Bhutto's Last Day, in Keeping With Her Driven Life
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- Gripping the podium with both hands, Benazir Bhutto spoke in a shout that filled the cavernous park and echoed into the streets beyond.
"Wake up, my brothers!" she implored, her trademark white shawl slipping off her head to her shoulders. "This country faces great dangers. This is your country! My country! We have to save it."
When the former Pakistani prime minister had finished speaking, she descended from the stage and paused. She then turned, waved and kept on walking.
Inside the park, a crowd of thousands was still cheering. Outside, a pair of assassins lay in wait.
In the hours before they struck on Dec. 27, Bhutto's day had unfolded typically -- for her and for Pakistan. The pace was frenetic, the stakes were high, and the issues were familiar: extremism and democracy, militancy and the military.
Since her return from exile more than two months earlier, Bhutto had been in nearly constant motion, trying to outflank her political opponents and hoping desperately to stay one step ahead of the sniper's bullet that, she told friends, was "always waiting for me."
If she succeeded, she believed the reward would be a storybook comeback. She would return to her old job, and to the realm of world leaders, after eight years as a glamorous sidelight in the salons of London, New York and Washington. The country, meanwhile, would return to democracy after its own eight-year drought under military rule. It would also turn the tide against extremism, beating back the growing threat posed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But the odds, for her and for Pakistan, were long.
On the day she was killed, Bhutto was pressing ahead on two main fronts. The first was to get the message out that she believed President Pervez Musharraf's allies planned to rig the elections scheduled for Jan. 8. On the agenda for the day was a meeting with election observers from the European Union and another with two U.S. lawmakers -- Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.). At the latter meeting, scheduled for the evening, she intended to hand over a dossier of evidence that she said supported claims her party had been making for weeks that the elections would be fixed by means of ghost polling stations, voter intimidation and other irregularities.
The second front was terrorism. Bhutto met for 45 minutes that day with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the two shared their concerns about the growing danger of extremism. More than perhaps any other Pakistani politician, Bhutto had been fixated on the problem both in public and in private. She spoke about it constantly.
For her, the threat was personal. She knew there were people out to get her. And on Dec. 27, there was reason for special concern.
The day before, in the northwestern city of Peshawar, a young man carrying explosives had been detained outside the site of her rally. The man told police he had been to a wedding just before he arrived to hear Bhutto's speech and had not had time to dispose of some leftover celebratory dynamite. Police did not believe him.