January 02, 2008
Pakistan: Burn, Baby, Burn
BY Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Burned out cars litter the streets of Karachi following the violence.
Editor's Note: In a televised speech to the nation Jan. 2, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf vowed that the army and police would crackdown forcefully on any renewed violence, and he appealed for calm in preparation for elections now postponed until Feb. 18. But as our reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy writes from Karachi, the city is still tense after Benazir Bhutto's assassination and emotions are raw.
As dawn broke in Karachi the day after Benazir Bhutto's assassination, its residents woke to find their city looted and vandalized. After a night of rioting, an eerie silence hung in the air, as business owners surveyed the damage.
Paramilitary forces were given orders to shoot to kill if they came upon any protestors destroying property, but it was too late. More than 50 people had been killed across the country. Three hundred and sixty bank branches nationwide were torched and ransacked. Twenty railway stations were burnt and in Karachi, railway tracks were dug up by an angry mob. An industrial area in the heart of the city resembled a war zone, littered with the charred remains of cars and trucks.
The violence was the worst Karachi has ever seen.
"My father had suffered a major heart attack and we were on our way to the hospital when a mob attacked us," said Ambareen Khursheed. "My mother and brother tried to stop them, to explain that my father was dying, but they didn't care. They wanted to burn the car with all of us in it." Her father died soon afterwards. "They were not mourning the death of a leader, these people just needed an opportunity to loot and plunder the city," she told me at her father's funeral.
"They were not mourning the death of a leader, these people just needed an opportunity to loot and plunder the city."
Most people sat glued to their television sets. In a chai khana (tea room) in Neelum colony, several day laborers watched the Bhutto funeral proceedings in disbelief. One of them, Jan Khatim, told me that even though he didn't agree with her politics, he was appalled by her murder. "I remember the days when we had peace and security. I am a devout Muslim man, but I condemn this killing. No Islamic man can say that this was done in the name of our religion," he said.
A few others nodded in agreement and one of them, Sahib Khan, came over from his table to tell me that he had been caught in the rioting the evening before. "These people are criminals. They weren't mourning, they were looting. I saw it with my own eyes. They looted a carpet shop and then a grocery store."
Out on the streets, life slowly limped back to normalcy. But even now, most shops and fuel stations remain closed. Those that dared to open were threatened by groups of people wielding sticks. "Our Quaid (leader) is dead," they screamed "and you want to do business."
Most poor residents of Karachi do not own refrigerators and rely on daily groceries to feed their families. In Punjab Colony, Begum Nusrat was rushing from one closed shop to the next. "I have three small children, and nothing at home to feed them with. How can they close everything? What about us, the poor citizens? How will we feed ourselves?" she said as tears rolled down her face.
Some of the worst violence took place on the streets of Karachi, Benazir Bhutto's home turf.
Soon a crowd gathered around. They were all frustrated and angry. "We don't care about politics," said Zubaida Khanum, whose ailing mother had no access to medicines. "We are sad that they killed Benazir but the Pakistan People's Party is supposed to be for the poor of the country, and this is how they treat us. They burn our motorcycles and close our shops, they leave us poorer and hungrier."
What was most surprising to many in all of this was the fact that no senior Pakistan People's Party leader condemned the violence.
Karachi was Ms. Bhutto's hometown. This is where she received her early education and built her home and this is where she enjoyed a lot of support in her early years. In Gizri, an area hit by violence, where tires still burned on the streets, a group of her supporters, carrying her photograph and waving her party's flag, told me that they were shocked and ready to avenge her death.
"She is the greatest leader we will ever have. The Bhuttos are for the people of Pakistan, they work for the poor, and they killed her," said Ahmed Sohail, a twenty-year-old electrician. He blamed her assassination on the government. "She was a threat to Musharraf so they killed her."
"The Pakistan People's Party is supposed to be for the poor of the country, and this is how they treat us. They burn our motorcycles and close our shops, they leave us poorer and hungrier."
