`But even as the US-leaked memos and statements accused the ISI of secretly supporting the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan put its foot down on allowing the US to operate inside settled areas. While US drone missile strikes grew more frequent, they were only allowed to operate in the FATA belt along Afghanistan. Drones became a weapon of choice in North Waziristan, where Al Qaeda’s foreign fighters and Taliban congregated but where the military held off from conducting any operation.
The UN has questioned the legality of drone attacks because of the highly covert nature of the strikes. Although the true extent of civilian casualties are unknown, a study by the New America Foundation shows that while drones have killed more than 1,300 people, the civilian fatality rate is approximately 30 percent of that figure.
On the other hand, Washington has ramped up drone attacks because they avoid the loss of US lives, and there is no media to record the blood spilled on the ground. But the strikes remain highly unpopular in Pakistan, where common people pay the ultimate price. These drone attacks have been avenged by the militants through a spree of almost indiscriminate suicide attacks in Pakistan.’
1991 will go down as the year in Pakistan when the press united and stopped the attacks on journalists. Several journalists had been attacked before us, but the attack on Kamran and me started a fire.
There was a reason for it. Kamran worked for the Jang group of newspapers, while I was reporter for the Dawn group of newspapers – the two biggest publishing houses which own about half the effective print publications in the country. Their tycoon owner-publishers, the Mir Shakilur Rehman and Haroon families were represented in the highest newspaper bodies, All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) and the Council of Newspaper Editors and Publishers (CPNE) which wield a huge influence on Pakistan’s governments.
The week after I was threatened with knives, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation (APNEC) energized journalist protests in rallies and demonstrations held across Pakistan. PFUJ and APNEC serve as the backbone of the journalist industry and their activism under the harsh dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq has yielded dividents in keeping the media free.
The military backed Nawaz Sharif’s government refused to accept responsibility for the attacks on journalists. Between April 26, 1991 and October 24, 1991, the U.S. based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent four letters to Sharif, protesting against the mounting attacks on the press. It was met with stony silence.
It was left to my journalist colleagues to fight for press freedom. Following the attacks on Kamran and me, journalists walked out of the assembly in the four provinces of Pakistan – Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Northwest Frontier Province – and forced the assemblies to condemn the attacks on the press. Each day the newspapers appeared chock full of statements by politicians, human rights groups, labor leaders, women and civil society to condemn the Sindh government and demand the arrest of our attackers.
From my sanctuary in Islamabad, my mother told me the phone at our Karachi home rang off the hook. Government officials, politicians, journalists and of course friends…called to ask about my welfare. Embarrassed by the negative publicity they received, officials in Jam Sadiq Ali’s cabinet offered to appoint police officials at a security post they proposed from across my house. It was like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. I rejected their offer.
Knives Were Used to Send a Message
As I lay low in Islamabad, Benazir Bhutto issued a statement from overseas which squarely blamed the federal and Sindh government for the attacks on Kamran and me. It read:
“Both journalists have a distinguished record of investigative journalism, which includes an expose of the MQM and the criminal activities being conducted at the CIA headquarters. There is no doubt that these attacks have been coordinated by the Jam Government on the instructions of Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan.”
It was a fair indictment of the perpetrators, except that it cast doubt on the MQM’s role in the attacks. Although the ethnic party used to dictate news coverage, threaten hawkers and burn newspapers considered to be unfriendly, by the fall of 1991, they were themselves victims of the army’s “Operation Clean up.” As such, they were not in a position to conduct the attacks.
The MQM chief Altaf Hussein’s tried to dispel his party’s image. In a statement carried by the press on September 27, 1991 he said:
“We too differ with some of the media contents, but we go to people and ask them to stop reading a particular paper. The MQM has never attacked any newspaper office or resorted to such things.”
I took the MQM statement with a handful of salt. However in the present instance I recognized that I had grown entangled in the war between the intelligence agencies. This was more apparent because Kamran and I had used the same military intelligence (MI) source in exposing the Jam-Marwat combine.
Apparently, the MI, which is the political wing of the military, was then at odds with the techniques used by the ISI and the intelligence bureau (IB) in arm twisting the PPP’s political opponents. The IB, which snooped around locally to guess which journalists appeared to support the PPP, put us on its “hit list.” The office of Chief Minister Jam Sadiq Ali then flanked by a dime a dozen operators who supported his nefarious tactics, apparently directed the CIA to send knife-wielding assailants to warn us not to interfere in their mafia operations.
A Historic Protest
Five days had passed and I watched the national outcry against the knife attacks from my brother Pervez’s place in Islamabad. That weekend my brother’s colleague at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Dr A.H. Nayyar arrived, carrying heavy editions of the newspapers. Dr Nayyar, a physicist like my brother was hugely invested in the political situation inside Pakistan, and had a wry sense of humor.
Apparently tired from the weight of the weekend editions of the English and Urdu newspapers he had been carrying; Nayyar plunked them down on the table in front of us and flopped down himself.
“What’s the news?” my brother Pervez asked.
“Nothing,” Nayyar replied wearily. “They’re full of statements on Nafisa.”
I went through the newspapers. Statements were splashed across every newspaper by political parties, journalist unions, women’s organizations, minority groups, and human rights groups. In several instances they named the influential culprits and demanded punishment for the attacks on myself and my colleague.
