As the nation marks the 66th birthday of slain former prime minister Mohtarma Benzair Bhutto today (June 21), SAMAA Digital takes a look at the personal life of the country’s first and only female head of state.
Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide blast in Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh on December 27, a few months after her return to Pakistan after eight years of political exile in London.
Her political life was an open book but her personal life was a rare edition that very few people had read. Naheed Khan was one of those people. Naheed was not only Benazir’s political secretary but also a very close friend, one who remembers Benazir fondly.
She always kept her birthday celebrations private, recalled Naheed, who said Benazir’s last birthday in Pakistan before she went into self-imposed exile in 1998 was celebrated at Coconut Grove, a restaurant in Karachi that might not even exist anymore. “Only her close friends Samia, Salma, Pucchi, Fakhri Bibi, her daughter, her cousin’s wife Yasmeen Niazi, Safdar [Abbasi] and I attended her birthdays,” she added. Safdar Abbasi is Naheed’s husband.
Recalling her last birthday, Naheed said the same group of people went to celebrate. She wore red and looked beautiful, she reminisced.
Another thing she remembers about Benazir is her love of chaat. It was her one weakness and they would often sneak off to Guru Mandir for a plate. “Let’s go get some chaat,” she would tell Munawar Soharwardi, Safdar and I, said Naheed. Another place she loved to go was Skippers Restaurant at Sea View.
But her all time favourite meal was daal chawal. She used to make daal chawal herself in London and there was never a time when she didn’t have daal chawal on her table, recalled Naheed. She even washed her own dishes there, she said, adding that Benazir never acted like she had been the country’s minister. “She always acted like a normal person.”
Naheed remembers Benazir as a generous person who thought about the country’s poor people. “We were sitting somewhere once and there were flies on the biscuits so I didn’t eat them,” she recalled. “She told me, ‘Naheed you should have taken a biscuit, their hearts must have been broken’.” She would get up and hug people without even thinking of her position. It didn’t matter to her, said Naheed. She always asked people if she could help them in any way, she recalled.
Relationship with Zardari
Commenting on Benazir and Asif Zardari’s marriage, Naheed said that they had a normal relationship. “Zardari sahab spent 11 years in jail after their marriage and then Bibi went into exile while he remained here.” She was more concerned with politics, she said.
But she loved her children very much. She called Aseefa and Bilawal by their names but to her, Bakhtawar was always ‘Itty’.
She used to go to their schools and keep an eye on whom they had befriended. She even kept a check on where they spent their pocket money. During those nine years in exile, Benazir spent a lot of time with her children and raised them herself, said Naheed.
She used to teach them herself and made sure to have lunch with them every day.
Benazir’s love for her family
Naheed said Benazir loved her family intensely. Sanam was not just her sister, she was one of her closest friends and her daughter Azaadi looks a lot like Benazir, she added.
She loved Fatima Bhutto very much as well and wanted to introduce her to politics, Naheed said. But she didn’t get the chance to do that because of some misunderstandings, she added.
Naheed said that Benazir never forgot what happened to her brother. When she heard that Murtaza had been assassinated, she rushed to the hospital bare foot. “She held on to his feet and wept,” Naheed recalled.
One of Benazir’s biggest wishes was to have her brother’s murder investigated. She had decided that if she were to become prime minister again, she would order a complete investigation, she said. Her government was suspended 33 days after Murtaza’s assassination.
When Benazir and Murtaza developed political differences, their mother Nusrat Bhutto sided with Murtaza. But when she was ill, she spent most of her time with Benazir. She loved and respected her mother a lot, said Naheed, adding that after Murtaza’s death, Benazir kept her mother close and cared for her. She would have breakfast with her every single day.
Her father, her mentor
Benazir learned a lot from her father and used to talk about him all the time. “She would say, ‘papa told me this, he did that and he went there’,” recalled Naheed. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went to sign the Simla Agreement, Benazir went with him. She told Naheed the advice and instruction Bhutto had imparted to her. You’re supposed to talk like this and present your point like this, she had passed on to Naheed.
Benazir even wanted to work in the Foreign Office at one point, something her father encouraged. He told her she should indeed do it, said Naheed. He wanted her to learn and get trained there. She even told Naheed that her ‘papa’ had told her what qualities she should value.
But she never called him papa in front of other people. To the world, he was her Quaid-e-Awam. Before she died, during a rally in Larkana on December 22, she turned to the mausoleum that housed her father’s grave and said “Oh Quaid-e-Awam, your sons and daughters have not forgotten you”. She would be interred in the same mausoleum a week later.
