Military history

CHAPTER 15

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN

Iwalked off the plane exhausted but excited. Finally, I would be able to relax with Dave. Finally, we could do couples’ things we had never experienced in Pakistan, radical activities like holding hands in public. Finally, we could see what was between us.

But as soon as I spotted Dave in Heathrow, I knew something was wrong. He wore a sad smile and patted me like he was putting out a fire.

“What? What happened?”

“I’m sorry, babe. Musharraf just declared an emergency.”

I felt as if someone had kicked me in the head.

“No. No. I can’t.”

“You can. You have to,” he said.

I felt sorry for us, sorrier for Pakistan. Every month seemed to bring a fresh crisis, a new attempt to drive the country into a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour. Musharraf had suspended the constitution, actually fired Chief Justice Chaudhry instead of just suspending him, suspended the country’s other independent top judges unless they signed a new oath, and placed them all under house arrest, blocking off the entire judges’ enclave with riot police, barricades, and barbed wire. In a hilarious justification, Musharraf said he declared the emergency because of the increased threat of Islamic militants and interference by the judiciary. It seemed much more likely that Musharraf wanted to preempt an expected ruling by the supreme court that would have tossed out his recent reelection.

The country’s security services started rounding up the bad guys. No, not the nefarious Islamic miscreants Musharraf usually complained about. Instead, the tin men hauled away thousands of lawyers, opposition politicians, and human-rights activists. From London, I frantically called people in Pakistan—some talked in hushed tones because they had already been detained. Others talked, but by the end of the day, their phones just rang incessantly or not at all. Tammy went into hiding.

By the next day, I was back on a plane, bound for Islamabad.

Musharraf’s extreme action provoked some allies to finally turn against him—at least somewhat. The Dutch government suspended aid. Britain announced it would review its aid package. The European Union said its members were considering the dreaded “possible further steps.” President George W. Bush told reporters in the Oval Office that the United States wanted elections as soon as possible, wanted Musharraf to strip off his uniform, and wanted to work with Musharraf “to make it abundantly clear the position of the United States.”

“We made it clear to the president that we would hope he wouldn’t have declared the emergency powers he’s declared,” Bush said. “And at the same time, we want to continue working with him to fight these terrorists and extremists.”

As always, America’s relationship with Pakistan was all about the terrorists. Meanwhile, Musharraf met with foreign ambassadors in Islamabad and tried to justify himself. He said he was committed to completing the transition from military rule to democracy, a three-phase process he had yammered on about for years, and said the top judges in Pakistan had “paralyzed various organs of the state and created impediments in the fight against terrorism.” Musharraf figured that he just had to wave a terrorist bogeyman at the Western countries to get their support. Usually it worked.

His actions raised a major question: What would Bhutto do? She remained fairly quiet at first, obviously hoping to preserve her power-sharing deal. But it soon became clear that Bhutto had to do something—she had to distance herself from the military ruler or risk her entire political base. So she announced a rally for that Friday in neighboring Rawalpindi—symbolically important for her, the army-garrison town where her father had been hanged by General Zia twenty-eight years before.

Early on the morning of the scheduled rally, the show unfolded. Bhutto was placed under house arrest in Islamabad. Dozens of journalists waited near the concrete barriers, barbed wire, and hundreds of government security forces outside her house. The scene would have been funny to watch from above—one journalist heard a rumor that Bhutto was supposed to speak at one spot, and sprinted down the block. The rest of the herd followed, running, holding cameras and notepads, and dropping samosas and pakoras and other fried food. Then another journalist talked quietly on a cell phone and started running, and we all followed in another direction. At one point, two friends and I just started running, to see if everyone followed. They did.

Twice, Bhutto tried to leave her house unsuccessfully. She then gave an impromptu press conference from her bulletproof white SUV, ringed by cops, just on the other side of the barrier. She stood up inside the vehicle, speaking against Musharraf from the open sunroof, an image that would later haunt me.

