'It was what we feared, but dared not to happen'

The Sunday Times, 21 October 2007

by Christina Lamb

The sound came first. A low, ominous bang, like the sound of a large metal door clanging shut.

I was standing in the middle of Benazir Bhutto's open-top bus, talking to Aitzaz Ahsan, her long-time legal adviser. We stared at each other in horror. This was what we had all feared but somehow, crazily, dared to hope wouldn't happen.

Someone shouted: "Down!" But there was no need. A wall of orange flame came over the left side of the bus and blasted us all to the floor.

The twanging music that for nine hours had been blaring out, welcoming Bhutto home after eight years in exile, stopped. For a moment there was ghastly silence.

"It's okay, it's okay - it's a burst tyre," said Agha Siraj Durrani, an amiable giant of a man who, as the closest friend of Bhutto's husband, had spent the whole journey scanning the crowds for potential threats. But we all knew what it really was.

Then the sirens and screams started. I was sure there would be another one and that it would be worse. Within a minute, it came.

Again the bang, much louder and nearer this time, and once more from the left. Orange flames shot up all around us, rocking the bus and sending pieces of shrapnel raining down. In the left-hand corner at the back of the bus, I could see two young men lying dead in pools of blood.

There were probably 20 of us on the bus when the attack happened in Karachi on Thursday night. Around me were some of Bhutto's closest lieutenants. She had told them not to come, not wanting the party's leadership all at risk. But there were also relatives and friends.

Bhutto herself had gone downstairs 15 minutes earlier to a bulletproof compartment to relax her feet, swollen from standing for so many hours. We had no idea if she was still alive.

"We have to get off the bus," I shouted. We knew we were the targets. Everything was lit up as if it were day instead of six minutes past midnight, and there seemed to be bodies strewn everywhere. A nearby tree was on fire, as were a police van and a car. Flames were coming from the side of the bus. I was terrified the fuel tank would explode. I climbed over a body and made for the ladder where people had started clambering down. Someone yelled: "Don't - it's too exposed."

There was the sound of pistol fire. One man jumped off the side. I was about to do the same when Victoria Schofield, Bhutto's friend from her Oxford days, pulled me to a chute. She jumped down to be caught by a guard at the bottom, and I followed her, not caring about the 14ft drop.

All about us, the road was littered with body parts and plastic sandals. The nearest bodies had to be those of some of the boys in white Bhutto T-shirts who had made a human shield around the bus, linking hands so nobody could get through, and waving and smiling at us through the nine hours.

I thought about all the people who had travelled for days to see their returning leader and who had been dancing and waving flags, hoisting up children, who would beam with delight when we waved from the bus.

Trying not to look at a severed arm with its palm facing upward, I ran down a side street, just wanting to get away from the carnage.

A crying woman in a pink shalwar kameez grabbed me and tried to lead me to an ambulance. Only then did I realise there were great splashes of blood all over my left shoulder and arm and spattered across my trousers. It was somebody else's.

"I'm fine. I'm not hurt," I said, shaking her away. Only later would I realise there were bits of burnt flesh in my hair; and I would stand in the shower for hours under scalding water, trying to wash them - and that awful night - away.

A man with a moustache stopped me running and took me into his house, where I was soon joined by Rehman Malik, Bhutto's frizzy-haired security chief, Farooq Naik, her lawyer, and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who has led the Pakistan People's party (PPP) during her years in exile. All three were spattered with blood.

Bhutto was fine, they said, and had been driven to Bilawal House, her fortified family home in Karachi. I wanted to phone my husband and son in London, wishing fervently I had not called home so excitedly earlier to say I was on Bhutto's bus. But the batteries on all our mobile phones were flat after so many hours in the convoy.

The man with a moustache giving us sanctuary turned out to be an army colonel, a bizarre twist in this land where politicians and military have rarely worked together. He produced a battery charger, which we all fought over, and made us milky tea. He then drove us to Bilawal House.

Other survivors from the bus had gathered there, and we all hugged one another, crying with relief. Among them was Bhutto's cousin Tariq, who had told me on the bus how his wife had begged him not to get on board and how he had always stayed in farming and avoided politics.

"Our family is cursed," he had said. "All the Bhuttos who get involved end up dead: Benazir's father, both her brothers ..."

