The homecoming that was not meant to be

Published October 18, 2008

October 18, 2007, was supposed to be a day of celebration for Pakistan People's Party supporters, marking the return of their towering political leader Benazir Bhutto to her home country after a self-imposed exile, but instead it became a day of carnage when more than 125 people lost their lives and scores others suffered injuries in two powerful explosions that struck her caravan in Karachi.
Benazir escaped the assassination attempt as she was resting inside her bullet-proof vehicle at the time of the attack on the main Karsaz road. Unfortunately her good luck lasted only two more months and she was assassinated in a second attack on 27 December, 2007, in Rawalpindi's infamous Liaquat Bagh.  
It was the second homecoming of the slain Pakistan People's Party chairperson, the first being in April 1986 in Lahore under General Zia's rule. Although armchair political pundits still debate whether the number of people who came out to greet BB in 2007 was greater than the 1986 reception, it can be safely said that on October 18 the number exceeded the hundred thousand figure.
PPP Jiyalas from all over the country had travelled to Karachi to catch a glimpse of their leader and on the day of the rally the overjoyed supporters were seen dancing and showering petals on Benazir as soon as she landed at the airport via an Emirates-chartered flight from Dubai in the afternoon.
The rally progressed chaotically but peacefully throughout the day as Benazir and her entourage inched towards the mausoleum of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah from the airport, where she was scheduled to address the crowd. Elaborate security measures had been made to protect the former prime minister but on arrival the safety plan was reportedly not followed to the letter amid the frenzy.
Disaster struck around midnight when the rally passed by Shahrae Faisal, an area which only a few months back on May 12, 2007, was a scene of another bloody day when dozens of people were killed to stop the deposed chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, from entering the city.
The attack hardly came as a surprise. The Musharraf-led government had warned the PPP leader that extremist groups, including Baitullah Mehsud's gang of militants, might target her and urged her to delay the visit. 
homecoming
A day before she landed, Benazir addressed a press conference in Dubai and acknowledged that she might be attacked in Karachi, saying she was worried about the security arrangements; but in spite of the threats she decided to go ahead as planned.It is interesting to note that only a day before Oct 18, TV anchors and analysts were busy discussing the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), the controversial act that allowed Benazir to return without fear of getting arrested, but soon after they started blaming the PPP for insisting on the rally despite warnings.
One commentator went as far as saying that “by the selfish acts of her party, approved by her, some 150 lives have been lost and hundreds have been wounded and maimed. This is apart from the mundane fiscal loss to the country of some five hundred million of the beloved awam's money”. Another writer, however, pointed out that “what few people are doing is to condemn the butchers responsible for the attack”.
A tribunal, headed by retired Justice Dr Ghous Mohammad, had been formed to investigate the Karsaz incident. But the PPP boycotted it, saying it had no trust in its proceedings. Recently a division bench comprising Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali and Justice Salman Ansari disposed of a petition moved by PPP leader Syed Qaim Ali Shah against the setting up of the October 18 tribunal.
A whole year has passed since the incident but the real story is yet to emerge. Police have now registered a second FIR regarding the occurrence and say they will question Ijaz Shah, then chief of the Intelligence Bureau; Hameed Gul, former chief of Inter-Services Intelligence; and Pervez Elahi, then chief minister of Punjab province; all three men who were also mentioned by Benazir as suspects in a letter written days before her death. Does this indicate that the PPP-led coalition government is upping the ante? Only time will tell. 
The writer can be contacted at salman.siddiqui@dawn.com

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