Musharraf soon ended his temper tantrum. After years of promises, he finally stepped down as army chief. Weeks later, he ended emergency rule, restored the constitution, and announced that he believed emergency rule had saved his country. Case closed.

But damage had been done, and not just to the country’s institutions. While the government was distracted, the militants had gained strength. Largely reacting to the siege on the Red Mosque months earlier, more had vowed revenge against the Pakistani government, instead of just attacking foreign troops and Afghan security forces across the border in Afghanistan. A neo-Taliban group in the South Waziristan tribal agency had been blamed for the attack on Bhutto’s homecoming parade. (Soon the group would be dubbed the Pakistani Taliban.) Two suicide bombers blew themselves up at almost the same time, near ISI targets in Rawalpindi, the seat of the military’s power—an indication of how strong the militants were growing. In Peshawar, the capital of the beleaguered North-West Frontier Province, which bordered Afghanistan and the lawless tribal areas, bombs had started exploding, small ones, outside video shops, seen as un-Islamic and full of Western propaganda. The senior superintendent of police in Peshawar told me that he was exasperated with what had happened in the previous year.

Then his phone rang. Another bomb, carried by a woman, had just blown up near the local ISI office.

“Please excuse me,” he said, standing up. “I have to go.”

The militants, largely a creation of the omnipotent ISI and the Pakistani military, were now blowing back on their creators like a version of Frankenstein. But still, knowing the truth was practically impossible; Bhutto blamed the establishment for her homecoming attack, not militants. And many Pakistanis blamed India for all the bombs—with, of course, no proof. The double game was practically a quadruple game.

I took breaks when I could, sometimes staring at a wall. I celebrated the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha with Samad’s mother, father, sister, and various cousins, eating a goat sacrificed for the occasion. Every time I visited his tiny apartment, his mother treated me like royalty, kissing me on my cheeks, pinching me, laughing at me. Her gray hair was always colored with bright orange henna; she continually tried to talk to me in Urdu, finally falling back on the few Urdu words I seemed to remember.

“Samad ganda,” she said, laughing. That meant “Samad dirty,” completely untrue, but always funny. While we ate, a bomb exploded at a mosque near the tribal areas, killing more than fifty worshippers.

Too much death. I was homesick and lonely. After our abrupt vacation, Dave had returned to Islamabad, wrapped up his job, and departed for Afghanistan to launch his new project. I hunted for some Christmas spirit, helping a friend buy sugar, flour, and tea for care packages for Afghan refugees. But when Samad drove us to the refugee camp in Islamabad, everyone started fighting as soon as they spotted our bounty. Desperate for help, the women and children surrounded us, grabbing bags of goodies out of our hands, grabbing our hands. We shimmied our way back into the car. They pounded on the windows. We barely made an escape without running over a child.

“That did not make me feel good at all,” I said.

My friend, the same one who had rescued me from the hospital breast grab, who spent weeks planning this act of charity, just looked out the window.

I tried to convince my bosses to let me go to the States for the holidays.

“What could happen between Christmas and New Year’s?” I asked.

My boss sat silently on the other end of the phone, letting me fill in the blanks. The earthquake in Iran, the tsunami in Asia?

“OK, fine,” I said. “Something could happen. But given all that’s happened this year, what are the chances?”

“You can’t leave Pakistan,” he said. “I’m sorry. I know you’re tired. But we can’t take the chance.”

“Can I go to Karachi?”

He finally agreed. Tammy lived in Karachi, the port metropolis that actually had culture, restaurants, and grit, as opposed to the sterile capital. She had invited me to spend the holidays with her family. Over the past seven months, Tammy had become one of my closest friends, even though she was superficially my opposite. She had thick long black hair—the kind people pay to turn into wigs—and pale skin, and wore designer jewelry that often matched her delicate shoes. Her hair was always perfect; her outfits were always perfect; her nails and makeup were always perfect. Tammy was a member of the elite in Pakistan, the daughter of a former cricket hero, the sister of a man who ran one of the country’s largest stock exchanges, the sister-in-law of a media mogul. She attended one of the same elite Pakistani private schools as Benazir Bhutto. Tammy, however, was far more than she appeared. A former New York corporate lawyer, she now hosted a talk show on her brother-in-law’s TV station and wrote columns for the English newspaper The News. She used her celebrity and intellect to whip up support for the lawyers’ movement against Musharraf, even though both her brother and brother-in-law liked Musharraf. Conversations at the family’s dinner table were often bitter disagreements about the country’s future. Watching them was the Pakistani version of Crossfire.