The military hanged her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1979; her brother Shahnawaz was poisoned in 1985; and her brother Mir Murtaza was shot in 1996.

Benazir Bhutto, the survivor of this "cursed" dynasty, was now sitting, pale but composed, in Bilawal House, watching BBC World's live reports from the scene of the bomb attacks. I sat on the arm of her chair and she told me how she had survived this attempt on her life.

Nursing her sore feet inside her compartment, she had been working on a speech she was due to deliver when the bus reached the mausoleum of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. With her was her political secretary, Naheed Khan.

"I had been reading it to Naheed, and we'd just finished, but then I thought there were a few more points to add. I was saying we should add the point that I would ask the supreme court to allow political parties in the tribal areas - and as I said 'tribal areas', the first bomb went off."

Both women were thrown to the floor. "First the sound, then the light, then the glass smashing," Bhutto said. "I knew it was a suicide bomb. My first thought was, it's actually happened." As she spoke to me, we watched the death toll rise on the television screen.

First, they said 15. We knew it was far more than that, for the street had been packed with tens of thousands of supporters. Suddenly, it shot up to 89, then more than 100. It was Pakistan's most deadly bomb.

She told me she had not wanted to come back to Bilawal House. "I thought they would target this, too, and would be waiting, knowing if I escaped I would come here. But my security insisted."

After a while, Bhutto went upstairs to wash her face. It was her first time back in the house for eight and a half years, and her old toothbrush was still in its glass in the bathroom. As she came back down, she stopped at the group of black-and-white photographs on the wall of her and her three children.

She touched them with her hand.

Bhutto's journey home had begun about 16 hours earlier at Dubai airport. Journalists and supporters of her party had flown there from London, and spirits were so high that the Emirates airline staff struggled to contain them on the flight. One PPP activist from Canada had ended up rolling round the aisle, drunk.

Bhutto arrived at the airport from the villa where she has been living in exile since fleeing Pakistan amid a welter of corruption charges. She looked stunning, dressed in an emerald-green-and-white shalwar kameez, the colours of the Pakistani flag, to symbolise national unity. Her jacket was finished with tiny white pearl buttons, and over her head was a trademark floaty white dupatta, which as usual rarely stayed on.

As she said goodbye to her two daughters and her husband, Asif, in the VIP lounge, she announced: "This is the beginning of a long journey for Pakistan back to democracy, and I hope my going back is a catalyst for change. We must believe that miracles do happen."

Already, however, the warnings were coming in. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, had publicly told her not to come because of security threats. Bhutto said she had prior warning that suicide squads would try to kill her on her return. She said the telephone numbers of suicide bombers had been given to her by a "brotherly country" and she had alerted Musharraf in a letter last Tuesday.

As her plane landed at Karachi airport, a message came from the government to her security adviser, Malik. "They told us it wasn't safe and they would take her in a helicopter direct to Bilawal House," he said later.

Bhutto is nothing if not brave, and she was defiant in the face of what they thought was a government attempt to stop her triumphant homecoming.

"By then we knew that more than 1m people, maybe 2m, were on the streets," she said. "They had come from all over the country, taking days and spending what little money they have. How could I disappoint them, sneaking in the back door?"

The excitement among her supporters on the aircraft had reached near-hysteria, and the pilot was refusing to taxi off the runway and open the doors until they quietened. Bhutto herself had to broadcast a message from the cockpit.

Finally we came to a stop, the doors were opened and the media was allowed off first. Then came Bhutto. As she reached the bottom of the steps, surrounded by a phalanx of photographers, tears spilt from her eyes and she almost stumbled.

"I was just so emotional to be home," she told me later. "It felt like this huge burden off my shoulders after so many years."

I have known Bhutto for more than 20 years. Her wedding in Karachi in December 1987 was my introduction to Pakistan and led me to move there as a freelance foreign correspondent.

Over the next two years I covered her fight against Pakistan's last dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, and her struggle to become the country's first woman prime minister at 35, campaigning even though pregnant with her first child. Within 20 months of being elected, she was deposed.

Since then I have been back and forth, seeing her ups and downs as she became prime minister for a second time, only to be thrown out once more amid charges of corruption against her and her husband that were never proved.