Even while the federal government assured the employers and journalist unions that our attackers would be caught and punished, we knew that nothing of that sort would happen. The matter of a free press was inextricably linked with the polarized politics in Sindh and could not be resolved short of dismissing the Sindh government. The newspaper bodies correctly surmised that the media would suffer unless we demonstrated a collective show of strength.
And so, newspapers, magazines, and periodicals announced they planned to suspend publication on September 29, 1991. It was an unprecedented event, designed to shut down 25 million copies for one day to protest the attacks against journalists. The journalist community declared that as a mark of protest no reporter would attend or cover the government functions on that date – which fell on a Sunday.
On the day of the press shut-down, my journalist colleagues from The News took me to the home of their editor Maleeha Lodhi. Lodhi would later serve as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. – under Benazir Bhutto and then Pervaiz Musharraf. Maleeha looked at me searchingly and said,
“You know, Kamran is associated with the intelligence agencies. But with you we know there is no such association.”
I was glad to hear it.
A journalist friend of mine, Ayoub Shaikh had once asked me, eyes twinkling,
“I sometimes wonder, who does Nafisa work for?”
“No one,” I had said, “I work for myself”.
“I know,” he had said, smiling.
On strike day, the Rawalpindi Union of Journalists organized a national event in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city, which was addressed by media stalwarts – All Pakistan Newspaper Society President, Farhad Zaidi, veteran journalist turned politician Mushahid Hussain, The News editor Maleeha Lodhi, senior editors, and representatives of journalist unions.
I spoke from a highly charged frame of mind, fired up by my close encounter. Mostly, I told journalists in Islamabad about the incredibly polarized political situation in my southern home province of Sindh.
“If we do not stand together, I am afraid that a journalist may be killed any day now,” I said.
It was a speech I made from the heart, and it appeared in the press on October 1, when the newspapers went back into circulation.
A Pakistan Television team arrived at the press club after I had finished speaking. They had come to film the protests against the attacks on the press nationwide, and needed footage of my speech. I was surprised to see them because the government controlled national television. Their decision to cover the event indicated that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not entirely in charge.
Later, I watched the video footage of the nationwide protests in the districts, towns and cities of the four provinces – with the most impressive march in Karachi from where the attacks had emanated.
While it is normal practice for Pashtuns to bear arms, the Cold War gave them unprecedented access to the weapons that transited from Karachi to their native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan. It was a time when the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had forced three million Afghans to cross the porous borders into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North West Frontier Province. These were Pashtun Afghans who lived on both sides of the border and who followed their relatives in Karachi to look for work.
In Karachi, the Afghan refugees had congregated in Sohrab Goth – a tented village erected by the United Nations along the remote dusty wastelands of the city’s Super Highway. In those Cold War days, I reported from the tented village after it became notorious as a drugs and weapons hotspot. The turbaned Afghan Mujahideen, who toured the camps, hunted for young recruits for the US-funded jihad against the former Soviet Union. Sohrab Goth was a home for Afghan refugees and a depot for heroin. The army’s National Logistics Cell (NLC) trucks, which carried US arms and ammunition to the Mujahideen in the north, were widely rumored to return carrying heroin to be sold in Karachi.
By December 1986, Karachi’s Pashtuns – ﬂush with drug money – had stocked a sizeable cache of weapons in a desolate area north of Karachi called Orangi Town. The Pashtuns lived here in brick and stone homes atop the rugged cliffs, much as they did in the hilly tribal regions that border Afghanistan. Their homes jutted menacingly over a sea of Mohajirs – including almost a million Biharis who had settled here after 1971, when Pakistan’s eastern wing, “East Pakistan,” seceded and became Bangladesh.
My early recollections of Orangi Town go back to 1972, when as a schoolgirl I was brought by my father to work with humanitarian organizations in order to help the Biharis resettle in Karachi. The Bengali nationalists accused the Biharis of collaborating with the Pakistani army during the 1971 war. In fact in 1947 many Muslim Biharis had opted to migrate from India’s Bihar state to what was then East Pakistan. They ended up making a double migration in 1971 when they opted to join the Urdu speaking community in Karachi. Subsequently, 1 million Biharis were resettled in Orangi town by Zulﬁkar Ali Bhutto’s government.
As a teenager, I made trips with my father to the deserted area in the north of Karachi to help an exhausted paramedic serve the poor, malnourished Bihari patients. Hundreds of refugees queued outside our makeshift clinics for cough and cold medicines. As the overworked dispenser dished out the medicines that I handed to him, his fantastic claim sparked my imagination: “I’m so busy I don’t even have the time to die!”
Fifteen years later, these poor Biharis – who had left war- ravaged Bangladesh to become Karachi’s newest Mohajirs – faced the wrath of angry Pashtuns. It was mid-December in 1986 and well past our newspaper deadline when an army of Pashtuns equipped with machine guns charged down the Orangi hills. They made use of the mud walls erected on the hills, shooting and ducking for cover. As the aggressors rained ﬁreballs from their fortresses, the Mohajir areas below them – the Aligarh and Qasbah colonies – went up in ﬂames.
The violence continued into the wee hours as both ethnic groups displayed the worst of human nature. It was reported that Mohajir babies were snatched and thrown into burning oil while Pashtuns were tied up and sliced to pieces in revenge killings. The cycle of violence raged for the next few days and cut off Orangi from the rest of Karachi.