Regardless of any political disputes, Tammy’s family was warm and welcoming to anyone who entered her realm. Her mother and father immediately embraced me like a daughter, inviting me to stay whenever I wanted. Their art collection rivaled that of museums; their generosity rivaled that of anyone I ever met. Through Tammy’s family, I had a window into the upper class of Pakistan, the movers and shakers who ate elaborate dinners at midnight and would never think of receiving guests without offering delicate crustless sandwiches, various deep-fried packets, and sweet milky tea. Yet unlike many of the movers, who believed that the country’s economic future rested with Musharraf, Tammy was passionate about the need for a functioning legal system. Tammy counseled me repeatedly to hold my temper with the ass grabbers; she navigated countless reporting trips for another close friend and me; she dodged tear gas and rocks at lawyers’ protests in Islamabad, running from danger in high heels.

Tammy’s family, although Muslim, saw nothing wrong with observing Christmas, as did other moderates, since Jesus Christ is considered to be a major figure in Islam. As soon as my boss gave me the go-ahead I immediately flew to Karachi. I ate a lot of food, walked down a beach, and touched my first actual Christmas tree in four years. I relaxed.

Two days after Christmas, Tammy and I prepared for the shooting of the TV reality show Enter the Prime Minister, where Pakistanis could vote on their favorite candidate for prime minister. It was like American Idol meets C-SPAN, reality TV for political junkies, only possible in a politically obsessed country like Pakistan. Tammy was a judge. I planned to write a story. So I packed a backpack—my computer, a notebook, two cell phones. I didn’t bother to bring my power cords, as I planned to be back at Tammy’s house in a few hours. Unfortunately the show was as scintillating as static. At one point, bored and concerned about how I would ever make a reality show about politics interesting, I checked the news wires. Somebody had fired shots at a rally of Nawaz Sharif, who like Bhutto had just returned from exile. I worried that I was in the wrong place, out of position again.

During a break in filming, I told Tammy and the show’s other participants about the attack. A few crowded around my computer. Then I checked the Pakistan news again. This time a breaking-news bulletin flashed an attack on Bhutto’s rally in Rawalpindi, although the former prime minister was safe. Most of the high-powered people on the TV show were friends of Bhutto, and they started making calls. The head of Pakistan’s human-rights commission soon received a text message saying that Bhutto had been wounded. Minutes ticked by, all confusion. Then Bhutto’s longtime friend from the human-rights commission answered a phone call. She cried out and hung up.

“She’s gone.”

Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the East, had been killed at a rally a few miles from where her father had been hanged, as she stood and waved out the sunroof of her white SUV. Maybe a bomb, maybe a gunshot, the conspiracy machines were already spinning. Like the country, I found this impossible to process. But I had no time. Events soon overtook even her death. Tammy and I looked at each other; she had been frustrated with Bhutto’s willingness to make a deal with Musharraf, but she still saw Bhutto as a preferable alternative to the military. Almost immediately, Tammy started to cry.

“This is very bad,” she said. “It will rip this country apart.”

She needed to visit Bhutto’s relatives and friends, so I rode with her to the home of one, a cousin. The receiving room was elegant, chandeliers and wooden furniture. Everyone hugged and sobbed. I was the stranger, the lone non-Pakistani, the lone journalist, the other. At one point, I slid out my notebook, figuring I should write something down. Tammy glanced at me and shook her head. Her message was clear: This was not the place, and I should have known better. She soon sent me off in a carload of people from the TV show toward the Pearl-Continental Hotel, where they were staying.

