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Victoria Schofield

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Roses in the Dust

Traveller, Winter 2010/2011


It was  hot.  My clothes were clinging to me. The noise of the helicopter was beating in my ears.  We were flying low and the windows were open, the warm air blowing against our  faces - the pilot, the co-pilot, the engineer and me.   Our natural guide was the  Indus River,  snaking  from the north  towards the port of Karachi,  where it debouches into the Arabian Sea.   For me, from the heights of the helicopter,  the topography   below  only mattered because it helped me to assess how far we had gone.

Having left  the cluttered complex   of houses which signify the sprawling city of Karachi, we crossed the barren Thar desert which spreads west  to Balochistan. Devoid of human habitation, it   looked much like how I  imagine the surface of the moon at close view: crevassed and dry. All the time the Indus was leading us onwards and I watched how, as the river bed swelled,    the fields became greener, with speckled towns dotting the landscape. 

At intermittent intervals during the nearly two-hour journey ,  I was offered  cashew nuts and water, both quenching my thirst and making me more thirsty.   It was too noisy for conversation and my thoughts wandered to   the reason for this unusual journey: a chance meeting as a student,  a 33 year-long friendship and an assassination.  My destination was   Larkana and the village of Garhi Khuda Bux  : a small collection of houses dwarfed by a mausoleum, nearly as imposing as India's Taj Mahal; situated  in central Sindh, it is in the heartland of the Bhutto family, where successive generations of Bhuttos have been buried. It is now the resting place of Benazir Bhutto, twice elected Prime Minister of Pakistan,  buried alongside her executed father and murdered brothers.  Since our first meeting at Oxford University in 1974, our paths had remained crossed and we had never lost touch.

It  had been  a momentous friendship.   Not long after we left university, when her  father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,  was deposed as prime minister of Pakistan  by the Chief of Army Staff,   General Zia-ul Haq, and put on trial for conspiracy to murder, I had  travelled to Pakistan to give Benazir moral support. I had sat through the proceedings of the long, drawn-out court case, which ultimately led to her father's execution.

Since then, for over 30 years, I had shared the highs and lows of Benazir's turbulent political life, as political prisoner and prime minister.  I attended her wedding, and witnessed her joy at motherhood. I was with her in October 2007 in Karachi when, after   eight years in exile, her homecoming cavalcade was attacked by suicide bombers.  And I'd cried when I heard news of her assassination three months later. Now I’d  come to pay my respects, by visiting her grave.   

For millions of Pakistanis who supported this charismatic woman, killed in her prime aged 54 in December 2007, her grave has become a place of pilgrimage. The locals   say that  even in death, Benazir Bhutto Shaheed – as she is called, meaning 'martyr' -   is looking after them, because inevitably an influx of visitors means a brisk sale of souvenir postcards, recordings of her speeches and framed pictures of the late leader.  But instead of visiting the graveyard on the anniversary of her death, when the mausoleum is traditionally besieged by thousands of still-grieving Pakistanis, or on  her June birthday, which is now celebrated with the same devotion as that of a saint, I’d chosen  to come alone.

Suddenly,  the mausoleum  was beneath me. As the helicopter swung over the white marble building, circling around,   before landing, it seemed close enough for me to reach out of the   window to touch the white cupolas, glistening in the sunshine.  

The last time I had visited the Bhutto family graveyard there was no mausoleum, just some rudimentary foundations   and a series of graves, open to  scorching sun and, at times, torrential rain.  On that occasion, I was with  Benazir and, as we walked past the tombstones,   she had explained  who lay buried beneath:  her father, her grandparents, aunts and uncles. 

In the years  that had passed, this magnificent mausoleum had been built, sheltering   the graves, and  now she was lying among them. My stomach   turned as we touched down.  I saw a red carpet and a receiving party. ‘The visit of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s  friend is a special event,’ I was instantly told. Hence the red carpet.

Entering the mausoleum, I respectfully took off my shoes, relishing the cool of the marble on my hot feet. Passing under an archway, I   found myself looking at a gigantic portrait of Benazir’s familiar face, the signature  white dupatta covering her head.   As I was ushered to the graveside, I asked if I could  kneel near where  her head would be   lying.   The Holy Qu'ran  was ready for prayer; the grave covered in a red velvet cloth – to denote her status as a martyr – and heaped with rose petals. 

A basket  was handed to me to shower more rose petals on the grave, freshly perfuming the air.  My prayers, mumbled shyly under my breath were  for her family, especially her three children.  Bereft of their mother,  they now have the weight of  belonging to Pakistan's premier political family on their young shoulders, at a time when the country remains convulsed by acts of violence.   

I sat for a long while by Benazir’s grave. Before leaving,  I  lit the   two candles that I had brought  with me from England,   and placed them nearby. The flickering flames seemed to symbolise    the transitory nature of our lives:  hers had now been  snuffed out,  whereas mine - God Willing, as the Pakistanis say - would continue until old age.   

Emerging into the bright sunlight,     I saw women colourfully dressed,  crossing the fields,   walking towards   the mausoleum. ‘They have come to pray at Mohtarma’s grave,’  said one of the local political leaders,  who had received me on the red carpet. ‘You see people draw strength from being near her resting place.’  

I couldn’t explain   why it was so important for me to make the long, hot, dusty journey from Karachi   to Benazir’s grave, but I knew what he meant.  Benazir, whose name means ‘without equal’,  who had dominated the Pakistani political scene for over thirty years, had gone. But her memory  remains and the fount is at her grave.  

As I boarded the helicopter to return to Karachi before dusk, I thought of  her father’s words when she first went to study abroad:  They are related in her autobiography: ‘Whatever happens to you, you will ultimately return here. Your place is here. The dust and heat of Larkana are in your bones.’  

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