From the very first instant, we got on like a house on fire. We were bound by this mutual feeling of having been together all our lives. I became BB’s companion, escort, ADC all rolled into one. She was 22 then
was seventeen when I first met Benazir. My father, Dr Zafar Khan Niazi was Mr Bhutto’s dentist but beyond that, both my parents were avid Bhutto supporters. My mother rarely missed a ZAB rally or public meeting. Sometimes my siblings and I were also dragged to the jalsas after school.
After Zia’s military coup, Mr Bhutto was in confinement and Begum Nusrat Bhutto arrived in Islamabad in pursuance of her petition in the Supreme Court, sometime in August 1977. Being the ardent supporter she was, my mother went to the airport to receive Begum Bhutto.
There was a huge crowd to receive the former PM’s wife and they all drove back in a cavalcade to Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi’s residence, where Begum Bhutto was to stay. Jatoi had, of course, been the chief minister of Sindh and was a very senior PPP leader. When they arrived at the venue, the gate was locked shut and there was no sign of anyone expecting a VIP guest. After some wait, a servant came out and said that the “sahib” was not in and had left no instructions to receive a guest. The elected prime minister’s wife had come out of the car and stood virtually on the street in a state of shock and utter disbelief. There was nowhere for her to go.
At this moment, my mother stepped out of the crowd and approached Begum Bhutto and invited her to be her guest. Begum Bhutto hesitated and asked her to first seek my father’s permission. My mother insisted that my father would be offended and insisted on taking her home. Our house in Islamabad’s F-6/2 was still under construction, and we lived out of two or three rooms that were complete. My mother vacated their bedroom and settled Begum Bhutto in.
A few days later, Benazir came to Islamabad to join her mother and was driven straight to our home. That is when I first met her, and the seeds of an extraordinary friendship were planted. I became BB’s companion, escort, ADC all rolled in to one. She was 22 then.
From the very first instant, we got on like a house on fire and were bound by this mutual feeling of having been together all our lives. Whenever BB visited Islamabad, she would always stay with us – not as a guest but as member of the household.
When BB went to Karachi, she would plead with my mother to allow me to accompany her. The first couple of times, my mother easily gave in but thereafter BB sensed my mother’s hesitation. We came from a very conservative family who were not comfortable with the idea of a young girl being away from home. Being BB, she came out with a novel solution. “Let me adopt Yasmin”, she offered. My parents laughed it off but realised that she was deadly serious. Then on, they had no choice but to permit me to accompany her on her visits to Karachi and Larkana. BB was a friend but now assumed the role of my guardian as well. I had never visited Karachi before and found the big city a little daunting. I met BB’s school friends, Samya, Salma and the Punthaky sisters – Firoza and Paree. They would try to drag me out of the confines of 70 Clifton to show me a bit of Karachi but always met with resistance from the guardian. BB, of course, had no time for girly outings as she was glued to her desk and typewriter, assisting in her father’s appeal.
After the Lahore High Court judgment, Mr Bhutto was shifted to a death cell in Rawalpindi jail. Begum Bhutto and BB took up residence in Islamabad but our home virtually remained the unofficial PPP headquarters. Mr Bhutto’s food was prepared by me personally and I drove each day to the jail to deliver it. The jail authorities would not accept anything brought in after 12 noon, so we were always in a panic and a rush to beat the deadline. BB was only allowed one weekly visit to her father and counted the hours for her appointed date. Mr Bhutto loved roses and she would always carry tube roses with her.
Zia’s government had started a vicious campaign of lies and propaganda against ZAB. He sat in his tiny cell with paper resting on his knees while writing copious notes in answer to the charges. There came a stage when his fingers started to bleed from holding the pen. BB would smuggle these notes out of the jail in a hidden compartment of her handbag and together we (later joined by Victoria Schofield) assisted her as she deciphered the writing and typed it out laboriously with her own fingers on a typewriter. She would spend entire nights doing this. And then there were messages from her father for the outside world which had to be delivered.
BB and her mother were placed under house arrest and we would stay in touch through notes carried by her servant. One day, I was informed by one of our staff that a person had come to see me and if I would go down to meet “him”. I went out and nearly fainted at the sight of the young man, who signalled me to remain quiet. Heavily clad in a bomber-jacket, scarf and hat, the young man was none other than Benazir Bhutto. She had escaped her house arrest, sitting on the back of a motor-bike driven by her servant. She stayed with us for a few days; her eventual return home was conducted in the same clandestine manner.
