reinstated Chaudhry as chief justice—a slap in Musharraf’s face and an indication that the pushback to his regime was not going away.

As soon as I could make it back to Islamabad, I tried to play catch-up. I talked to a top medical official, who spun a story about all the children killed at the Red Mosque and buried in a nearby field. He told me that hundreds of deaths had been hidden, and spoke cryptically about how they had died. I sipped my sweet milky tea and decided to cut through the conspiracy drama. I asked my test question, the one that I had started using in Pakistan regularly.

“So … do you think any Jews were killed in the World Trade Center?”

He looked at me. The switch in topic was dramatic.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think so.”

I stood up. “I’m out of here. You’ve lost all credibility.”

Shocked, he tried to explain himself.

“If Jews died, why don’t they put it on the Internet? Why don’t they name all the Jews who died on a website? Then I’d believe it.”

“You want the Jews to make a list of the dead. Seriously, that’s what you want?”

“Yes.”

“Right after 9/11, I talked to the families of dozens of Jews who died. You’re educated. You’re a doctor.” I turned to leave.

“Maybe you should put up a website,” he said. “Maybe you should make a list.”

I reached back and grabbed a cookie, eating it on the way out the door. The entire interview lasted ten minutes.

My patience had frayed. I was slightly sad to be back here, lonely in Islamabad, a city that didn’t have nearly as crazy a social scene as Kabul. But despite living in the region for more than three years, longer than most correspondents lasted in this South Asian sweatshop, I wanted to stay. Just a little longer, I kept telling myself. I wanted to see how the story ended, even if I had to live in Islamabad, a manufactured capital built in the 1960s with wide boulevards, lots of grassy medians, and the vibe of Sacramento on tranquilizers. People joked that Islamabad was a thirty-minute drive from Pakistan. A former U.S. ambassador once quipped that Islamabad was half the size of Arlington National Cemetery and twice as dead. A group of us invented our own fun. We dressed up for parties at embassies. On Fridays, we dropped by the UN club or restaurants at the two top hotels in town, the Serena and the Marriott. But meeting anyone new or seeing anything surprising was about as likely as Shakira touring the tribal areas. One night our table of eight was the only one at a restaurant called Riffi’s, which blasted “The Girl from Ipanema” repeatedly. That was entertainment.

Regardless, while in Greece, I had decided to move to Islamabad. Maybe then I could unravel Pakistan. With another correspondent recently moving to India, I was also superfluous. And I was tired of being a woman without a home, who theoretically lived in New Delhi but was never there. An Afghan refugee had spent more time in my apartment this year than I had. In Pakistan, at least, I knew I would be home more. I envisioned nesting.

And I had Samad in Islamabad—a driver I had found in the spring of 2006, a young man of about twenty who was as skinny as a coat hanger and as efficient as a Japanese train. He wore sweater vests and hipster rectangular glasses and had no beard, even when he was living in his car-rental agency because his brother had kicked him out of the house for not paying enough rent. I trusted him so much that I gave him my bank card and the code to my account—or maybe I was just that lazy. Samad called me “boss.” Often he wouldn’t look me in the eye—he looked down at the ground, his hands clasped behind his back. This was part of the country’s class system, most likely a hangover from the caste system of India or the deference paid to the British. Like other foreigners, I tried to establish a more egalitarian workforce. I sat in the front seat next to Samad instead of in the back. We played a game whenever he parked. I would grab my bag and try to open the car door. He would run around the car and try to open my door first. Samad would also follow me, picking up the crumpled money that fell out of my purse, occasionally the forgotten passport. Samad was as prepared as a new father. He had stocked his trunk with lemon juice, vinegar, bandannas, and cheap Speedo swimming goggles, defensive weapons against tear gas. Without Samad, I was a mess. With him, I almost functioned. He was the closest person I had to a Farouq here.

I figured I would lead a cloistered life in Islamabad, given the lack of options. But at a press conference with one of many visiting U.S. officials in the basement of the Serena, I noticed a reporter I hadn’t seen before. Blue eyes, graying hair, a beard. I wondered who he was, and in Islamabad, it didn’t take long to find out. The following weekend, at a party at the Australian embassy, I spotted him talking to mutual friends. Fueled by the courage of whiskey and sodas and a short black skirt, I introduced myself to him, shortly after realizing that I was dancing sexy in a circle of women, which was fine but not the message I was trying to send.

“So I just realized I was dancing in a circle of women,” I said, master of the pickup line. “I figured I’d rather introduce myself to you.”

