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Bhutto's Assassination: Letter from Lahore

Editor's Note: Given the chaos following the murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan this week, we have received a number of messages from the country about the situation there. U.C. Berkeley journalism student, Manal Ahmad, who is in Pakistan for a family wedding, sent us this email from Lahore.

Dear all,

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, neither are domestic flights and trains. Last night all mobile phone networks (except one) were down, but those are working now and so is 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.

Buses aren't running, neither are domestic flights and trains. Last night all mobile phone networks (except one) were down, but those are working now and so is cable TV and the Internet.

When we heard the news on Thursday evening at about 7 p.m., I was at my cousin Mina's house preparing for her mehndi. A mehndi is the main music, dance, and henna celebration that precedes a wedding. We girls were dressed in brightly colored ghararas, skirts, bangles, henna on our hands and orange flowers in our braided hair. The house was bustling with people before we departed for the plush tented grounds next door, when an uncle watching the news in another room rushed out to tell us that Benazir had been injured during a suicide blast at her rally in Rawalpindi and CNN had just 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 celebration was about to begin, and all the family went down to the tent to receive the guests, and no guests had 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 Pakistan People's Party (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.

We began to receive 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 mehndi, I was in disbelief. We tried to shake it off, the young people especially, because it was my cousin's celebration -- a time we ought to be laughing and happy. My cousin, too, ignored it as best 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 29th.

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 with sticks.

I tuned in to the local TV this morning to see the media making a martyr out of Benazir, like her father before her. There were black and white photos of her in her youth; mournful music playing; everything designed to induce tears -- even in her opponents.

I tuned into the local TV this morning to see the media making a martyr out of Benazir, like her father before her. There were black and white photos of her in her youth; mournful music playing in the background; everything designed to induce tears -- even in her opponents.

Western media such as CNN and the 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 more sad still for Pakistan and what has followed since last night. There is complete anarchy in 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 to attack one another.

One can blame Musharraf's government for failing to provide adequate security, for declaring emergency and the instability it has created. But people in Pakistan -- intellectuals, the educated cadres -- are angry at another party, the U.S. government.

Many people here seriously doubt the supposed Al-Qaeda link; it's too easy to blame the same suspects for every act of violence here. One can blame Musharraf's government for failing to provide adequate security at the rallies, for declaring emergency and the general instability it has created. But people in Pakistan -- intellectuals, the educated cadres -- are angry at another party too, the U.S. government.

People talk about how the U.S. government "engineered" Bhutto's return to Pakistan, forcing Musharraf to drop corruption charges against her, even though he was unwilling to do so (while Nawaz Sharif did not receive the same treatment). Bhutto as well as Musharraf knew of the dangers involved in her return -- in the compromise she struck with Musharraf; in her open support for U.S. policies; and in 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 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. for an opportunity to intervene more directly in the affairs of this strategic Muslim-majority nuclear power.

As I speak, the city of Karachi is in flames. The army has been called in, and a friend in Karachi feels a Musharraf-PPP showdown is looming in the city. The PPP, now under the control of Benazir's husband Asif Zardari, feels invincible because of its loss. "Any voice of criticism against the PPP (in Karachi) is like signing your death warrant," my friend says.

My cousin's wedding, scheduled for tomorrow at a big banquet hall in a fancy hotel, is now canceled, replaced by a small reception at their home.

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.

Manal
December 28th, Lahore