Sometime later, Begum Bhutto was temporarily released from house arrest while BB remained in confinement. One day, Begum Bhutto came to our house and said that BB was insisting that she should smuggle me in to spend a few days with her. My parents were of course aghast but who were they to withstand and resist the BB storm. So, I was snuck under the back seat with a blanket over me and Begum Bhutto’s feet resting above. The joy on BB’s face as she saw me can only be sketched on drawings and paintings. These were some of the relief moments (albeit tension-ridden) through those dark and depressing days.
Mr Bhutto suffered from gum affliction and by special permission; my father was allowed to visit him in his death cell. My father was so mortified by the conditions in which Mr Bhutto was kept that he gathered us one day and said that he could not remain silent while Mr Bhutto suffered such barbaric treatment and that he would write and communicate with all the ambassadors in Islamabad and parliamentarians abroad. He warned us that his actions could attract a very harsh and draconian reaction from the military regime. He then asked if we were prepared to suffer the consequences. To the person, each one of us alleged their complete confidence in the path my father had chosen and pledged to stand by him and our leader, ZAB. The consequence did not take too long to materialise. The military regime arrested my father and sent him off to Jhelum jail. We were allowed weekly visits for which we drove to Jhelum but our visits did not always materialise in meetings. My father braved the sizzling heat of Jhelum in the company of hardened criminals. The regime tried every trick to break him and force him to forfeit his allegiance to ZAB. My father steadfastly refused and we stood by him.
Benazir’s weekly visits to her father served as tutorial sessions in politics. He guided her on the intricacies of national and international politics. On one visit, just before her tour of the NWFP (now KP), ZAB instructed BB on how to appear and speak before the Pakhtuns.
On that visit, I accompanied BB, and also had Victoria Schofield as our companion. We were driven by Gen Naseerullah Babar. All along the route, BB was greeted and cheered by large crowds. Wearing a chaddar and a Mao cap, she addressed them as coached by her father. The tour was a rousing success. On her next visit to jail, she told me that her father stood up and saluted her – so pleased was he with how she had conducted herself.
On her 21st birthday, she sought permission from the authorities to visit her father (not her usual visiting day). She felt confident about gaining permission. She waited impatiently for the moment to arrive. Her father did likewise. She asked me to prepare his favourite chicken sandwiches. When the day arrived, the authorities callously blocked her from visiting. She was distraught and heart-broken, as was her father in his death cell. It was then that he, with tear-soaked eyes penned down an epic letter, which was long enough to be printed as a book, under the title “My dearest daughter”. 21st June. “The longest day and the longest wait”, he wrote.
All during those trying and traumatic times, thousands of PPP supporters were jailed and so many backs of the young and old alike torn open with lashes and decorated with crimson lines. So many collapsed shouting “Jiye Bhutto”, as they were lashed till they fainted.
The terror of that martial law was debilitating – there is no parallel in Pakistan’s history. The chaddar and char-deewari were violated with impunity. The steel was being driven relentlessly into the nation’s soul. I lived through those times and the experience still haunts me.
In February 1979, the Supreme Court, in a split verdict rejected Mr Bhutto’s appeal. The maxim “justice is blind” stood blinded to truth and chose instead to bow before the dictator. The countdown to death began. Whatever meagre provisions were allowed to Mr Bhutto in his death cell, were hastily withdrawn. On April 3, my mother and I, as per our usual practice drove to the jail with Mr Bhutto’s home-cooked food. We arrived at the gates to witness a lot of activity and extra security deployed. The jail staff refused to take the food. The writing was on the wall. The dreadful denouement to the sordid drama tolled its bells as my mother and I stood clutching Bhutto’s food, broken. Everything around us was surreal as in a Shakespearian script. An elderly, helpless woman in ragged clothes was screaming in pain and seeing a sympathetic face, approached me. She handed me a soiled envelope and said, “This is for Bhutto – it has all the money I have saved for my hajj but now I want you to sacrifice a goat so his life may be saved”. The envelope had a stack of time-worn notes. Before I could gather myself and return her money, she vanished, just as happens in supernatural dramas.
Just then, the gates were flung open, and a car drove out. I could see Begum Bhutto and BB and for a fleeting moment, our eyes met. Long enough for BB to convey that they were going to kill her father. We felt the ground underneath us open as time stood suspended.
Next day, April 4, it was announced. My mother, my sisters and I drove out to join a crowd which was beginning to gather to protest. Law enforcing agencies came out in numbers to teargas and baton charge us. They struck us with their batons and arrested all of us. After enduring many hair-raising hours, we were finally lodged at the Attock Fort, prisoners of conscience – all of us.
Mr Bhutto’s body was flown out in the dark of the night and hurriedly laid to rest in his ancestral village Garhi Khuda Bux. Only his first wife was allowed to see his face briefly. Begum Bhutto and BB remained prisoners in Sihala.