Late at night, as the ﬁres raged in Orangi Town, I got a phone call from a national public radio station in the US asking for the news. I ﬁled my report, thousands of miles from America. It ﬁlled me with awe that Orangi Town – which I knew as acres of hilly desert with mud homes and little access to clean drinking water and sewerage – had made international headlines.
It was no less amazing that Orangi had become the scene of clashes between two very different refugee groups – the Biharis from South Asia and the Afghans from Central Asia – separated by thousands of miles of territory. Their peoples had migrated to Karachi to ﬁnd peace because of the wars that had uprooted them from their respective countries. And now once again their lives were being turned around by bloody ethnic warfare.
I first met Benazir Bhutto in 1986 at the Karachi Press Club (KPC) – where she had come to meet members of the press. A bevy of journalists surrounded her, as she was taken to the upper floor of the building. The former president of KPC, the late Mahmood Ali Asad thrust me through the crowd to introduce me as the “active lady reporter from Dawn”. Poised and dignified – a white silk dupatta around her hair – Benazir smiled graciously and made room next to her with the words:
“Oh, I thought you were a school girl.”
I was seated next to her and I worked to take advantage of it. I asked Benazir if she would give me an interview for Dawn on the Islamic fundamentalist laws relating to women. The Zina Ordinances had by then forced women to disappear from public spaces. As a woman who campaigned for the public post of prime minister, Benazir’s position on the Islamist laws had not been publicized and I hoped to be able to do just that.
Benazir looked hard at me, indicating that she was weighing up the benefit of giving me an interview that would strike against the ruling Gen. Zia. In characteristic fashion, she threw me a counter question: “Can you write a paper detailing the laws that have been passed under Gen. Zia and their implications for women?”
The counter-offer took me by surprise. And yet, living with the effects of the discriminatory laws every day, I was happy to further her understanding of them. We parted with a common understanding that I would write a paper on the situation and she would give me an exclusive interview on the subject.
For the next several weeks I researched the Islamist laws at a little library in Karachi, set up by an academically-oriented women’s organization called Shirkat Gah. It was the forerunner to the activist Women’s Action Forum and War Against Rape – civil society organizations from a privileged class, which took enormous risks to protect the most vulnerable sections of society.
I had the document delivered to Benazir, and received word through her party members that it was a “well researched piece.” Still, three months went by and there was no word from the woman who went on to become prime minister.
Finally, out of the blue I got a phone call from 70 Clifton, Benazir’s ancestral mansion in Karachi, saying that she wanted to see me. Armed with a tape recorder, I sped to her residence, ready to interview her. To my surprise a handful of women activists were already there. Benazir had invited them to consult whether she should give me the interview.
It was 1986 and Benazir was still unmarried. That was apparently the stumbling block for the 33-year-old woman, who – notwithstanding her Western education – had roots in Larkana’s feudal culture. “What will the Mullahs think about me, a single woman…talking about issues such as rape?” she quizzed us frankly.
I was perplexed. As privileged women we knew that the Islamist laws were implemented in the harshest possible way on poor women. But I wondered if Benazir had thought about the irony of becoming the prime minister of a country where discriminatory laws would still treat her as a second-class citizen.
The Western-educated women – mostly from the Women’s Action Forum – had long waited for the opportunity to turn around the situation for women. Knowing that Benazir stood a good chance of becoming Pakistan’s first woman prime minister, they convinced her that the time was right for her to pledge her support for women’s rights.
Apparently our presence prevailed on Benazir. The next day, I got an urgent message from 70 Clifton that Benazir wanted to see me right away. Once again, I sped in my purple soap-shaped car to her ancestral home. Benazir didn’t need to be asked any questions. Instead, in an unstoppable monologue, she regurgitated the points I had provided in my paper.
On July 11, 1986, Dawn published my 45-minute interview with the headline, “Benazir Decries laws and Attitudes that Degrade Women.” Benazir had praised her late father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for his role in the advancement of women’s rights. Most importantly, she made a commitment that if elected as prime minister she would repeal the laws passed by Gen. Zia ul Haq.
The British exited India just as Pakistan was carved out of it in 1947. As a child in the 1960s I grew up in the bubble they left behind. Being a well-off new Pakistani, my father was among the select few to become a member of the Karachi Gymkhana. The gymkhana was part of a chain of exclusive clubs left by the British. It had red Spanish roof tiles, lush green lawns and had, up until partition, displayed the sign:
“Indians and Dogs not allowed.”
We were seeped in Western culture, wearing shorts and frocks to the clubs, which were frequented by European families. It was at the Karachi Gymkhana that I saw blond and blue-eyed kids for the first time. I was fascinated: they looked just like the golden-haired dolls my mother brought back from Europe. And yet times were changing, as we locals with darker hair and eye color began to inherit their privileges.
In those days, Karachi was dotted with bookstores and lending libraries. The exposure to English literature would open up new and exciting worlds. As a teenager, I came across D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with its vivid descriptions of sexuality. The expression of shame on my relative’s face as he took the book from me made me aware of the high premium society placed on female chastity. Indeed, in a rapidly Islamizing society in which women joined the ranks of the veiled and unseen, it was difficult to believe that men did not obsess about female sexuality in the recesses of their minds.