Sitting in the grass and watching everyone else dance, Dave and I talked for more than an hour about the horrors of Islamabad, the pressures of work. He rode a motorcycle, spoke three languages, and planned to quit his journalism job soon to write a book in Afghanistan. I could have interpreted that as an adrenaline addiction. I chose to see it as passion. From the beginning I thought Dave could be the answer to the question of work-life balance. A reporter like me, who liked to live overseas like me, who liked adventure like me. All this ran through my head in thirty seconds. Within days, we settled into an easy romance—curry egg sandwiches in the morning, occasional episodes of Fawlty Towers in the afternoon, motorcycle rides in the evening to the only Italian joint in town that served wine. Then, of course, we had our date at a riot, where we dodged tear gas, rocks, and lawyers, me limping because I had dislocated a pinky toe on a piece of furniture while railing about Musharraf. As usual, work overshadowed everything. Soon the political landscape would make it even worse.

Rumors swirled about a potential power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister who had been in exile for eight years. Since her early popularity, her reputation had been stained, particularly because of credible claims of corruption against her and her husband. But even in exile, Bhutto was the most popular civilian leader in the country, maybe because of the lack of options. The Americans and the British had pushed a Bhutto-Musharraf deal, seeing it as a way to bring stability to Pakistani politics. That way, the government would have a civilian face and the West would still have its favorite military strongman. Pakistan could then focus on what the West saw as crucially important—the war on terror.

The pieces of the deal fell into place. Bhutto announced her return. Musharraf signed a controversial ordinance granting amnesty to Bhutto, her husband, and the hundreds of other politicians facing pending criminal charges. The next day, the parliament overwhelmingly elected Musharraf president, more democracy in action.

On October 18, we waited with the sweaty masses near the airport in Karachi. Bhutto, the woman of the people, had tried to balance her need for security with her need to shake hands. A large armored truck had been fitted with a platform, railing, and bulletproof screen on the top so Bhutto could stand outside but still be protected. Dozens of unarmed Bhutto supporters wearing T-shirts that said they would die for her planned to surround her bus. Their actual role was left unsaid—these volunteers were human shields, expendable. The government had provided little security, indicating that any deal between Bhutto and Musharraf was shaky. Barricades had been set up, but they were as substantial as Tinkertoys. Rabid fans pushed back a police line near the airport, flooding inside. No one was searched.

To get out of the crush of people, Dave, another friend, and I climbed onto the roof of a colorful Pakistani jingle truck, painted with fluorescent scenes of Pakistan—pink trees, purple skies. On a wooden platform just above the driver, we watched the crowd of tens of thousands swell.

Eventually Bhutto was whisked out of the airport and into her truck. She soon swept onto the platform in a green salwar kameez and a white gauzy headscarf, waving gracefully. Chaos, clapping, cheering, screaming. I was happy I wasn’t in the crowd. A kind of fervor, a lunging, hungry fever spread down below, with people lurching toward the T-shirts near the bus, trying to get close to their queen. But the scene was also joyful, seen from above, and as usual, the Pakistanis started dancing to their own inner music. Bhutto treated the bulletproof screen like a nuisance and leaned over the railing instead. We rode along with the convoy for about five hours, or less than a mile, before climbing down, near our hotel, and going inside to write. Like everyone else, I wanted to file a story, sleep for a few hours, and join the convoy in the early morning.

After writing, Dave and I checked the news, set the alarm, and fell into bed before midnight, still wearing our clothes. Then my cell phone rang. A close friend.

“What?” I said.

“A bomb, turn on your TV,” she said, sounding panicked.

I turned on CNN. Nothing.

“Are you sure it was a bomb? It’s not on CNN.”

“That’s what they’re saying.”

She told me to check a Pakistani station. I did, and saw the first images of an explosion, of flames and carnage. I groaned.

“Gotta go.”

Dave and I looked at each other, sighed, ran to the lobby, and begged and bribed our way into a taxi. No driver wanted to go near Bhutto’s convoy or any explosion—rumors were already spreading. The cab dropped us blocks away, and we ran toward the sirens. Bhutto’s truck sat there, surrounded by mangled car parts, people with bloody salwar kameezes, police. I saw friends and body parts, and pulled out my notebook and started taking notes. Dave and I split up. The scene was a free-for-all, no police tape, no sense of preserving evidence. A police officer called me over. He lifted up a white sheet, to show me a head.

“Bomber,” he said.

Over the years my notebook had become my insulation. Around such destruction, such death, I simply took notes. I could deal with it emotionally later, but right now, I had to work.

“Head,” I wrote. “Possibly bomber.”

I wandered around, talking to people, eventually deciding to climb the ladder on the back of Bhutto’s truck to see what was there. The police escorted me as if I were an investigator. On the deck of the truck, I saw blood, shrapnel, pieces of twisted metal. A Bhutto supporter showed me bullet dings in the bulletproof screen, insisting that someone was shooting at the truck when the bomb—or bombs, no one was certain—exploded.

