Amid violence, Pakistani students worry Bhutto’s assassination will set democracy back

Posted Tuesday 3:15 a.m. Flaming automobile shells and charred remains of buildings, shattered glass and half-burnt political banners — for the 20 Yale students who call Pakistan home, these violent scenes became the backdrop to their everyday lives following the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the two-time prime minister who last fall returned to her home country to campaign in parliamentary elections originally scheduled for this month.

Yalies in Pakistan described a country in turmoil in the days after the attack, with violent demonstrations and armed protestors shutting down many public spaces and forcing families inside their homes. The death of Bhutto, several of these students said, represents a loss not so much for Pakistan’s internal politics as for the vitality of its democracy itself and the strength of U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Yet despite the upheaval at home and the imperiled state of representative government there, coming back to Yale for the spring semester will be bittersweet.

“Pakistan is not the safest place to grow up,” said Khaled, a Yale senior from the southern city of Karachi who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. “But if you grow up here, you learn to roll with the punches. I’m keen to get back here after graduation and know what’s going on with the political situation.”

Although the days following Bhutto’s assassination were “jarring and unsettling,” Khaled said he is not happy to be leaving Pakistan during this “pivotal point” in his country’s history.

Life in Pakistan is only now beginning to recover from the period of chaos and political unrest that followed a fatal suicide attack on Bhutto at a political rally in Rawalpindi, in northern Pakistan.

Khaled said he was driving when he heard the news. He first received a text message from a friend informing him that there had been an assassination attempt but that Bhutto was unharmed. Then someone called to say Bhutto had been injured in the attack. Khaled finally learned the truth when a news report on the radio announced Bhutto had died.

The streets of Karachi immediately filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic as people tried to get home.

“There were lots of fears of backlash that night and during the next couple of days,” Khaled said. “No one was sure what was going to happen.”

After Bhutto’s death, the government ordered that there be three days of mourning, during which time offices, schools and stores were closed, said Hassaan Khan ’08, who also lives in Karachi. Even gas pumps were shut down.

Hassan Siddiq ’09, who lives in the eastern city of Lahore, on the border with India, said people in his town shut themselves in their houses, both to observe the mourning period and to protect themselves from being “engulfed by angry mobs.”

On New Year’s Day, most people refrained from hosting or attending parties because they considered it unsafe to have large numbers of cars parked outside their homes, Khaled said.

“No one wanted to draw attention to themselves,” he said.

Khaled, who lives in a relatively safe part of Karachi, opened the front gate to his house several days after Bhutto’s death to see a car fly by, followed by two men on motorbikes chasing after the car with guns in their hands. Still, Khaled said, the situation in Karachi was considerably less dangerous than in some tribal cities.

In Sindh, the southern province that was Bhutto’s ancestral home, rioters burned trains and flights leaving the city were cancelled, Siddiq said.

Siddiq called the assassination “the most unfortunate event in the history of Pakistan,” but students interviewed were somewhat guarded in their praise of Bhutto, who as the head of the Pakistan People’s Party became the first female head of state in the Islamic world when she was elected to serve as prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and then again from 1993 to 1996.

In 1996, Bhutto went into self-imposed exile after the Pakistani president charged her with corruption and incompetence. Bhutto lived in London and Dubai until October of 2007, when Pakistan’s current president, Pervez Musharraf, granted her amnesty for those alleged crimes.

Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was imprisoned for five years and fined $8.6 million after a Pakistani court found him guilty of stealing government funds in 1998. Bhutto received the same five-year sentence, but she denied the charges and continued her self-imposed exile in London.

Still, Khaled said, Bhutto was “the face of democracy” in Pakistan.

“With her history and her reputation of corruption charges, very few people would say we lost a great leader who looked out for us,” Khaled said. “But the democratic process suffered a real blow [as a result of Bhutto’s assassination].”

Although Khan said he was “not a big Bhutto fan” and disagreed with many of her policies, he said her death is a massive political setback for Pakistan.

“This is not the way things should have ended,” he said.

Under Bhutto’s leadership, Siddiq said, Pakistan could have taken huge strides toward a more representative government.

“Ms. Bhutto’s victory in the upcoming election could have resulted in a peaceful transition to democracy in Pakistan,” he said.

He also pointed to lost opportunities for improved relations between the United States and Pakistan that would have resulted from Bhutto’s election as prime minister. In the long run, Siddiq said, Bhutto’s absence means the United States will have difficulty finding a “reliable democratic partner in the country.”

Khadija Khan ’10, who was in Canada when the assassination occurred, said she thinks the United States viewed Bhutto as a “good contestant” for the premiership because of her relatively liberal views on democracy and governance. The U.S. government was mostly likely “shocked as well” by Bhutto’s death, she said, because most American pundits believed she would have won the Jan. 8 elections.

Others, like Khaled, think Bhutto’s death will have little or no effect on the relationship between Pakistan and the United States, although the dynamic between the two countries depends on which party wins the upcoming elections, now scheduled for Feb. 18. If Musharraf — who will not be on the ballot — can retain his position in the coming months, Khaled said, “cordial relations based on mutual need” will continue.

Most students interviewed predicted that the upcoming elections will favor the PPP, which will benefit from voters’ sympathy following Bhutto’s death. None of them will be on hand to witness the balloting, however — with Yale’s spring semester beginning Jan. 14, they will be in New Haven on the day of the much-anticipated elections.

Hassaan Khan said that when he returns to Yale, he will “obviously be concerned about friends and family.” But day-to-day life in Pakistan has been returning to normal, he said, and Pakistani citizens have always been accustomed to a precarious political climate.

“Life goes on,” he said. “I’m hopeful things will get back on track, whatever that means.”

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