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

Why Benazir Bhutto Returned to Pakistan[Editor’s note: On December 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at a political rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in an attack that killed 22 other people. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, now led by her widower Asif Ali Zardari, won the largest number of seats in Pakistan’s February 18, 2008 elections.With the recent publication of her book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, we hope that this intimate profile of Bhutto — one of the last written before her death — will be of renewed interest.]Caesar is barking in the courtyard. When I pass him, he pulls at his chain, trying to reach me, and not for a pat on the head. He’s not a big dog, but he’s fierce and muscular, with a mouth full of long, sharp teeth. Caesar is Benazir Bhutto’s dog. He’s snarling in the background as I proceed on an afternoon in early September to the front door of one of Bhutto’s houses, this one in a Middle Eastern country that she has asked me not to identify.Caesar, it occurs to me, is a richly ironic name for the pet of someone who considers herself a freedom fighter and democracy advocate. But then, Bhutto’s pets have run the gamut of appellations, and it is perhaps unwise to come to conclusions, ironic or not, based on what she chooses to name them. When she was a fiery opposition leader in Pakistan in 1986, two years before she was first elected prime minister, her cat was called Sugar."Be sure to take Sugar to the vet."Those are the last words Bhutto is reported to have spoken to her staff back then, as she was whisked off to jail in a police car, and not for the first time.When I get past Caesar and into the house, Bhutto is in one of the broad downstairs receiving rooms giving a formal interview to reporters from Al Arabiya television. I can hear her cultured voice going on in English about the need for democratic government in Pakistan and about the problems of the country’s increasingly active Islamic fundamentalist enclaves. (Extremist militias now control much of Pakistan’s 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan.)After nearly nine years of self-imposed exile, Bhutto is making plans to go home. At presstime, she had set a date of October 18. Because long-standing corruption charges against her may end up being dropped, she will probably not risk another arrest or deportation upon arrival. Indeed, she may well be allowed to run for prime minister, an office from which she was twice ousted on a variety of charges (all of which she maintains were politically motivated and false). Technically, she is not eligible to serve a third term as premier, but that prohibition may be soon be lifted with the approval of Pakistan’s current president, General Pervez Musharraf.Bhutto, who is the chairwoman of the prominent Pakistan Peoples Party, is seizing on a very low moment in Musharraf’s popularity to bargain with him. His long alliance with George Bush, his failed attempt at firing Pakistan’s popular supreme court chief justice last March and his authorization of a raid last July on an Islamabad mosque, which killed 100 people, all weigh heavily in her favor. An independent poll conducted in late August showed Musharraf with only a 38 percent approval rating, George Bush with nine percent — and Osama bin Laden with 46 percent. Bhutto held a 63 percent approval rating, however. She hopes to use that advantage to restore democracy in her country with herself at the helm, and then convince the Pakistani people that America’s antiterrorism agenda is preferable to the al-Qaeda alternative.When I wonder out loud to her about the dangers of returning to Pakistan and about what could possibly motivate her, she tells me, "In the last election, my party took the largest number of votes, despite all the mudslinging that has taken place. I feel I owe a debt to the people to go back." She mentions too that it’s not just her role in Pakistan she misses, but the country itself. "I miss the scent of the rain when it falls on the dusty roads," she says. "And the wheat crops in flower. I miss the people; I miss all of our rituals — visiting the graves of our forefathers." Clearly one of the national rituals Bhutto also pines for is the ritual of the push and pull, the high-stakes deal-making that constitutes Pakistani politics.Caesar is a better pet for Bhutto than Sugar right now.

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