Ultimately all of us were released and BB flew straight to Larkana. Along with some of her friends, I was with her and spent a year in Larkana while she grieved and received condolences, for which crowds upon crowds of people visited each day. BB spent the nights weeping uncontrollably while clutching on to her father’s clothes. I sat up with her, holding her in my embrace.
Later events led to the arrest of both BB and Begum Bhutto. BB was taken to Sukkur jail and kept under inhuman conditions. She had to endure the crippling heat of Sukkur without being allowed a fan, ice or cold water. She fell ill while in jail, but the authorities remained intransigent and refused to provide her any relief. It was during this time that she suffered an infection to one of her ears, for which she needed surgery. After a long wait, she was allowed to fly out to London.
In the meantime, FIRs were registered against my father and me and the countdown for our arrest began. My father escaped to Afghanistan and I went into hiding. My father joined Murtaza and Shahnawaz Bhutto in Afghanistan. While there, he suffered a heart attack and had to be flown to London for surgery.
My family pondered on who among us could fly to London to be with my father while at the same time assure my safety and possible exit. I had no passport and had my name on an FIR with the entire government machinery looking for me. What happened then can only be believed if you trust in God and believe in His miracles. My mother suddenly had this idea that perhaps I could get a British passport as I was born in London. The British Embassy in Islamabad was approached, and they were extremely humane and sympathetic and issued me a passport overnight. The next problem was how to get me out in the prevailing circumstances. We had a relative in the Islamabad airport immigration but it was heavily manned by the military. He had to take a huge risk, as did I. Tremors and fear accompanied me as I went to the airport in disguise, accompanied by my sister and brother-in-law. Just as my turn came up in the immigration queue, the lights miraculously went out. In the commotion and darkness, I was ushered through.
I was able to be with my father through his surgery and recovery and we were joined by BB in 1983 when she was finally allowed out under massive international outcry and clamour.
I stayed with her at her bedside through her surgery and her stay in the hospital. BB stayed initially with her aunt Behjat but had no residence in London. We offered that she stay with us in our flat in Barbican. She moved in with us and later, we were able to rent out a flat for her in the same block. But it was our flat – 111 Barbican that became the PPP London headquarters. Once again, I was back on duty. I left college to become her secretary, aide and confidant and her travel companion when she toured the US and the UK. It was there that in a meeting of the PPP Central Committee, the famous “uncles” were overthrown.
Time rolled on and BB found time to launch her project which was constantly on her mind. She wanted me married but also at the same time not lose me to an unknown family. Only someone like her could have found the solution to the predicament. “Yasmin”, she said to me one day as we sat up late into night chatting in the Barbican flat, “I would like you to marry my cousin TI (as she referred to Tariq). That way we will not be separated as I will gain you as a relative”.
And so, it happened.
She approached my parents with all the protocol and propriety the occasion warranted and of course won their approval and consent. We were married soon enough but Tariq could not figure out whether I was married to him or to BB, as she did not ease up too much on her demands on my time. We eventually worked out an acceptable medium.
In 1987, BB was engaged to Asif in London and the marriage was set for December in Karachi. I travelled to Karachi, two kids in tow not knowing what might happen. Zia was still in power albeit we were under the “democratic” Junejo government.
BB, as was her wont, played the symphony director at her own wedding, which was held in the Clifton garden. She however, wanted a wedding ceremony to share with her “awam”. So, she decided on Lyari’s Kakri Ground where her father had made some of his famous speeches and won a seat for the PPP. I accompanied her in her car as we drove through the throngs to arrive at the brightly decorated and festive Kakri Ground. The crowd went into utter rapture as she appeared waving to them on the stage. It was the homecoming of a famous daughter. She did not have her beloved father to give her hand away in marriage. So, she settled on the next best thing, the people of Lyari.
What a daughter she was! She sacrificed her youth in her father’s service, never fearing, never wavering. And what a friend – loyal to the core, always loving, always caring.
One thing that gave her extreme joy was her birthdays which she always celebrated together with friends and family with great gusto. All her troubles and trials were forgotten to savour that one day. And now as June 21 is upon us, I miss her deeply. So many of her birthdays we shared together. She is with her Maker today enjoying a great feast of celebration as her father, mother and brothers look on. We in our temporary abode can only send our prayers and love and say “Thank You Benazir. Your name means ‘one without equal’ – surely you are that. Rest in peace my friend – our journey for the time has ended but we are bound together in soul and spirit and for all times to come.
The writer, a family friend of the Bhuttos and a PPP worker, is married to Tariq Islam, a cousin of Shaheed Benazir Bhutt