My earliest memories of Karachi are of a city developed in 1843 by the British from a sleepy fishing village to a seaport and a well-planned city center with theaters, clubs, hotels, and coffee-shops and bookstores. By the 1960s, the Mohajirs had completed their major migrations from India to the newly created Pakistan. Still, it was a relatively calm period in which the refugees arrived with smaller families and fanned out to rural Sindh in search of job opportunities.
The creation of Pakistan had been a symbol of immense hope for India’s Muslim refugees. They arrived from all parts of India: young and old, rich and poor, by train and by bus. Those who crossed the border by foot hoped to achieve the prosperity that they never dreamed of attaining in predominantly Hindu India. In a short time, they would give up hopes of finding job opportunities in the rural areas of Sindh and begin to converge on Karachi.
Twenty years later, I saw how the convergence of ethnic groups, fighting over a shrinking economic pie, would the stoke the fires of intolerance and political instability. Until such a time, Karachi was a clean and quiet city. We took leisurely walks at night around the city’s showpiece, Frere Hall, enjoying the cool summer breeze from the Arabian Sea.
We could not have predicted that the well-planned British built city of Karachi would grow into a sprawling, unplanned metropolis and a hotbed for ethnic and sectarian violence. Nor could we foresee that the US consulate located across Frere Hall would become a repeated target of bomb attacks, with its fortified presence becoming symbolic of anti-American sentiment.
Back then, as my father’s antique Austin car inched its way through the city, I sat up and watched for new titles of English movies screened at Rex, Palace, Odeon and Lyric cinema houses. Perched on top of the Bambino cinema house, owned by Hakim Ali Zardari – father of President Asif Ali Zardari – was the object that made me sit up with special interest: a flashing blue neon sign with the image of a woman dancer gyrating her hips.
Inside, wide-eyed audiences watched classic movies like Toby Tyler and Gone with the Wind. It did not matter that the crowds did not understand English. Through the movies came the images of Western culture – where women mixed freely with men – and one saw the trappings of great material wealth and progress.
Years later, as I flew to Larkana to interview the aristocratic Mumtaz Bhutto at his ancestral home, I found he had also not forgiven the PPP “riff raff” for their challenge to the feudal lords.
With his cool demeanor and long moustache, Mumtaz spoke slow clipped sentences in British English. It established his credentials as a barrister-at-law from Lincoln’s Inn, U.K. Well-spoken, and comfortable with hosting Western diplomats in his Karachi mansion, Mumtaz was just as at ease in his sprawling estate as in the otherwise poor and underdeveloped Larkana.
The Larkana feudal had stayed away from Benazir’s attempts to reorganize the PPP after her father was hanged by the military. Instead, he had watched incredulously as Benazir had worked her way up through the old boy network of entrenched male feudals.
Mumtaz came to receive me at his gates in Larkana after my hosts dropped me off from the airport. We walked back to his magnificent estate. Rows of elderly men touched his feet in reverence all the way back to the house. I felt guilty that grown men prostrated themselves. But, the Larkana feudal walked erect, scarcely looking down at the emaciated peasants. This was the traditional welcome for a man who owns lands in Larkana, Jacobabad and Shahdadkot and in the adjoining Balochistan province.
Sitting in the shade in Mumtaz Bhutto’s brick courtyard where the afternoon sun gently sizzled, we chatted after I finished interviewing him. An avid reader of Dawn, he told me he was familiar with my name. It did not surprise me, knowing that Western-educated feudal politicians and bureaucrats alike read the newspaper for which I wrote. At the same time, he complained that politicians shot into prominence – and I knew he hinted at Benazir – because of the media attention they received.
Perhaps the inordinate attention Benazir had received in the press after her exile overseas had seemed excessive to her uncle. In particular, he seemed irked by how green Benazir was for Pakistan’s seamy politics.
With a sardonic smile, Mumtaz told me that when Benazir had arrived from London to lead the Pakistani nation of over 100 million, her youth and unfamiliarity in getting the top job as prime minister made her seem like “Alice in Wonderland.”
“You know that when Benazir first came to me, she didn’t know anyone. Instead, she asked that I introduce her to people,” Mumtaz told me.
“Did you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said in his non-committal way.
But I knew that as a political rival Mumtaz was least likely to introduce his ambitious niece to the powerbrokers.
Mumtaz was a man who belonged to another era, another system. His style was in sharp contrast to Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto had used his fiery speeches to empower peasants and the working class, who had, for centuries, cringed before the aristocracy. Apart from being a demagogue, Bhutto had left lasting effects. My visit to Larkana – the ancestral home of the Bhuttos – gave me an insight into the contrasting style of the rival politicians from the best-known political family of Sindh.
We sat in the courtyard where the sounds of chirping birds and the fresh country air made me glad to be out of Karachi city. As the servants brought tea, Mumtaz poked fun at Benazir’s poor knowledge of her mother tongue, Sindhi. It was an issue I could identify with myself: like Benazir, I was born a Sindhi in Karachi. Being primarily educated in Western institutions, my parents had never encouraged me to learn my own language.
But Mumtaz was relentless with his niece.
“When Benazir comes to Larkana and I hear her speeches in Sindhi blaring out from the loudspeakers, I want to cover my ears,” he laughed sardonically. He saw me smile, in spite of myself.
Mumtaz had reserved his deepest contempt for the commoners who joined the PPP under Benazir. I could see how difficult it had been for him to digest the victory of a PPP candidate of “inferior standing” like Deedar Hussain Shah, who won against him in Larkana.
