By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 28, 2007
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Dec. 27 -- They arrived at the hospital by the dozens, based on nothing more than a whisper that their leader had been hurt.
As the rumors spread, there were soon hundreds bearing the red, black and green of the Pakistan People's Party. And by the time a hospital official stepped into the dark and smoky December air to announce that Benazir Bhutto had been killed, there were thousands.
The news provoked a guttural, desperate wail from the crowd that had gathered outside Rawalpindi General Hospital. Old men collapsed to the ground, sobbing. Women shrieked with pain.
Many did not want to believe it. They shouted to the heavens, "Long live Bhutto!" -- a refrain repeated by her most passionate followers almost since her birth.
Bhutto thrived on crowds, craving their embrace and deriving energy from their devotion. She brought hundreds of thousands to the streets when she returned from exile in 1986, a singularly triumphant moment in Pakistan's history that helped propel her to the prime ministership. Her latest return, in October, had also attracted massive crowds, but turned tragic when suicide bombers struck.
For the crowd gathered at the hospital Thursday night, her passing brought deep sadness, coupled with uncontrollable fury.
"Oh God, what has happened?" cried one woman. "We have all died today."
"Musharraf, go to hell!" chanted others.
"She was our sister, and she was our great leader," said Iktidar Ali, 52, who had been with Bhutto in Pakistan and in exile. "She was the voice of the oppressed people of Pakistan."
While some followers took to the streets, burning pro-Musharraf campaign posters and throwing bricks at passing cars, others tried to force their way into the hospital to say goodbye.
When hospital staff refused to let them in, the crowd smashed through the glass front doors. When they were blocked again at the entrance to the operating room -- where Bhutto's body lay -- they tried to do the same thing.
All the while, nurses attempted to navigate the hospital's narrow corridors with stretchers bearing the wounded and the dead, fellow victims of Thursday's attack. Bloodied bodies were carried amid hundreds of people who were chanting and screaming. The injured who were well enough joined in.
In the moments when the noise ebbed, those who had been with Bhutto during her last moments quietly told their stories. One longtime loyalist kept repeating how, as she left the stage at her final rally, Bhutto had touched her hand to his shoulder and thanked him for a job well done.
A man whose foot had been bloodied by a piece of shrapnel told a more grisly tale. He was watching her wave to the crowd from the open sunroof of her sport-utility vehicle, when a man ran up to the vehicle and began firing.
"I was very close to Benazir, and I could see that she had been shot in the neck," said Mohammed Aamir Qureshi, 39. She then dropped from view, falling back inside the SUV. The next time Qureshi saw her, he was at the hospital and she was being wheeled in on a stretcher, barely alive. "She was in very critical condition," he said.
She may not have even been alive. Her closest aides sat stunned Thursday evening in a small recovery room, hours after they had frantically rushed her to the hospital. Doctors who first examined her could tell there was little hope; she had lost too much blood.
Those who had been with her shuddered as they recalled how the gunshots had knocked Bhutto back into her car, and how the blast from the suicide bomber had sent the vehicle into the air.
"It all happened in an instant. Just seconds," said Sherry Rehman, the party's spokeswoman, who was in the car directly behind Bhutto's.
Late in the night, Bhutto's body was taken from the hospital in a simple wooden coffin, as hundreds looked on. It was later loaded onto a C-130 transport plane. Together with her husband and her three children, Benazir Bhutto was flown back to the plains of southern Pakistan, where her family has its roots.
Amid sugar cane fields and rice paddies rises a five-domed marble tomb for the Bhuttos. It was commissioned by Benazir Bhutto as a monument to her father, himself a former prime minister, and as a place for her to rally her supporters. It is not yet complete. But soon, crowds will gather to see Benazir Bhutto buried at her father's side.