Benazir Bhutto: The Exile's Return

Benazir Bhutto: her history, life story and her return to from exile to Pakistan.

By Amy Wilentz
Illustration by Chang Park
"I can’t even get up to my bedroom to begin to study because of her." The stairway is in the view of the Al Arabiya cameras. "The school took me aside to say there must be no distractions at home, and now they won’t even let me upstairs." Aseefa throws herself back down across the couch. She finds the whole situation funny and is playing it for Narmeen and me. "They are threatening to send me back to Pakistan if my grades don’t get better," she tells Narmeen. "Both of them: Mummy and Papa."Does Aseefa want to go back to Pakistan?"Are you kidding?"She asks me for help writing her application to Barnard College, in New York. She wants to major in English literature."For my essay, maybe I should write about today," she says, gesturing to the room where the interview is still going on.Later, when the Al Arabiya crew has finally gone, Bhutto settles into a corner of a couch in a back sitting room. She crosses her legs.She’s very different from the tall, slender girl I first knew. First of all, she’s not wearing jeans and a T-shirt.I point this out. "Well, I am not a teenager any longer, you know," she says, laughing. She is wearing an elegant black shalwar kamiz — a long tunic over matching loose trousers. She’s got on sensible heels. Around the neckline of the tunic is draped an airy beige chiffon scarf that she can easily shift to cover her head if necessary. Her eye shadow is blue, and her earrings the bright, deep gold one sees especially in the Muslim world, probably 24-carat."I find 50 liberating," she says. "I was always so careful being young. I didn’t want to send the wrong signals. I wrapped myself in all these layers of clothing to protect myself. Now that I’m fat and 50, I’m a mother figure. I find that aspect of aging liberating; there’s no danger of people misunderstanding you." Of course, she’s not fat, even if she’s no longer a slender wraith. And she’s still seductive. Of course, she’s also not exactly 50. I point this out. She laughs. She’s 54.Narmeen sits with us while we talk; every once in a while Bhutto turns to her for confirmation, or to have Narmeen remind her of a name, or to ask her to deal with some small household problem. In this well-appointed house in a nice neighborhood, where — with the help of trusted staff and childhood friends — Bhutto leads the life of a mother and adult daughter (she takes care of her 78-year-old mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease), one does wonder again why she would choose to thrust herself back into the turmoil of political leadership in Pakistan."Some of my friends think I’m mad to be going back," she says. "Even my relatives, because they don’t want to lose me. They’ve seen what happened to my brothers and my father. They keep telling me, ‘Think again!’ But it’s my country."It’s not easy, though, for a person of Bhutto’s stature to go back to Pakistan. She can’t just buy a plane ticket. To get back into the country, she’s had to make arrangements with Musharraf, even though, for solid political reasons, she doesn’t want to be seen as propping up a military dictator."I’m not making deals with the military," she says. "I’m having a dialogue with them about how we can get a transition to democracy. Look, the military is one aspect of Pakistan; the people are another aspect of Pakistan. So, yes, I’m talking to the military about how we can move into the future with a political system that can guarantee the security of the country and bring the people of Pakistan into the country’s decision-making."Still, Bhutto may find herself astride a beast she can’t control: For so long, the Pakistani army has done what it feels necessary often without consulting the civilian government. Already the deal she struck with Musharraf is showing signs of falling apart. "Here are the people, struggling against Musharraf, and here she comes, thinking she’ll be able to prevail and take charge of the military," says Khawaja. "She’s being taken for a ride. What is she going to do when she’s there and suddenly the army starts arresting people? How will she be able to intervene?"I ask Bhutto whether she thinks about what would happen to her children if harm should come to her now."I block out such thoughts," she says, but her face registers distress.

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