“You know that fellow (Deedar Shah) used to be my kumdar (manager of lands) – who waited outside my office to get my attention,” he told me. “And now he has the nerve to stand against me,” he added in disgust.
That came as news to me. I knew Deedar Shah as one of the best-read parliamentarians in the Sindh Assembly.
We left the ancestral courtyard after Mumtaz offered to take me on a tour of his ancestral lands in Larkana in his Pajero jeep. It was an unusual step for a feudal to drive a vehicle with an unveiled woman, but there were important things on my host’s mind.
As we drove through his constituency, he told me to note the broken roads and a gaping gutter in Naudero, Larkana where a child had fallen a few days ago. He cited them as examples of how his humble PPP rival Deedar Shah had failed to fulfill the needs of the community.
Both Mumtaz Bhutto and his PPP opponent Deedar Hussein Shah, knew from experience that getting funds from the Punjab was like getting blood out of a stone. Deedar Shah grew hoarse in the Sindh Assembly as he appealed for development funds for interior Sindh. Eventually he quit politics and became a judge.
As a prominent feudal lord, Mumtaz claimed he would have more leverage with the federal government in getting funds for rural Sindh. That, I suspected, was true.
It was no coincidence that ethnic violence first broke out with the creation of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in 1985, shortly after Gen. Zia had held non-party elections as part of his plan to usher in controlled democracy.
That year, the Mohajirs led by a former Karachi university student, Altaf Hussain contested as independents and won a landslide victory. Encouraged by Gen. Zia ul Haq to organize on non- political grounds, the refugees from India mobilized in Karachi on the basis of their separate ethnic identity and registered as a political party.
In April 1985, I was tipped off by our crime reporter that gunshot victims had begun to pile up at a hospital in the north of Karachi. Word was that a speeding Pashtun mini-van driver had killed a Mohajir college girl, Bushra Zaidi. The accident itself was not news. Indeed, not a day went by when the newspapers did not report traffic deaths. Terrified of the speeding vehicles, the young women often held hands as they ran across this particular intersection. But that day, the young college girl that tried nervously to cross the road was struck down and died.
Bushra’s death became a cue for the unemployed Mohajir youth. They banded, in the newly armed MQM, to fan out throughout the city and destroy mini-vans dubbed “yellow devils.” They also burnt down rickshaws and taxis owned and operated by Pashtuns. It was a direct assault on the livelihood of the migrants from the north of Pakistan who bought their vehicles on high interest loans and raced their callously-stuffed passengers at high speeds so that they could repay the loan sharks. The Pashtuns reacted in the only way they knew; they shot back and killed the Mohajir assailants.
Government hospitals were caught unaware by the first major incident of ethnic violence under Gen Zia. The Abbasi Shaheed Hospital overflowed with victims of gunshot wounds. Medicines and blood were in desperately short supply. Frenzied crowds gathered on the lawns to donate blood and medicines for the victims, rushed in every few minutes by make-shift ambulances that were more suited to carrying vegetables than people.
For the next several days, the riots between Mohajirs and Pashtuns left 65 people dead and 158 injured. It was a vision of things to come. Over the next two decades tens of thousands of people would lose their lives as the MQM fought with the indigenous ethnic groups – Sindhis, Balochis, Pashtuns, and Punjabis – and the military alternately used and killed Mohajir youths in an attempt to wrest back control.
It was an era of the Cold War when the US Republican administration, led by President Ronald Reagan, used Zia’s regime as a conduit to fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. No sooner did the arms, bound for Mujahideen fighters, land at the Karachi Port than they were smuggled out and sold in the black market. The alacrity with which gun licenses were issued to ethnic groups made it appear that Gen. Zia preferred that they fight each other than fight his military rule.
Gen. Zia’s patronage of the MQM unfolded before our eyes. His ministers would call on the MQM chief Altaf Hussain at his home in Azizabad – a lower middle-class Mohajir neighborhood in Karachi. High walls cordoned off the MQM’s head-office – Nine Zero, Azizabad – also known as Markaz or the “Center.” At the Karachi Press Club, we talked about how Mohajirs had achieved the stuff of dreams: a lower-middle class party that kept key establishment figures waiting to meet their chief.
The MQM chief, Altaf Hussein’s personality lent an air of mystery to the party he had created. A dark-skinned man who wore dark glasses at all times, Altaf began the MQM as a movement for the rights of Muslim migrants from India who had arrived to create Pakistan. The MQM talked progressive politics, criticizing the feudals who oppressed Sindhis. But the MQM chief operated in a distinctly feudal style. Altaf Hussain projected himself as “Pir saheb” (spiritual leader), whose infatuated followers saw his likeness on the leaves around them.
Years later, MQM stalwart and former Karachi Mayor, Farooq Sattar acknowledged to me in a recorded interview what I had long known – namely, that in 1984, the “intelligence agencies allowed the MQM to come up to counter the PPP”. The purpose, he said, in a tone, that suggested that it was an open secret, was to prevent the Sindhis from gaining power.
The senior MQM leader referred to the 1983 Movement for Restoration of Democracy, through which tens of thousands of Sindhi villagers – who had protested against Gen. Zia’s execution of the elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – were strafed by helicopter gunships in their own settlements. At the same time, Sindhi intellectuals, writers and journalists who supported the MRD were imprisoned and tortured by the military.