Because of this, I knew her closest aides. When they saw me among the hundreds of journalists at Karachi airport, they hauled me on to her bus, one of only two foreigners on board.

Bhutto had always been a crowd-puller, particularly in her home province of Sindh, but I wondered if she would still have the kind of support I had witnessed 20 years ago.

Then she was untainted, a fresh-faced girl not long out of Harvard and Oxford and daughter of a man who had been seen as the first Pakistani to give a voice to the poor before Zia deposed and hanged him. This time she was coming back as part of a deal with another dictator, Musharraf, even if she refused to call it that.

She insisted it was an "understanding for a transition towards democracy". But everyone knew that as a result of the deal the government's corruption cases against her had been dropped, allowing her to return and contest elections due to be held by January.

Moreover, this was a US-brokered deal that had involved frequent meetings with Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia, as well as 2am phone calls from Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, to break deadlocks.

Britain had also played its part, and Jack Straw was credited with bringing Bhutto in from the cold when he was foreign secretary. "As long as Washington and Whitehall are wedded to keeping Musharraf in power for their war on terror, she had no choice but to come back like this," said Malik, who led the negotiations on her side.

Polls commissioned by the US State Department, which showed that Bhutto commands never less than 30% of public support, led America to see that the way forward in an increasingly unstable Pakistan might be to bring her back as the democratic face of a beleaguered Musharraf.

"Each time military rule has failed, they have turned to a Bhutto to save the situation," says Husain Haqqani, director of the Centre for International Relations at Boston University and a former adviser to Bhutto and the military.

"Her father in 1971, then her in 1988. This time, at least, there is a Benazir Bhutto available to save the situation. If the military and intelligence agencies don't stop meddling in politics, next time maybe there won't be."

In a country where Osama Bin Laden commands far higher popularity ratings than President George W Bush, would America's role in her return work against her? It seemed not: her supporters came out in their hundreds of thousands to welcome her home.

From the top of the bus, it was an amazing spectacle: red, black and green PPP flags waving and people cheering, dancing and holding banners showing pictures of Bhutto and her father. Car horns blared.

"Only she can do this," said her mother-in-law, Mrs Zardari, as she looked out on the crowds from the top of the bus. "It makes me cry."

The sun was already setting as we reached Star Gate, at the end of the airport road, and turned right onto the main Shar-e-Faisal highway towards the city. For the first time, we could get an idea of the size of the crowds packing the road, which stretched as far as we could see into the distance.

As we all looked out, there was a flutter of feathers above our heads. Somebody had released a clutch of white doves, which circled above us amid "ooh"s and "aah"s. One fell to the floor of the bus and hurt its foot. Bhutto cradled it and put it on her shoulder, where it perched for hours as she waved indefatigably to the crowds.

One thing was clear, however. The bus might have bulletproof sides, but we were standing in the open on top. We were travelling at a snail's pace, and, with people all around - on the streets, up trees and lampposts, on top of buildings - it felt very exposed.

"How can you possibly secure this?" I asked one of the police officers on the top of the bus. He looked up at the heavens. "It's in God's hands," he said.

Bhutto herself stood right at the front, not behind the bulletproof screen that had been constructed to withstand even a shot from a Dragunov high-velocity rifle ("available as easily as sweets in the bazaar," according to Zulfikar Ali Mirza, who designed the bus). Durrani, the best friend of Bhutto's husband, was getting increasingly worried about how he could protect her.

The route of the convoy took it not only past a number of tall buildings but also under a series of footbridges and flyovers, which we had to duck to get underneath. The crowds on top were so close that their hands brushed ours. Fortunately, nobody threw anything more harmful than petals and rosebuds.

Durrani told me another fear was that someone might use a remote-controlled toy plane loaded with explosives to land on the bus. He was constantly on his mobile phone. "The government promised to provide us with jammers so we could intercept any remote-controlled explosive device within 200 metres," he explained. "But the man in the car in front of the bus with the jammer keeps telling me it isn't working and that we should do something."

Desperately, he tried to phone Tariq Aziz - the national security adviser and Musharraf's point man in the negotiations with the Bhutto camp - but to no avail. Then Asif, Bhutto's husband, called.