“You can grab a cab home from there,” she said. “I need to stay.”

But the turbulent city of Karachi was Bhutto’s home, and it was catching fire. As darkness fell, young men threw rocks at the Saudi embassy; others set fire to tires in the middle of intersections. Already Pakistanis marched with flags of Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and yelled “Bhutto lives!” Some fired guns in the air. In my car, crammed with seven people, one woman threw a scarf around my head.

“Cover yourself,” she said. “You’re an American. You never know what will make these guys angry. It’s very volatile.”

Eventually we made it to the Pearl-Continental. I called Tammy.

“You’ll never make it back tonight,” she said. “They’re already rioting. Cars are on fire. The neighborhood has been sealed off.”

I was in poor shape. The hotel was sold out. I had no computer plug and only about thirty minutes of battery power remaining. I had two cell phones—but each was close to running out of batteries. I camped out in the business center, writing a story on a hotel computer. Eventually the hotel manager found a last-minute vacancy, a suite that cost slightly less than $400. I jumped at it.

By 3 AM I was asleep. I woke up early the next day, trying to figure out a plan. Bhutto would be buried that day, near Larkana, her ancestral home, a short flight from Karachi. Tammy called and told me a special plane was taking journalists and relatives to the funeral. She gave me the name of a party official; he told me the plane was leaving in fifteen minutes.

“I don’t think you’ll make it,” he said.

But nothing ever left on time in Pakistan, and on this morning, fearful of what could happen, no one was yet on the road. The highway, normally a parking lot that constantly vexed me, was empty, and the taxi sped to the airport at fifty miles an hour. On the sides of the road, cars were piled together, all burned-out husks, still smoking. I tried to count them, but lost count around a hundred. After the taxi pulled up in front of the airport terminal, I sprinted for the door. I bought one of the last two tickets for the plane, rushed through security, and then ran to the gate. Somehow I made it.

Then I contemplated my decision. I had no fixer. I had no phone chargers, no computer charger. I had only the clothes on my back—a black-and-white slightly ripped long-sleeved shirt that barely covered my rear, and baggy black pants. I had not showered. I was not fit for a funeral. I called Tammy.

“There’s no way we can get out to send your stuff,” she said. “You’ll figure it out. Just find something to cover your hair.”

“OK,” I said.

“Oh and one last thing,” she said. “If anyone pinches or grabs you, don’t yell or punch them. It’s a funeral. You have to stay calm.”

“Yeah. Calm. Right.”

Luckily a friend from the Guardian was on the same plane. Unfortunately, he had a different computer and a different phone. He and I were the only foreign journalists on this trip because we were the only two who happened to be in Karachi when Bhutto was killed. We flew to a town called Sukkur and were picked up by trucks and vans to drive to the funeral, about an hour away. With a police escort, we moved quickly, past smoldering gas stations and cars and banners that said WELCOME, BENAZIR. The air smelled like burning tires.

We stopped at Bhutto’s family home. Her wooden coffin, draped in the green, red, and black flag of her party, was slid into the back of an ambulance. People clutched at the coffin and ran after the ambulance, crying. Our convoy then pushed on toward the mausoleum Bhutto had built for her father and two brothers, who also died violent deaths. We stopped when we hit the crowds, climbing out of our van to walk across the desert toward the white tomb, which resembled a cut-rate version of the Taj Mahal. Thousands of Pakistanis also trudged toward the tomb, waving the flag of Bhutto’s party, beating their chests. They came by tractor, by hanging off the back of buses or trucks, by foot. Men held up posters of Bhutto and notes she had written them. Women sobbed, clutching at me. Angry young men held guns and long bamboo sticks and vowed revenge.