Decades later, the former Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Mirza Aslam Baig too acknowledged on television that the MQM was created by his predecessor, Gen. Zia ul Haq as a political measure to counter the Sindhi insurgency that grew after the murder of PPP founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The press was still controlled by the military government but statements poured into Dawn from readers that the government ought to nationalize private wagons and buses and confiscate the driving licenses of reckless drivers.
In the forefront were educated Urdu-speaking professionals, bewildered by the sudden upsurge of violence. Their women councilors – many of them newly elected in Gen. Zia’s government – appealed for a ban on guns and for dialogue. But such expressions of hand wringing had nothing to do with the insidious workings of the military, which secretly patronized the ethnic party for political purposes.
Moreover, whilst educated Mohajirs were shocked by the violence, the reprisals by Pashtuns convinced many to organize as a political party. Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, many Mohajirs had come to dislike the fact that they did not fit into a native ethnic group – Sindhis, Baloch, Pashtuns and Punjabis. Their feud with the Pashtuns convinced many that the Indian refugees needed a party to guarantee their survival. It would provide a groundswell of support for the MQM.
(Chapter 2 – Ethnic Violence in Sindh: The MQM Saga)
By the time Zardari took over as president, the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariati- Mohammedi (TNSM) had established a parallel Taliban state in parts of Malakand division where it ostensibly practiced Nizam-i-Adl (Order of Justice: essentially Sharia law). Awami National Party’s Senator Afrasiab Khattak told me that his new government was taken aback to find it had inherited an ill-trained, ill-equipped police force that was no match for an increasingly ferocious Taliban militancy, which, in Swat, was headed by Maulana Fazlullah.
In Khattak’s words, the situation had deteriorated so rapidly because “Musharraf’s duplicity had suited the Bush administration.”
Toward the end of 2008, a massive suicide bomb attack at the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad had destroyed the myth that parliamentarians, diplomats or even armed personnel were safe. Islamabad grew even more strongly fortified. A wide cordon was thrown around the parliament buildings and cars were investigated at checkpoints set up at every few yards. The besieged political leadership traveled in groups and only to fortified locations.
In Swat, residents were too terrified to speak up against the Taliban militants after the group had burnt down hundreds of girls’ schools and beheaded the law enforcement personnel they had kidnapped. While TSNM chief Sufi Mohammed was imprisoned for fighting against the US forces that invaded Afghanistan in 2001, his son-in-law Fazlullah had joined hands with TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud to eliminate hundreds of tribesmen and political opponents in FATA.
Fazlullah’s spokesman Muslim Khan told me with aplomb that it had become necessary to behead political opponents and that the practise fell well within the dictates of Islam.
Under these circumstances, the Zardari government was relieved when TNSM chief, Sufi Mohammed pledged to follow the pacifist road and confine the enforcement of Shariah law to Malakand division in return for a ceasefire and release of Taliban prisoners. It was ostensibly a throwback to 1994 when Sufi Mohammed and his tribesmen had blocked the Swat Mingora road for one week to demand the enforcement of Sharia. Then, Benazir’s government had buckled into supporting the TSNM chief’s demands for a superficial enforcement of Islamic law.
In February 2009, the ANP government signed the controversial Swat peace deal with Sufi Mohammed, pledging to release 300 Taliban prisoners in return for Fazlullah’s promise to disengage from the Tehrik-i-Taliban militancy.
But the TTP promise turned out to be an exercise in duplicity. Fazlullah’s militants, already engaged in shady trade activities in Malakand took advantage of the ceasefire to deploy Taliban militants to take over government owned emerald mines in Mingora and spread out in FATA to demand jaziya (tax for non-Muslims).
As Washington watched with alarm, Pakistan’s civil society was the first to speak out against the Swat peace deal. Talk show hosts in television and radio, print journalists and bloggers expressed alarm as a video surfaced of a girl who was flogged on suspicion of marital infidelity. Fazlullah’s spokesman Muslim Khan defended the flogging as he told incredulous television anchors, “It is the girl’s good fortune that Qazi courts had not been set up, otherwise she would have been stoned to death.”
In April 2009 the Taliban advanced to nearby Bunair, where they sealed the civil courts and announced they would be converted to Islamic courts. Sufi Mohammed issued a fatwa against Pakistan’s courts, embarrassing even for the Jamaat-i-Islami, who admitted the Taliban had gone too far. As the Taliban forces rampaged through the Margalla hills, the ousted leader of the opposition and JUI (F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman told the National Assembly with the confidence of an insider that the Taliban would soon be knocking on Islamabad’s doors.
For the incoming Obama administration the situation in Pakistan was a rude awakening to Bush’s failed foreign policy. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill that Pakistan posed a “mortal threat” to the rest of the world, Congress authorized a flurry of diplomatic activities to Pakistan to convince the new army chief Gen. Asfaque Pervaiz Kiyani, that the Taliban could take over the government in Pakistan.
In May 2009, the Pakistan army sent thousands of forces to battle Taliban fighters in Swat. It triggered the largest and swiftest exodus in recent history. As the army imposed curfew and flushed out the Swat militants, the UN set up tented communities in Mardan and Swabi to support over 1.5 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Still, as the numbers of the displaced grew dramatically over half the IDPs stayed with their relatives – with the generous hospitality provided by locals to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa proving to be the saving grace for the government.
