Benazir Bhutto:  A Method to the Mourning

Benazir Bhutto:  A Method to the Mourning

Dr. Mahjabeen Islam


It was not significantly prescient to predict Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. And yet, even as one of her harshest critics, I mourn her loss as a mother with children of ages close to Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Asifa.

It is strange how habitation changes perspectives. Daily life is very controlled in the United States, true. Having spent a couple decades there the chaos of Karachi seems to have been erased from my mind, despite yearly visits. Many had said that we ought to postpone APPNA Sukoon, the hospice and palliative care initiative in Pakistan by APPNA, Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America, until after the election. But APPNA president Dr. Nadeem Kazi felt that the show must go on, and Pakistan lurches from one crisis to another anyway. And so we came, APPNA Sukoon was launched and within a day Pakistan was plunged into yet another crisis.

With the fuel tank almost on empty, mired in a traffic jam 2 miles from Bilawal House in Clifton, accompanied by my American born daughter, I wondered at the myriad possibilities as we were turned back from lanes by PPP supporters bearing expressions of grief, rage and a chilling determination. As violence broke out ahead of us my daughter asked “where are the police?” I had no simple answer; in the paradigm of Pakistan my mind thought it needed paragraphs to answer a simple question.

Unable to return to KDA we sought refuge in Defence for 2 days, returning at 7 a.m. a time not suitable for looters, or so we thought, comforted by the promise of “shoot to kill” of any miscreants by 10,000 rangers within Karachi. Not that they were visible at that hour of the day. After all, the day here begins at 10a.m. or else noon, it seems.

Glued to the television I had hoped to catch a glimpse of Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Asifa, but saw only Asif Zardari. The greatest homage paid to the dead is the number of people that attend the funeral; 100,000 paid tribute to the leader of the masses.

True the literacy rate in Pakistan is not very high, being 47% in men and only 23% in women. But common sense needs no education. Why is it that national grief over this terrible tragedy can only manifest itself in plunder, arson and chaos?

The grieving model of the West may not apply to Pakistan, but it deserves mention. It is generally extremely controlled on a personal level. At a community or national level fear of legal repercussions prevent wholesale looting and lawlessness. The Islamic model of grieving has not been followed either: it mandates dignity, three maximum days of mourning and with some schools of thought, no self-flagellation or overt or loud display of grief.

But Pakistan was convulsed by chaos as occupants of cars in traffic jams were pulled out looted and then their cars set afire. ATMs were upturned and banks looted and burned. Petrol stations were attacked to the point that the owners coalition said that all would remain closed till security was provided. Milk trucks were looted and milk could not be transported, had to be drained and so Karachi faces a petrol and milk crisis. A hospital was set on fire and hundreds of cars and buses were burned. A factory with seven workers trapped within was burned. And the madness continued.

Our nation may have been deprived of democracy, but have we lost all decency as well?

And then there is the specter of whodunit. Various theories of the mode of death abound. Benazir Bhutto, some report, had already died when she was brought to Rawalpindi General Hospital. She had a 3x5cm temporal fracture with brain matter exuding. The receiving physicians even did an open cardiac massage to no avail. The cause of death may have been a bullet wound, shrapnel wound or else a fractured skull secondary to the lever of the sun-roof. There appear to be discrepancies about the entry-exit of the bullet wound and the position of the alleged attacker, with right and left being used interchangeably.

The site of the attack was seen on television being hosed off. This is how forensic evidence is treated in Pakistan. A PPP student leader was reported to have said that he saw a man in a shalwar kameez take aim at Benazir with a 30 bore pistol and then he blew himself up. Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier (retd.) Javed Cheema apparently showed this video clip to the press, and that, apparently, is the end of that. It should answer all of the nation’s and the world’s questions and life must go on. What more can one expect of the military—take it or leave it.

To back Brig. Cheema a transcript has been provided of an intercepted conversation between senior Al-Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud and another militant in which much mutual congratulation is occurring for Benazir’s death. They even make a date to meet. Why can’t Mehsud be caught was an obvious question that Cheema was asked. He moves around too much said he.

Asif Zardari and the PPP feel attention is being deflected with apportioning of the blame to the Al-Qaeda, even though the Al-Qaeda is announcing that they did it. An email by Benazir to CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, to be released only in the event of her death, alludes to President Musharraf’s people as perpetrators. The PPP and Zardari want foreign experts to be brought in to investigate.

In any death investigation the very first item is the post-mortem, then forensic examination of the site, and then ancillary information. Mr. Zardari has himself sabotaged the most vital piece of the investigation by refusing the post-mortem. Apparently an “external postmortem” was already done by the physicians that declared Benazir dead at the Rawalpindi General Hospital. These were the same doctors that were involved in her resuscitation efforts. So they may have been internists or cardiologists.

A post-mortem is a specialized examination done by a trained and experienced forensic pathologist. He is able to determine the cause of death accurately in a large percentage of cases.

Bound by custom or the misconception that a postmortem is disrespectful to the dead, for it involves evisceration, Mr. Zardari has essentially forfeited the right to accurate answers. In the developed world these situations are not left to the whim or emotion of grieved family members, they are enshrined into law and all homicides or suspicious deaths undergo a postmortem.

When Benazir Bhutto made the statements that if she became Prime Minister she would allow the I.A.E.A. access to A. Q. Khan, and that if there was credible evidence of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan she would allow an American attack on Pakistan, the Al-Qaeda had put out a statement that not only would she be killed, it would be one of her own that would do it.

There are so many questions that lurk still. A militant was captured on video shooting at her and no one tackled him down? A shalwar kameez attired man was shooting with a 30 bore pistol but no one struck him? Despite the threats why was she addressing Liaquat Bagh without a bullet proof shield around the podium? If all attendees were screened with metal detectors how did the assassin get through?

None of those questions will ever be answered. The primary evidence is now buried, the secondary evidence hosed away. And the PPP has no room to blame the government all the way. It must clear the cobwebs of its ignorance about postmortems first.

To think that Benazir’s body would be exhumed for a postmortem is delving in the absolutely impossible. That is not a cobweb, a steel web yes.

It would be professional and a tribute to Benazir Bhutto’s memory for PPP leaders to repeatedly appeal to Pakistanis in general and PPP workers in particular to refrain from arson, looting and violence. The nation paid homage to its daughter by the massive funeral attendance and the three days of mourning. The world markets paid unwitting respect by destabilizing at the news of her assassination.

As much as my heart bleeds for Benazir Bhutto’s young children, I mourn for Pakistan and for my people. How can we clamor for democracy when we don’t even have the most basic idea of how to express ourselves, even our grief and rage, appropriately? We are indeed our own worst enemies.

Mahjabeen Islam is a physician and freelance columnist residing in Toledo Ohio, USA.  Another version of this article was published in Dawn


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