But even Ms. Bhutto's supporters were divided as to why she was killed. Ghulam Hassan, a car mechanic in the group, accused the Islamic militants. "These religious organizations could not stand taking orders from a woman. But I tell you she was more of a man than any of them, that's why they killed her."
More controversy followed, as it emerged that Ms. Bhutto had left a letter with Mark Siegel, her U.S. spokesman and lobbyist, saying that if she were killed, President Musharraf would be to blame. "I would hold Musharraf responsible," she wrote. "I have been made to feel insecure by his minions..."
Soon after the release of the letter, in a televised press conference, the Pakistani government's spokesperson declared that Ms. Bhutto had not died from shrapnel or bullet wounds but from hitting her head on her jeep's sunroof. Ms. Bhutto's aides promptly accused the government of covering up her assassination and urged international governments to send in impartial investigators to determine what really happened.
Newspaper editorials wondered how the government could come up with such a ludicrous theory when photographs and videos clearly showed that a man armed with a hand gun and a suicide bomber managed to breach her security and got in close range of her car. But some Urdu language news coverage was cautious and questioned why Ms. Bhutto, who was well aware of the threats made against her life, would risk exposing her head and torso from her jeep, making herself a clear target.
Most were shocked when they heard that (Bhutto) had left a will in which her husband had been made the head of her political party.
Benazir Bhutto undoubtedly left a void and even those who didn't agree with her or her politics mourned her death. But most were shocked when they heard that she had left a will in which her husband had been made the head of her political party. Asif Ali Zardari is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt people in Pakistan. He has pending court cases in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. He has already served a jail term in Pakistan of eleven years on charges related to corruption.
Addressing a press conference Mr. Zardari named his 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, (who has since added his mother's maiden name, Bhutto to his) co-chair of the Pakistan People's Party. A sober Bilawal addressed a large cadre of journalists and announced, "My mother always said, democracy is the best revenge."
Bilal Zubair, a banker, who watched the press conference with his family, expressed his anger at this turn of events. "We live in a banana republic, where a 19 year old, who isn't even old enough to contest the elections, is made to change his last name and command the largest political party in the country."
Others had similar feelings. "America insists on democracy for Pakistan. Well how democratic is Benazir's will? She was supposed to be a democratic person but she turned out to be as nepotistic in death as she was in life. Why aren't Americans insisting that the People's party have internal elections? Their silence is deafening," said Huma Naeem, an artist.
It seems that in death as in life, Ms. Bhutto has polarized the nation.
From Our Files
"Bhutto's Death Helps Further Al Qaeda's Pakistan Agenda"
David Montero reports from Pakistan in a joint project of the Christian Science Monitor and FRONTLINE/World. Watch for his upcoming online video reports, and take a look at "Disappeared," his September 2007 Rough Cut about the disappearance of hundreds of dissidents and suspected terrorists at the hands of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.
Pakistan: The New Taliban
Correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's third in a series of dispatches focuses on the rise of fundamentalist political forces challenging President Musharraf's government.
Pakistan: The"Other" Bhutto
Watch Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's interview with Benazir Bhutto's niece Fatima Bhutto, who blames her aunt for the 1996 murder of her father. Educated in the U.S. and fast becoming a prominent figure in her own right, the 25-year-old could turn out to be a serious political player in the coming years.
Pakistan: "The Liberal Dictator"
Read Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's first dispatch in this series and watch the accompanying video where she interviews activists gathered in an upscale neighborhood of Karachi about Pakistan's political future.
Amina Masood Janjua was an ordinary Pakistani housewife, proud of her country and loyal to its military. But all that changed in July 2005, when her husband never came home. FRONTLINE/World correspondent David Montero reports on how her campaign to find her husband sparked national protests challenging Pakistan's feared intelligence agency, the ISI, and led to events that would severely test Musharraf's power.