She loved her father and every year, on Bhutto’s death anniversary, she would get upset, said Naheed. “You can only imagine what she felt.”
Benazir’s return to Pakistan
When Benazir returned to Pakistan, she wept, recalled Naheed. It was her greatest desire to return home and when she saw the welcome she received, it moved her to tears. She loved Pakistan so much that even when everyone, including General Musharraf, told her that her life was in danger, she set their objections aside and said she will live and die with her people.
She called Naheed to Dubai a day before her return to Pakistan and asked her to accompany her on the journey. She said she didn’t care about the danger and that she couldn’t live in Dubai any longer, said Naheed. Whatever happens, I want to go home, she said.
December 27, 2007 — the assassination of Benazir Bhutto
I checked the arrangements at Liaquat Bagh and when I returned a servant told me that Bibi had been asking for me for a while, Naheed said. “When I went in and met her, she read out her speech to me and we talked about a few things.”
She asked me what time we had to go and I told her 3:30pm, she said. She pulled out a bulletproof jacket and told me to wear it.
In the car on the way to Liaquat Bagh, she was in a jovial mood, recalled Naheed. “I got a call from a journalist and she said, ‘let me speak to him’,” she said. There were a lot of people waiting to meet her and surrounding the car, which is why she told the driver to open the sunroof, she said. I told her not to and that it was a security risk, but she didn’t listen, said Naheed. “She said to me ‘Naheed, they’re standing here for me. If I don’t [get up] they’ll think our leader is a coward’.”
From then till the place where the rally was being held, she remained standing and people began to cheer and chant, said her friend.
Naheed said they reached Liaquat Bagh and there was a padlock on the gate where some counselors were standing waiting to lay floral wreaths around her neck, including Dr Israr Shah, who would lose his legs in the blast.
When we were seated on the stage, Bibi kept staring ahead, said Naheed. She was sitting next to Makhdoom Amin Fahim and asked him something, she said, adding that moments later she gestured to Naheed to come forward and whispered in her ear, ‘do you see something there’. When I looked, she was gesturing to two trees, bare of any leaves or foliage, said Naheed. It was December after all.
“When I said I don’t see anything, she laughed and said she asked Makhdoom saab as well and he couldn’t see anything either.” This time when I go to Karachi, remind me to get my eyes checked, Benazir had told Naheed. My eyesight is becoming weaker, she had said.
“When we got off the stage and we getting in the car, Bibi told me to come sit next to her. ‘You will sit on my right and Makhdoom saab will sit on my left’, she said. She told me to get Safdar and have him sit in front,” recalled Naheed.
That night she was supposed to meet some American senators and Zardari was saying he wanted to come to Pakistan and she wanted to discuss it. She wanted to send Zardari to those areas where the PPP’s support was dwindling.
In the car, she was exuberant. “She hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks in happiness,” recalled Naheed. She was ecstatic that the rally had come to a close successfully.
Safdar laughed, recalled Naheed, and said ‘Bibi I’ve been here for so many days and worked so hard, give me some credit too’. But Benazir just hugged Naheed again and said no, the credit for this rally goes to Naheed.
A while later, as they sat in the car waiting for it to move, they realised their way was blocked by jubilant PPP supporters. They were everywhere, Naheed recalled, surrounding the car and even on the bonnet. “Bibi told Safdar, ‘these people are trying to see me so I’ll stand up’,” she said. She took the megaphone lying in the car from the driver and handed it to Safdar. “Let’s have some naaras [chants],” she told Safdar, in her usual way of mixing English and Urdu.
Then she stood up and waved to people from the sunroof, recalled Naheed. They were so happy, said Naheed. They chanted ‘Jeay Bhutto’ and ‘Wazire-e-Azam Benazir’.
It was around 5:30pm and winter, so night was falling fast, said Naheed. “I was watching the people outside the window and they looked so happy,” she said. Then she heard a shot.
At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that it was a gunshot, she said. “I thought ‘people have been told not to light firecrackers when Bibi is near, so why are they doing it’. Then something fell in my lap,” she said, her voice wavering as wept. The memory still haunts her.
“I turned and saw that Bibi had fallen on me. And her blood…I can’t even describe how the blood gushed out of her,” she said. Safdar shouted at me and told me to do something about her wound, so I ripped off my dupatta and tried to stop the flow but it wouldn’t stop, she said. Then came the blast.
“Our car’s tyres burst and we couldn’t figure out what to do and how to get her to the hospital. We didn’t know what to do. I don’t have the strength to tell you anymore.”