"He asked me what was going on. 'I can see you all on mobile phones, and they shouldn't work if the jammer is working.' I told him it wasn't. [He said:] 'For God's sake, get Benazir behind the bulletproof screen.' I asked her but she said, 'No, I must be at the front and greet my people.'" It was not only bombers that they were concerned about. As darkness fell, I stood at the front with Bhutto.

"Have you noticed the streetlights?" she asked me. "Each one we approach goes off so the road is in darkness and my guards can't see anything. Someone is doing this. We've had information they might try a shooting."

She was right. Illuminated by the bus's lights, we passed along like a bright bubble while the crowd on either side was in darkness.

I remembered back to when I lived in Pakistan. Whenever there was a mystery attack in Karachi, usually taking out somebody the intelligence agencies did not like, the shootings would be preceded by the streetlights going off.

Suddenly there was a crack of what sounded like gunfire. I threw myself on the floor before realising with embarrassment that it was fireworks. "I don't like the firecrackers," Bhutto said. "Anyone could use it as cover for shooting."

Her security people used searchlights to sweep the darkened crowds, looking out for anyone with a gun or a suspicious backpack. "There's no technique to identify a suicide bomber in an open street like this until it's too late," Durrani admitted. "That's why we decided on a human shield."

He said they had trained 5,000 young men, volunteers for the so-called "jan israin na Benazir Bhutto" - those prepared to sacrifice themselves for Bhutto. Of those, 3,000 were sent on to the bridges and tall buildings and into the crowd while 2,000 stayed around the bus.

Unarmed, they were identifiable by white or black T-shirts. Bravest of all - and many of them doomed - were those who formed a human chain around the bus. Others formed an outer cordon around the bus's police escort, holding a rope to stop the crowds coming too near.

At about 10pm we suddenly lurched to a halt. There was a moment of panic until someone explained that the bushad a flat tyre. Some local activists were told to get off as the load was too heavy. I was allowed to stay.

We sat stationary, crowds surrounding us and the vans of bored-looking police officers with Kalashnikovs forming a cordon either side. Somebody brought burgers and Pepsis, which we gobbled hungrily. Pizzas also arrived.

Seven hours after leaving the airport, we weren't even halfway along the 15km route to the Jinnah memorial, where Bhutto planned to make her speech. "If we keep going at this rate I'll have to order in breakfast on the bus," Malik joked.

Eventually the bus started moving again. As it got later, the security fears began to be forgotten and the mood became euphoric. There were even women in the crowd, which had been almost exclusively male. Many had brought their children, dressed in their best and excited to see such a spectacle.

Bhutto rested in the armchair inside the bulletproof shield on top of the bus, the wounded dove still perched on her shoulder, her face animated. I sat on the arm and we chatted.

"Aren't you tired?" I asked.

"Not at all," she laughed. "It's incredible, far more people than in 1986. How must Musharraf be feeling seeing this?"

She continued: "This is the real Pakistan, not the militants or the military. We are giving a voice to the moderates that don't want to see their country taken over by terrorists."

For a moment she grew sombre. "I just hope I can meet all these expectations... but also that I am allowed to."

Abida Hussein, one of Pakistan's best-known women MPs and a former critic of Bhutto who recently switched sides, got on the bus. The two women went downstairs to the safe compartment. Perhaps 20 minutes remained before the bombs would shatter the euphoria.

Karachi's police chief said yesterday the first bomb was a grenade or car bomb to make space, while the second blast was the work of a suicide bomber. His body - or body parts - has not yet been identified.

Although three people died on top of the bus, the only reason that Bhutto and the rest of us were not killed, it seems, is that the human shield worked - the young volunteers around the bus stopped the suicide bomber getting closer, paying for our protection with their own lives.

So, who did it? The awful thing about Pakistan today is that it could be any one of a number of people or organisations, from militants to the military.

Potential suspects include ethnic groups such as the MQM, the organisation that vies with the PPP for rule of Karachi, Taliban sympathisers and even old-guard politicians in deadly opposition to Bhutto.

"Far from bringing stability, Bhutto's return has threatened everybody," said a member of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest religious party.

Bhutto has pointed the finger at remnants in the intelligence and political elite from the Zia regime that executed her father. Some of them, she says, are still in power - although she is keen to make clear she is not implicating the president.