Tired, I grabbed the railing of the truck, and felt something wet. I froze for a few seconds, not wanting to look down. Finally I glanced, realizing what I had done. I swallowed and looked at my left hand, wondering what I should do now. I wiped my hand on my jeans, then wrote in my notebook: “Pieces of people on the railing of truck.” More than a hundred and forty people had died, including many who had sworn to give their lives for Bhutto, who was unharmed. I had seen more death—the tsunami, two different earthquakes. But I could somehow understand natural disasters. This was a human disaster, and I couldn’t make sense of the hate. We flagged a ride back to the hotel from a man named Mujahid. I walked quickly to the lobby bathroom, pulled off my tennis shoes, and yanked hand towels off the roller as fast as I could, pumping soap onto them and drenching them in hot water. Then I scrubbed my shoes, trying to get the paper towels into the grooves of the soles, trying to clean them. I cried as the water ran pink, then clear. I shut off the water, looked in the mirror, dabbed my eyes, and walked back to the hotel room in my socks. I dropped my shoes outside the door, next to my boyfriend’s. I went inside to write.

Looking back, if my adrenaline addiction had a rock bottom, this was it—wiping my bloody hand on my pants, scrubbing the blood of strangers off my shoes, pushing away the tears so I could write a story. Years later, I realized that never again would I get this close to a bomb scene, never again would I report inside the perimeter, because never again would I want to. But at the time, a mark of how far down the rabbit hole I had fallen, I saw it as just another tragedy I needed to stuff in the growing box in the back of my head. Shut the top and move on.

The next days were a blur. Of going to the morgue and seeing people try to identify family members from limbs, and smelling that peculiar, unmistakable stench of death—sweet but overripe, overwhelming but still unable to cover the something rotten beneath. Of sobbing family members, hair-pulling grief. Of squeezing past angry crowds to slide into Bhutto’s compound.

Bhutto decided to meet with a few foreign reporters, but after years in exile, she miscalculated the new vibrant national press, who saw it as a major insult that Bhutto was favoring foreign journalists. As we waited for Bhutto, Pakistani reporters pushed inside and started arguing. Bhutto tried to calm everyone down. An old woman shoved her way into the room, grasping at Bhutto. There seemed to be no security, no real attempt to protect her. The old lady was hustled out, the bickering continued.

At one point, bored, I rolled my eyes and made faces at friends standing on the other side of the room. Unfortunately, I was standing next to Bhutto, and the Associated Press chose that moment to take a picture. My eyes bugged out of my head, as did my hair. I looked like a cartoon character. It was, most definitely, the worst photograph ever taken of me in my life. It would run in newspapers around the world, and I would hear from people I hadn’t talked to in years, asking what had happened to me overseas.

But now, oblivious, I sat down to the right of Bhutto and introduced myself.

“I interviewed you on the phone once.”

She nodded. “Of course, I remember you, Kim.”

She introduced herself to everyone, and we were all instantly smitten. Up close, Bhutto didn’t show all of her fifty-four years. She still had ink-black hair, a regal narrow nose, a crooked smile, and only a few wrinkles around her eyes. She wore a gauzy white headscarf that she used like a prop—it would slip back on her head or her shoulders, and she would gracefully put it back in place. We all knew about her cynicism, about the deal she had made with a dictator. But Bhutto had that power that only the rare leader does—to make every person feel like the most important one in the room.

After a few days, I flew back to Islamabad and waited for the next bomb, the next fracture in this fractured country. Dave flew to England, where I planned to meet him soon for a well-earned vacation. I chose to ignore rumors that Musharraf was contemplating declaring an emergency. If I paid attention to every rumor in Pakistan, I’d never sleep.

One morning I popped awake at 6:30 with a stabbing sensation in the middle of my upper back. I couldn’t turn my head. I felt as if there had been a crank in the middle of my back, and it had been turned and turned, until at one point, something snapped. In tears, I called Samad, who picked me up and rushed me to the hospital. I called a friend to meet me there, just before being dumped in a bed and injected with drugs. Woozy, drowsy, I vaguely noticed a team of men and women in white coats surrounding me. One, with a long, fundamentalist beard and no mustache, asked if he could take my pulse. An Islamic fundie. I could recognize one anywhere, even when I was high.

“Yes, fine,” I whispered.

Before I knew it, he had unzipped my jeans and started feeling for the pulse in my groin. This man would probably never even shake my hand, but here he was, grabbing around inside my pants. The crowd leaned forward to look. I was in so much pain and on so many painkillers, I barely registered the many easier places to check a pulse. My friend showed up, just in time to add some modicum of decency to the nurses’ decision to check my breasts.

“What is going on here?” she announced, pulling the drapes closed. “Who’s in charge?”

“I have no idea,” I replied.

I never saw the fundie again, and the doctors shot me up with enough drugs so I no longer cared. But I clearly needed a break. I needed to be left alone, to sleep for a month. Once my pinched nerve subsided, I hopped on a plane for London. Unfortunately, it was November 3, 2007. It would be the shortest vacation of my life.

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