Pakistanis practicing English tried to talk to me. I asked one to help get something to cover my hair—he quickly procured a large piece of dark red, blue, and white material, which I wrapped over my head and chest. I walked around, talking to people who spoke English. The funeral started. The prayer of the dead was read outside, and men held their palms to the sky. At least, most of them did. Sure enough, in the middle of the prayer, someone pinched me. I spun around, mindful of what Tammy had warned, quietly outraged.

“Here?” I whispered. “At a funeral?”

But one of my broken-English pals had seen what had happened.

“Don’t worry, sister,” he whispered.

He linked arms with some friends, who formed a human protection chain. Together we walked around, and no other hands got through. I wondered where the reporters who had chartered a plane from Islamabad were, but I couldn’t call them—the Pakistani government’s one nod to security was blocking all calls in the area. Nobody checked for weapons or bombs. No government official trekked here, and the funeral hardly befitted a former head of state. Instead the funeral was probably how Bhutto would have wanted it—a public, messy, spontaneous outpouring of grief, not necessarily for the leader she was but for the leader she aspired to be.

A hole had been cut in the white marble floor next to Bhutto’s father’s grave. The ambulance backed inside the shrine, and supporters threw rose petals as her coffin, simple and wooden, was pulled out. Bhutto’s husband and son, who had flown to Pakistan after she was killed, helped lower her into the ground. They threw handfuls of sandy soil on top, helped by supporters. Slowly the coffin and Benazir Bhutto disappeared from view. She was gone. The country burned.

We eventually hitched a ride to the hotel where the other foreign journalists were staying—the chartered plane had made it to the nearest airport in time for the funeral, but the journalists had not been able to find a ride. The sold-out hotel was the only one not set on fire the previous night. It was decrepit. The pool was filled with trash and dead leaves—a BBC correspondent, talking on her phone while walking with her computer, accidentally fell in. A friend from the Washington Post loaned me his computer cord and a phone charger, and said we could stay in his room. His kindness was rewarded. When he went to the bathroom, someone flushed the toilet in the room above, which leaked on him below.

About 4 AM, after finishing my third story of the night, I shoved the Guardian reporter to one side of a mattress on the floor and laid down on the other side, wearing the same clothes I had been wearing for more than two days. I passed out for four hours. That morning, the Post reporter and I decided to flee.

“This is the worst place on earth,” he said.

“I’m never coming back here again,” I agreed.

We hitched a ride to Karachi, avoiding roadblocks of burning tires and cars and slogan-shouting men. Broken glass carpeted parts of the road. Trucks at gas stations were set on fire; so were some gas stations. Black plumes of smoke and the wreckage of grief could be seen everywhere—a torched building at a district court complex, a dozen blackened trucks near a gas station, a gas tanker, and a truck once filled with sand, still flickering with flames.

We waved a flag from Bhutto’s party out the car window, our visa on this dangerous stretch. “Bhutto lives!” we shouted as our password whenever men stopped us. “Bhutto lives!” the men shouted back. In one town, we saw hundreds of men carrying sticks and marching down the road ahead of us. We veered off, down a side street to the right. Nationwide the scene was little better. Life was at a standstill. Trains were halted; stores were closed. Some towns reported fuel and food shortages, or that only rickshaws and donkey-pulled carts could move.

We made it back to Karachi in seven hours—relatively quickly, with no traffic and no police preoccupied with pulling over speeders. In the rubble of the riots, boys already played cricket, normalcy already reasserting itself, the typical cycle of tragedy and mourning and recovery compressed because tragedy was such a usual event.

No one ever claimed responsibility for killing Bhutto, although the newly anointed Pakistani Taliban leader was again blamed, the newest bogeyman for the country. At a press conference three days after his mother died, Bhutto’s nineteen-year-old son, who had spent almost half his short life outside Pakistan, was named the future leader of the party. Until then the party would be run by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, otherwise known as Mr. Ten Percent for past corruption allegations. The choice would be controversial.

I found a pharmacy in Karachi that was somehow open, and plunked down $10 for a potpourri of sleeping pills, available over the counter. I needed instant sleep, the kind that chased away any nightmares.

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