28 Dec, 2007

7:00 pm, Friday

28 Dec, 2007

Today, the country is shut down. All offices, shops, banks are closed. And there is no street traffic. After the mayhem of last night (in Karachi, more than 1,000 cars were burned), everyone has been warned to stay home.

Hyderabad, a city just two hours from Karachi, has now been brought under control by the army: according to the TV station Aaj all petrol stations there were burned and more than 70 percent of shops destroyed. In the evening, righ[Image]t before sunset, my mother, Minal and I walk out of our tiny lane onto the main road, Khayeban-e-Jami. There is no traffic. Just a few cars whizzing by. As we reach the corner, we see the burned shells of two cars. I am reminded of Wim Wenders’ movie, Until the End of the World. Karachi, much like the rest of Pakistan, is a shell today and will be so for at least the next two days till the formal days of mourning are over.

I first encountered Benazir Bhutto in 1987 at a press conference at Karachi’s Hotel Mehran when I was working as an editorial assistant at The Star. She had just returned to Pakistan. There was a buzz and excitement about her return that reminded me of the thrill we felt when we went to rallies to see her father in the seventies (of course, as his government took a corrupt path, our feelings toward him changed). Nonetheless, Benazir Bhutto represented freshness and change, a person that could melt the frightening world that General Zia-ul-Haq had created during his decade of power.

I still remember our dance of joy down main Clifton road toward the Bhutto residence when General Zia’s plane was blown up. Benazir was only in her early thirties when she returned to Pakistan in the eighties and she won with a landslide victory in the elections following Zia’s death. But once in power, she proved to be ineffectual. She returned to office a few years after her first try, but again did not complete her term. And by the time she left, her support base was disillusioned by the few changes she brought and the corruption charges that she and her husband faced. But this year, 2007, when she returned to Pakistan after eight years of self-exile, she again brought with her the buzz of excitement and change.

With elections just 12 days away, her assassination at Liaqat Bagh Park (very close to where her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged by General Zia-up-Haq) is a blow to those who believe in her. Even for those feel sorrow. Benazir represented a history that is now gone and her voice, the only secular female voice in Pakistan’s political landscape, has been erased. And no matter how we view her, it’s hard not to grieve a sudden death that will now pivot Pakistan toward a more murky future than we already face. Read Tariq Ali’s piece on Benazir Bhutto’s death in the Guardian.