BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Saturday, 29 December 2007, 12:01 GMT
Face-to-face with Benazir Bhutto
In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Owen Bennett Jones looks back on the occasions when he met her and the effect she had on those around her.

Benazir Bhutto
Everyone would pay attention when Ms Bhutto entered a room

It must be eight years ago now - in the cavernous hall of Benazir Bhutto's ancestral home in Larkana, Sindh, southern Pakistan - her political base, her vote bank.

We had had dinner - 40 people or so around her huge dining table - and then she had moved into a larger, more public room.

It was late, but it was packed.

She sat in a big upright chair - on a dais as I remember, a throne really - and standing in a semi-circle were her former cabinet ministers and others - courtiers really - to whom she had given plum postings when she had been prime minister - ambassadorships or sinecures within Pakistan.

In conspiratorial whispers they gossiped and schemed: they tried to catch her attention, or if they were out of favour, to avoid it.

Some tried to interest her with a bit of news from Islamabad or Lahore - who is pleasing her, they all worried, and how are they doing it.

I remember thinking: any historian studying the court of Elizabeth I should get down here immediately - this surely is how it was.

'Feudal lords'

Beyond the inner semi-circle of senior party leaders there was a second group of people - not as close to the leader but of significance to her party machine, many of them Pakistan People's Party members of parliament.

To be given a party slot at the elections they had to be big names in their own area - members of known political families with the resources and local powers of patronage to win their parliamentary seats.

These were the men labelled in Pakistan "feudal lords" - which is a perfectly good description.

I spoke to one and asked about his set-up.

"Oh, I'm down by the Iranian border," he replied amiably.

"I've a million acres. And a million men. But I love London, go every summer to buy a new shotgun at Holland and Holland," he said, adding with a twinkle in his eye, "and to see the barmaid at the pub near my cousins in south London. Oh so charming - Last orders! Two pints of Fosters please! Nothing like it."

She survived the execution of her father, she endured imprisonment and came out stronger, she outlived exile and saw off the corruption cases and she survived previous attempts on her life

Benazir Bhutto was caught between two worlds as well.

The Pakistani writer Tariq Ali had it right in a recent article in the London Review of Books.

While she called her autobiography Daughter of the East, his article about her had the headline Daughter of the West.

Her latest political comeback was the culmination of years of persuading Washington that - with the people's backing - she could help General Musharraf fight America's war on terror in Pakistan.

Imperious expression

On the outer fringes of the throng around Benazir Bhutto that night in Larkana eight years ago were the local villagers who had somehow blagged their way in.

They were welcome enough - as long as they stayed in their place.

But one had a camera and took a picture.

The flash had not even faded away before - with a ferocious imperious expression - Benazir Bhutto pointed in his general direction.

Benazir Bhutto was domineering, articulate, brave, charismatic, good fun, quite flirtatious, very cynical and she was flawed

Her minders, who had obviously been mingling in the crowd for just such an eventuality, wrestled him to the ground, grabbed his camera, ripped out the film and hurled him out of the door into the courtyard.

I looked at her surprised, shocked.

"I am sorry," she said, solicitous of my western sensibilities.

"They are so enthusiastic, but don't you see I had my hair down - no covering - and one of my advisers here was whispering something in my ear. If that got into the papers just think what they would say."

Everyone listened

You know what they say about those people who can enter a room and everyone...?

Well, she was one of them.

I invited her to a party in our house in Islamabad once, never expecting her to turn up.

She arrived at 11, just as everyone was leaving - until they saw her come in, that is.

Then they all stayed.

It went on until four in the morning, with everyone listening to one woman speak.

What do you expect me to do - give in?
Benazir Bhutto

So - Benazir Bhutto was domineering, articulate, brave, charismatic, good fun, quite flirtatious, very cynical and she was flawed.

Tens of millions of Pakistanis - illiterate and impoverished - looked to her with hope, faith and even love.

She failed them.

Of course there were extenuating circumstances.

When she had power, or at least when she was prime minister, the army was always breathing down her neck and the civil service resented taking orders from a western-educated, secular-minded woman.

Indestructible

But for all that, the evidence that she abused her office to make money is overwhelming, even if her lawyers - grand masters of delaying tactics - always managed to put off the final legal showdown.

She leaves many Swiss bank accounts swollen with dollars from kickbacks.

But whatever the criticisms, it is worth remembering this: Benazir Bhutto seemed indestructible.

She survived the execution of her father, she endured imprisonment and came out stronger, she outlived exile and saw off the corruption cases and she survived previous attempts on her life.

"What do you expect me to do - give in?" she said, after the bomb in Karachi last October,

It was never an option.

She really did have guts.

Which is why even those Pakistanis who despaired of her failings are shocked this weekend - shocked and appalled at her brutal death at the hands of a nameless fanatic.


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific