October 20, 2007

Bhutto Had Scant Security Before Blasts: Reporter's Notebook

By Janine Zacharia

Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) -- `Gia! Gia! Gia Bhutto!'' or ``Long live Bhutto.'' ``Bhutto is still alive,'' the throngs of supporters sang.

The slogans were jarring given a Taliban commander's promise to send suicide bombers to greet Bhutto at the airport and other threats to Benazir Bhutto's life.

As a reporter, I was accompanying the former prime minister on her return to Pakistan after eight years in exile. From the moment we landed on Oct. 18 at Karachi's airport, there was a striking absence of security. As a tearful Bhutto, 54, made her way down a set of yellow utility stairs she was surrounded by press and supporters. There were no police in sight.

The arrangements for the press, like most everything else, were chaotic. We ended up at the wrong terminal and piled into vans to take us to the main airport corridor, making our way past a huge placard welcoming Bhutto home with expectations for a ``Dawn of a New Pakistan.''

We all scattered and piled onto flatbed, open-air trucks to watch the slow-moving procession. It was hardly a procession at all, in fact. Rather, a parking lot of people, a sea of humanity.

The media trucks could barely move. Bhutto's truck -- a reconfigured vehicle that looked more like a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade -- had an indoor compartment and space for people to stand on top, at the front, and to squish into the tiny space above the cab itself. It was the tallest vehicle among them.

After five hours, Bhutto's truck still hadn't made it out of the airport. Her advisers were estimating it would take 18 hours for her to travel the few miles to the mausoleum of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, where she was to deliver a speech.

Flight From Dubai

On the two-hour plane ride from Dubai, Bhutto, dressed in green and white, the colors of the Pakistani flag, had tried, and failed, to walk through the aisles and talk to her supporters. She never made it to the back cabins. ``If she can't make it to the back of her own plane,'' I joked to a BBC reporter on the flight, ``how will she ever make it to the Jinnah memorial?''

Sadly, I was right. She never did. Two deadly bombs thwarted her path, killing at least 136 people. Bhutto, unharmed, was taken from the scene to safety.

Before the bombings, aboard the dusty, open-air truck, I tried not to think about the risk around me, about my concerns before the trip that the press would serve as human shields for Bhutto.

No Police

Why was there was no security cordon? Where were the Pakistani police? Why weren't they lining the roads, I thought.

This is the way politics is done in Pakistan, remarked Raziuddin Ahmed, a 25-year-old Bhutto supporter. ``She's showing to her detractors she's able to mobilize a third of the electorate.''

This is how it was the way she returned the last time. That was more than a decade ago, before al-Qaeda was carrying out regular suicide attacks, I thought.

A Pakistani police jeep with a rifle pointed outward moved ahead of Bhutto's reconfigured truck, the tallest in a sea of colorful, dusty open-air vehicles that crept along the congested road.

At one point, a beat-up, blue pick-up truck, a ``Bomb Disposal Unit'' from the ``special branch of the Sindh police,'' appeared. It hardly inspired confidence.

Most of the time, Bhutto's truck -- adorned with a huge photo of her on the side and dozens of people hanging off it -- had no serious protection whatsoever as the crowd swarmed around, touching it, chanting to music blaring from speakers attached to the vehicle.

`Pay the Price'

The Pakistan Peoples Party relied on its own ``security forces.'' Nazeer Hussani, a secondary school teacher from Larkana, where Bhutto's family is from, was one of them. He was working as a security guard, though he didn't carry a weapon. He rode atop an open-air truck with a journalist. A T-shirt Hussani wore bore a phrase in Urdu saying he would ``sacrifice his life for you.''

He may have. Bhutto herself estimated that 50 of these unarmed security guards had perished in the attacks. I wasn't able to determine whether Hussani lived or died.

I wasn't there for the blasts themselves. I arranged to get off the truck with four colleagues and navigate through the masses to a car that was parked some distance away. It was only once I got back to the hotel that I started fielding calls about the blasts. I wasn't surprised.

At her press conference with reporters in her heavily secured residential compound on Friday, Bhutto stated what everyone knew: ``It was no secret that terrorists and extremists would try to assassinate me.'' Why did she decide then to take such a perilous journey, exposing herself and her supporters to such danger, a reporter asked.

``I know that some people think that it was naïve,'' she said. To return to Pakistan and promote democracy, ``you have to be willing to pay the price.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Janine Zacharia in Karachi, Pakistan, at jzacharia@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: October 19, 2007 16:57 EDT

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