Islamabad, in which Benazir Bhutto twice took oath as Prime Minister, had during her exile moved firmly into the U.S. orbit of influence. It looked nothing like the provincial capital I had visited in 1991 or even 2001. Instead by toward the end of the decade it had become a cosmopolitan city where big money and an entrenched mafia had transformed it into a U.S. outpost for Afghanistan.
Today the Islamabad highway – which connects to the airport – has signs to Srinagar, Muzzafarabad, Lahore and Murree, anywhere but local destinations. The nouveau riche display their boorish mentality in high-speed dark tinted Mercedes cars, flashing lights to move drivers off the roads. Middle Eastern and foreign capital has poured in and influenced the architecture of banks, gas stations and mosques. Five Star hotels, amongst them the Marriot Hotel, are barricaded like massive fortresses.
Islamabad is the epicenter for CIA-ISI partnerships and betrayals in a growing battle for control over Afghanistan. As in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan has once again strengthened the Pakistan military. Like the Margalla hills, the war in Afghanistan casts its shadow over the National Assembly and Senate – which today sit amid a formidable ring of security check posts.
What has not changed is the presence of poor people, which Islamabad attempts to brush under the carpet. Behind the veneer of modernity, it is impossible not to notice common people at bus and wagon stops and impoverished way side restaurants, bearded men in loose-fitting shalwar kameez or the few numbers of women in public. The feudal culture is evident in the peasants who trek from their villages to Islamabad, where they end up as domestic servants.
Islamabad – with its filthy rich and powerful – along with its poorer twin garrison city of Rawalpindi, was the perfect setting for the mafia to finally get Benazir Bhutto, who had cheated death from the day she landed in Pakistan. By publicly denouncing Musharraf, Benazir had simultaneously challenged the intelligence agencies and the Islamic militants secretly coddled by them for strategic purposes in the region. The prospects of a Bhutto rousing the masses riled the military, even as the militants were strongly opposed to being ruled by a woman.
That fateful day – Dec 27, 2007 – Benazir drove to Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi in a white Land Cruiser packed with eight people. They included the driver Javed ur Rehman and a retired Major SSP Imtiaz Hussain. Benazir sat behind them between Sindh’s leading feudal Makhdoom Amin Fahim and close companion Naheed Khan. The third tier consisted of Naheed’s husband Safdar Abbasi and security guard, Khalid Shahanshah. Benazir’s personal attendant, Razak Mirani, occupied the last seat.
Eye-witnesses say that security was “very tight” that day at Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi. The rally participants were scanned at the rally entrance, even while armed police men stood on rooftops. The crowd was small and oddly enough, seated on chairs located a considerable distance from the stage.
Party loyalists and photographers swarmed the stage where Benazir – attired in blue with a white dupatta on her head – talked energetically how the militants had taken down the Pakistani flag in Swat, but “we will keep it flying.”
While Benazir spoke, news filtered in that Nawaz Sharif’s procession had been attacked in Islamabad. It created a commotion in the media stand and some of the journalists began to leave the rally. However, Benazir went on speaking.
Although PPP guards were deputed to guard Benazir, subsequent videos indicate her internal security was compromised. You Tube videos show that Benazir’s party member, Khalid Shahanshah gesticulated to “would be” assassins from the stage – a finger sliding across his throat amd eyes rolled toward Benazir. Shahanshah was later killed by unidentified assailants in Karachi and the PPP failed to investigate his murder.
After her speech Benazir walked on the stair case behind the stage and got into her Land Cruiser – parked within municipal precincts. Eye-witnesses said that police had, by then, secured the rally and did not let anyone leave.
Senator Safdar Abbasi, who was with Benazir till her last moment, recalls that she was “very pleased” with the reception she had received. There was a sense of abandon in her as she stepped into her white Land Cruiser and hugged Abbasi’s wife, Naheed Khan – Benazir’s life long protector and companion.
Their bomb proof Cruiser made a right turn on Liaquat road and then on College road where some two hundred or so PPP supporters raced along, raising slogans. Subsequent video footage shows that among them was the killer – a sophisticated looking young man in dark glasses, white shirt and coat, with a gun and explosives. The video shows another man wearing a white hood stood behind him, believed to be his cover suicide bomber.
At that stage, the black Mercedes which carried Benazir’s chief security officer, Rehman Malik – who had served Benazir and Asif well while they lived in exile – was nowhere to be seen. It was a departure from the normal drill, where Benazir’s vehicle normally followed Malik’s vehicle. Traveling with Malik was a former Musharraf loyalist, the retired Lt-Gen. Tauqir Zia – who had joined the PPP only days before – and party men, Babar Awan and Farhatullah Babar.
Blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking around and anxious to invigorate crowd support ahead of her forthcoming election, Benazir decided to respond to the PPP youth who ran along side her white land cruiser while they cried “Wazir-i-Azam – Benazir” (Prime Minister – Benazir).
Abbasi recalls that at that point, “she turned to me and said, `How about some political slogans like “Jeay Bhutto,” (Long live Bhutto) – Safdar?”
Acting on Benazir’s wishes, Safdar took hold of the megaphone from inside the cruiser and bellowed out the catchy slogan, “Nara-i- Nara-i Nara-i Bhutto… (crying, crying, crying Bhutto)” to which the crowd frantically responded “Jeay Jeay Jeay Bhutto.” That was the cue for a smiling Benazir to stand up from the sunroof of the vehicle and wave to the crowd. The frenzied crowd had by now forced the land cruiser to a crawl, giving the sharpshooter the opportunity to aim at Benazir’s head.