"We have confidence in some elements of the current regime, such as General Musharraf and the foreign minister, but it is the wild cards that give us concern, and those wild cards are usually the old cards," she said.

Musharraf had telephoned her the morning after the attack, she said. "He told me he had warned me not to come back, that there were security risks and he himself had faced two assassination attempts. But he said this shows we moderates must stand together."

Senior members of her party were not so sure. "My fear is they will use this as an excuse to declare martial law and not go ahead with the elections," said Malik.

Would the army really relinquish power? It has run the show for 33 of the country's 60 years of existence and pulled the strings from behind for much of the rest of the time. During Bhutto's two stints as prime minister she often complained: "I am in office but not in power." She later admitted she had been forced to leave both the nuclear programme and Afghan policy in the hands of the military.

Since Musharraf seized power in 1999, the military has markedly increased its role in the public and private sectors. Retired generals and brigadiers run the tax authority, the postal system and the housing department. Two of Pakistan's four provinces have generals as governors. According to Military Inc, a recent book by the defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, the army also controls large parts of the economy.

For Bhutto, the assassination attempt was a brutal awakening to how much the country has changed since she packed her bags and fled to London in 1998.

The evening after the attack, I sat with Bhutto in her small, book-lined study. She had just held her first press conference since her return, a bravura performance at which she had railed against "those who turned triumph into tragedy" and insisted she would not be deterred from her fight to bring back democracy, even if it cost her her life.

Dressed in sombre grey silk with a black armband, she told me she had had just less than four hours' sleep after the attack, from 6am to 10am. She had woken up with blood in her ears from the effect of the blast.

"I haven't felt weepy yet, but it suddenly hit me about 5.30am that maybe I wouldn't have made it," she said. "I kept thinking of the noise, the light and the place littered with dead bodies. Everything seemed lit up.

"Also I kept thinking of the boys, the human shields. Do you know more than 50 of them lost their lives?"

On the wall of the study was an old spelling certificate for her youngest daughter, Aseefa, who is 14, a reminder that Bhutto may be a politician but is also a devoted mother.

Her eldest, Bilawal, 19, started at Oxford earlier this month, while Aseefa and her other daughter, Bakhtwar, 17, have remained in Dubai with their father and "a house full of dogs", as both have important exams coming up.

The first thing she thought of after the bomb went off was the children, and she admitted it had been hard speaking to them that morning.

"They kept saying, 'Mummy, are you okay? Mummy, are you okay?' They had been desperately keen to come with me, and I said, 'That's why I didn't want you to come.'"

She added: "The worst thing is hurting them, making them fearful. I feel children need their parents. Losing my father was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I was 25 - they are still much smaller. I worry about the effect on them."

She insisted, however, that they understood that she had to return to Pakistan.

"My mother comes from Iran, and many of her relatives and friends never went back home, so I used to think I didn't want to be one of those people who'd lost their country."

She said that after the attack her husband had been about to jump on the next plane from Dubai to be with her. "I said: 'Don't come back, because what if they don't let you out? Then the girls will be on their own.'"

Although she vows to continue, she is having to rethink her strategy. Today she had planned to return in procession to her ancestral home in Larkana, but that has been put on hold.

"Originally I was planning to be on the road the whole time, but now that's clearly impossible," she said. "We can't be intimidated by them but we can't take reckless risks. We know they won't give up.

"The problem is, in Pakistan people want to see their leaders," she added. "Our power base are the poor and dispossessed. They don't have TVs or computers we can reach them through."

Yesterday the usually cacophonous city of Karachi was subdued. Relatives of those who never came home on Friday morning crowded city hospitals and morgues, waving pictures of the missing. Others brought them to Bhutto's house.

A survivor, Nadir Ali Magsi, a 25-year-old peasant farmer from a village close to Larkana, lay in the neurosurgery ward at Jinnah hospital. He had shrapnel embedded in his head and legs. One eye was bandaged up, and he had difficulty hearing, but he managed to speak.

"Benazir zindabad," he repeatedly said. Long live Benazir.

Christina Lamb OBE

One of Britain's leading foreign correspondents, bestselling author and inspirational speaker.
You can contact me through my Agent or Facebook page.