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The Game of Death

She may well have been the best leader available. With a military dictator and a corrupt businessman as the alternatives, Benazir Bhutto, with her western admirers and her feudal followers, was clearly a front-runner. How she died will probably remain a mystery, but she was playing the game of death, and it was unlikely she would win every time.

It is difficult to write about people who have just died. Many are grief stricken at the untimely death of the former prime minister. Even her critics are shocked by the way she was hunted down. An insensitive piece would aggravate their pain, and one doesn’t generally speak ill of the dead. I remember as a child asking my mother “Amma. Do bad people never die?” A man not known for his strength of character had died, and newspaper reports had described him as an honest social worker. I am no longer of the age to get away with such questions. But even for those who have loved Benazir, I believe the questions need to be asked if this cycle is to ever stop.

It was 1995. They were troubled times in Pakistan. I had gone over to Karachi on the invitation of my architect friend Shahid Abdulla. There were no telephone booths at Karachi airport, or anywhere else in the city. The government was worried the MQM would use them for their communication. Sindh was at war with itself.

Shahid wanted me to run a photography workshop at the Indus Valley School of Architecture and Design that he was involved in. Those were the days when we had time for long conversations. We talked of many things. The gun-toting security men outside every big house in Karachi. Shahid’s meeting with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. His memories of Benazir. But the conversation would often veer to a person we both admired. Abdus Sattar Edhi, the humanitarian who had set up an unparalleled ambulance service all over Pakistan.

On the morning of the 10th October, I went over to see the man. He had an easy charm that came from living a simple life and having little to hide. He sat on his wire mesh bed, talking of how things started. We were regularly interrupted by people coming in with requests, and Edhi responding to minor crises. Then we heard about Fahim Commando the MQM leader, having been killed. Fahim and his comrades had apparently been caught in an ambush and all four had died. They had been in police custody, but the police had all escaped and not one of them had been injured. Edhi was not judgmental. Fahim was another man who needed a decent burial. As I watched him bathe the slain MQM leader, I could see the burn marks on the bullet holes on the commando’s body.

edhi-bathing-fahim-commando.jpg Abdus Sattar Edhi, bathing Fahim Commando. Karachi. Pakistan. 10th October 1995. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The extra-judicial killings during Benazir’s rule are well documented. The fact that no investigation was done when her brother Mir Murtaza was killed outside Bilawal House, the family home, fueled the commonly held belief that her husband Asif Zardari had arranged the killing. Even Edhi’s ambulances had not been allowed access. Not until Murtaza had bled to death. Anyone who witnessed the murder was arrested; one witness died in prison. Benazir was then prime minister.

Murtaza had been vocal against the corruption of Zardari. Benazir defended her husband stoically throughout. Despite the Swiss bank accounts, she assured people that he would be seen as the Nelson Mandela of Pakistan. With Zardari now tipped as the new chief of PPP, Pakistan’s Mandela and his Swiss bank accounts might well be the new force. Whether Pakistanis will see this polo-playing businessman as the saviour of the day remains to be seen.

Supported by the US, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been largely responsible for the break up of Pakistan and the genocide in Bangladesh. The current string pulling by the US has hardly made Pakistan a safer place. The western support of militarisation in Bangladesh and the growing importance of Jamaat is an all too familiar feeling. If Pakistan is an omen, it is a sinister one.

Perhaps Mrs. Packletide would have known how the former prime minister of this nuclear nation died. But the government’s attempts to cover-up will do little to quell the conspiracy theories. Like the Bhutto family, the military too have burned a lot of bridges in getting to where they are. There are too many skeletons in their closet. There is no going back, and no price too high.

December 29, 2007 - Posted by | governance, Photography, Photojournalism | , , , , , , , ,


  1. It’s almost astonishing to see an operation like his one run on & on so smoothly with such success… y isnt he getting nominated for THE peace prize?? 😀 His ambulance service was the largest in operation according to the Guiness…Records as of ’97 !!!

    * do check out the Edhi Foundation in case you still haven’t!!

    Comment by Sidr | December 29, 2007 | Reply

  2. hi…im frm India.
    i consider this as one of the best acounts i heard on the death of Ms.Bhutto. In India too there is much of hype abt her personlaity as if she is one of the most tall standing figure in pakistan….the glamour sticken media here is too busily occupied to sell the good image of benazir, after all it harms no one, becoz she is no more.!!
    What u said is more convincing…she is yet another victim
    of feudo-fanatic politics of pakistan, which she too helped to bread..!! but for third world countries like us, which are being constantly troubld by the woes of globalisation and communal politics, there is a need to focus more on learning frm this, than being busy with pseudo sympathy.!!
    thank you…

    Comment by Rajesh Naik | December 30, 2007 | Reply

  3. Your posts are always a breathe of fresh air and reason in the midst of madness and conspiracy theories.

    Happy New Year! May 2008 be better than 2007, and bring one more ounce of peace and understanding to the world.

    Ya Haqq!

    Comment by darvish | December 30, 2007 | Reply

  4. I actually thought the same thing following her death but was hesitant to say anything, which is probably just as well since I would have never expressed it as well as you have here.

    Comment by seine | December 30, 2007 | Reply

  5. ”Supported by the US, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been largely responsible for the break up of Pakistan and the genocide in Bangladesh.”
    The line demands more discussion, even we emphasised on the word ‘largely’. Because, I think, the economic oppression and political development had been largely created the situation for the break up of Pakistan. You could say that Zulfiqar was responsible for the break up of dialogue with Mujib, but was it possible without the main role of the militarism?
    Whatever, thanks for your nice personal prose. You know, US deliberately can do all of these, because still now Bangladesh and Pakistan controlled by Militarism. So we need to stand up against it in more organized way.

    Comment by imtiar | December 31, 2007 | Reply

  6. wonderfully posited. how/can the cycle be broken?

    Comment by abdu | December 31, 2007 | Reply

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