Suddenly, shots rang out. Seconds later, Benazir had slumped inside the cruiser, and her blood had spilled all over Naheed’s lap. The shots came from the left side, but the bullets pierced and left wounds on the right side of her head.
“She was instantly dead,” Abbasi claims.
Immediately thereafter, he says there was a loud explosion that cracked the windows of the vehicle and caused the tires to lose air. Video footage later showed that the sharp shooter had fired three shots, looked down and detonated his explosives. Dozens of others were killed as well, at least 15 of whom were disfigured without recognition.
In 1991, a male colleague and I headed to a small town in interior Sindh, where the peasants and low-income traders were spiritual disciples of feudals in Benazir’s cabinet. We were escorted by guards through a magnificent fortress with high walls and cemented pathways, which wove into a labyrinth. My male colleague and I were taken into a grand drawing room with fine carpets and engraved tables.
The feudal lord greeted me pleasantly – the “honorary male” from a prominent newspaper. Afterwards, when we finished a frank, at times “off the record” type of conversation, he suggested I visit the women’s quarters. Politely, I rose and was escorted by the servant to the women folk. My colleague stayed back; he was after all a “Na Mehram” – a man unrelated by blood to the women.
I walked through a maze that led up to the women’s quarters. Wearing loosely draped chador (a type of veil), the women here lived in an age reminiscent of 16th century Moghul India. Never exposed to the outside world, they did not have a lot to talk about. We exchanged pleasantries; I explained I had come from Karachi to do a story. They did not know what it meant to be a journalist, nor did career prospects seem interesting to them.
When these women from feudal families went outdoors, they donned black veils with tiny holes for their eyes. Even so, it was the feudal lord who determined the liberties the women of his family could avail; they were required to travel in chauffer-driven cars with black drapes, dress modestly at all times and under no circumstances speak to men outside the family.
I spent a night at this haveli (feudal home)living as the women did, with days and nights of solitude. At night, uniformed guards patrolled their ancient fortress. My ears picked up the changing of guards in the dead silence of the night. “Allah Sain Khair” (by God’s grace), “Maula Sain Khair” (all is safe).
I left the fortress and continued traveling across interior Sindh. My freedom was in stark contrast to the lives of these women – creatures starved even of simple sensory impulses. The time I spent reporting in Sindh would inform me of the importance of the veil. By a process of osmosis, girls grew up to believe that their path to fulfillment lay in marriage and children.
In 1993, I attended a wedding in a small town of interior Sindh. It was a private event but my journalist’s eye took mental snapshots. Women arrived in carefully designed, expensive shalwar kameez and dupattas.with matching jewelry and make-up – all designed to show their standing in the feudal hierarchy. Chaperoned by male relatives and wearing black veils, the women showed their faces only after they were exclusively surrounded by their own sex. Outside, volunteers stood guard to stop any peeping toms.
The carefully made-up women exposed adaptations of risqué dresses worn by foreign models that one saw on CNN and the Indian ZEE television channels. Captivated by the glamorous images of women, their female viewers copied the fashions in the privacy of their homes and exposed them to other women.
Apparently, the spread of cable television in the remote areas of rural Sindh had created all sorts of unfulfilled desires among the cloistered women. On one occasion, I sat with the young wife of a feudal lord as she watched cable television in a remote town of Sindh. Turning away momentarily from watching a Western film, she sighed wistfully:
“It’s very hard to be locked indoors after living in Karachi.” Still, sensitive to small town gossip about who was a “good woman,” she had never left the house alone.
In the rare case where a young woman from a small town joined a university or medical college, she would likely join the urban women’s movement. Still, societal pressures on women to marry and have children were overwhelming. It left the women blissfully unaware that the military government had passed Islamic legislation that gave them an inferior status before the law.
Brides of the Quran
Journeying through interior Sindh, I stumbled upon large numbers of unmarried, graying women who lived in ancestral homes located in Hyderabad, Thatta, Matiari and Hala. Time hung heavy on their hands. Equipped with little education and no exposure to the outside world, these women had never been exposed to men in their lives.
In 1992, during a journalistic jaunt, I discovered a horrendous custom that kept these women housebound. Under Islamic law, women inherit property when they marry. But in the absence of male relatives, feudals in Sindh refuse to give their daughters inheritance. Instead, big feudals of Sindh and southern Punjab, who derive their power base from the land, prefer to keep their daughters unmarried.
In a more elaborate example of how feudals manipulate women’s lives for financial gain, the Syed communities – who trace direct ancestry to Prophet Mohammed – have their daughters married off to the Muslim holy book, the Quran. That literally seals their prospects of marriage. Under this practice – called “haq bakshna” (waiver of rights) women place their hand on the Quran and waive the Islamic right to marry and inherit property. Even more ingeniously, they are told their virginity gives them a spiritual status and a duty to dispense talismans to sick children.
The paradoxes were stunning. Feudal politicians took orders from a woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto even as they kept their own women locked up or “married to the Quran.” Some of them were superiors in her party and took orders from the woman prime minister to wield power in their own fiefdoms. The big feudals, who form the backbone of autocratic governments, have kept their control of women well-hidden from public view.