By Manal Ahmad
December 28, 2007 / Lahore, Pakistan
(see Frontline / World)
Thank you for your emails… I am OK and so is my family. It’s Friday morning and the whole city is pretty much shut down; people aren’t going to work; all the markets are closed; even the gas stations. The streets are deserted save for police vans, and Lahore looks like a ghost town. Buses aren’t running, and neither are domestic flights and trains. Last night all mobile phone networks (except one) were down, but those are working now, as well as cable TV and the Internet (sporadically), so we can at least watch the news (most news channels were restored after the emergency blackout some weeks ago). I am dying to go out in the streets with a camera and talk to people, but my parents have me besieged in the house so far because it’s not safe.
When we heard the news, Thursday evening about 7pm, I was at my cousin Mina’s house preparing for her Mehndi. A Mehndi is the main fun music-dance-henna celebration that precedes a wedding. All us girls were dressed in brightly colored ghararas, skirts, with bangles and henna on our hands and orange flowers in our braided hair. The house was bustling with people before we departed for the plush tented ground next door where the Mehndi was supposed to take place, when an uncle watching the news in another room rushed out and said Benazir had been injured during a suicide blast at her rally in Rawalpindi and CNN had pronounced her dead.
It didn’t sink in. We said, “It can’t be. She’s probably just hurt. It’s a rumor.” Seconds later, the electricity went out so we couldn’t watch the TV. The phone lines were also jammed so we just forgot about it because nobody wanted to mar the evening’s happiness – an evening we had been looking forward to and preparing for for months.
But when the time for the event came, and all the family went down to the tent to receive the guests, and no guests arrived, we began to worry. It was confirmed that Benazir was dead, from fatal gunshots – now news started to trickle in that rioting had started in Pindi, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. Mobs of angry supporters of the PPP, Benazir’s party, were blockading thoroughfares, burning cars and tires and storming gas stations in the older parts of the city.
We started receiving calls from friends saying they were stuck inside their homes because of fires burning outside or from fear of being mobbed on the streets, or stranded in traffic holdups for 2 hours at a stretch.
Like everyone else at the function, I was in disbelief. We tried to shake it off, the young people especially, because it was my cousin’s Mehndi – a time we ought to be laughing, celebrating, happy. My cousin, too, ignored it best as she could, but we all knew that something terrible had been unleashed with Bhutto’s murder, with terrible consequences in the hours, days and weeks to come. Benazir Bhutto had been a friend of the bridegroom’s family, and was even invited to the post-wedding party on December 30th.
In the end, only 50 of the 200 expected guests made it to the event. There was no music and no dancing; the DJ went home without playing a single song; nobody saw the dances we had been practicing for 2 weeks; the bright lights inside the tent were turned off. The nation was officially in mourning, though it was more out of fear of mindless retaliation.
But we were still lucky – we later heard that two other outdoor tented wedding events in the city had been stormed by angry rioters bearing flaming torches, and guests had been beaten down with sticks.
I tuned into local TV channels this morning to see them making a martyr out of Benazir, like her father was made before her. There were slideshows of black and white photos of her in her youth, with mournful violin music playing in the background – everything to induce tears, even in her opponents.
But it is not the job of the media to eulogize political leaders, living or deceased, and play up people’s emotions to such a degree – and Western media like CNN & BBC are following suit. It is a sad day, no doubt; I am sad that this happened, I am sad for Benazir and her family. But I am sadder still for Pakistan, and what has followed since last night. There is complete anarchy on the streets of Karachi, and in Larkana, Bhutto’s ancestral village in Sindh. It is mindless violence. People are burning banks, hospitals, bazaars, trains, all for the death of one person.
The images and comments on TV are just fanning the flames. Nobody is calling for an end to the violence, for people in Pakistan to calm down and not attack each other. It is not the end of the world. Benazir’s death does not mean Pakistan has “lost” all hopes for democracy. As always, the media ignores history, ignores the past, and right now is ignoring all critical voices.
Did she do any good when she was in power before? Why did this happen to her? Who is responsible? We may never know. But many people here seriously doubt the supposed Al-Qaeda link; it seems too convenient to blame every act of violence in this region on that mythical monster.
One can blame Musharraf’s government for failing to provide adequate security at the rallies, for declaring emergency and the general instability that created. But people in Pakistan, the intellectuals and educated cadres, are angry at another party too – the U.S. government.
They talk about how the U.S. government “engineered” Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, forcing Musharraf to drop corruption charges against her though he was unwilling to do so (while Nawaz Sharif did not get the same treatment). Bhutto as well as Musharraf knew of the dangers involved in her return – in the compromise she struck up with Musarraf, her open support for U.S. policies, and what she would do if she were Prime Minister. Yet she invited danger by sticking her head out of her armored vehicle at the rally in Liaquat Bagh yesterday, the same place where Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951.
And now, now that the country seems to have descended into chaos, many Pakistanis feel that other parties may have something to gain – Musharraf’s opponents within the country, for instance, or even the U.S. government, for an opportunity to intervene “more” directly in the affairs of this strategic, Muslim majority nuclear power.
That’s another thing the foreign media needs to back down on – the nukes issue. The nukes are not going anywhere, and remain firmly in the control of the army, as they always have. The Western obsession with Pakistan’s nukes is maddening, and really the very least of our worries right now. Our worry is the safety of the citizens from crazy mobs and corrupt, toady, sham democracies like the kind the upcoming elections are likely to bring into power. The elections now seem utterly pointless and farcical with the two key opposition parties not running anymore (Benazir’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N), and only the ruling government in Punjab PML-Q and the MQM (both Musharraf’s allies) in the running. If the U.S. wants stability in Pakistan, then it needs to stop thinking about neutralizing our nuclear weapons or demonizing the religious factions or propping up dictators or so-called democrats, and instead directing its aid towards schools, hospitals and village-level development, political institutions and legal systems and helping Pakistan honor its constitution and its laws. There is no other way.
As I speak, the city of Karachi is in flames. The army has been called in, and a friend in Karachi feels a Musarraf-PPP showdown is looming in the city. The PPP, now under the chairmanship of Benazir’s husband Asif Zardari, feels invincible because of their loss. “Any voice of criticism against the PPP (in Karachi) is like signing your death warrant,” my friend says.
But we don’t want to be at the PPP’s mercy, or Zardari’s mercy. We want to live our lives in peace, have our weddings and funerals in peace. My cousin’s wedding, scheduled for tomorrow at a big banquet hall in a fancy hotel, is now cancelled, and there will now just be a small reception at their house.
We are sick and tired of politics. We don’t care who’s ruling anymore – we just want peace.
And we need prayers for Pakistan, prayers and positive support.