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Benazir Bhutto - some personal reminiscences

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 15 January 2008


Even before my arrival in Pakistan I had determined that I wanted to meet Benazir Bhutto. This was based on my belief that it was likely that she would be the first female head of an Islamic state and that she appeared to be an attractive and engaging character.

I was posted to Pakistan as deputy head of the Australian Embassy in July 1986. Benazir had returned from exile in the UK three months earlier.

A week after my arrival I learnt that Benazir was visiting Islamabad and staying close to where I lived. I asked a locally engaged staff member to make an appointment and called on her the next day.

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I was ushered into a comfortable lounge room. Benazir, who had been sitting, rose to meet me. She was even more striking than her photographs. Dressed in golden cream she had a white dupatta over her glistening black hair. There were three other equally well groomed young women in the room. Benazir extended her hand smiled and motioned me to sit opposite her.

She eased back in her chair crossed her legs and said coquettishly, “Did they tell you what a naughty girl I was at Oxford.” This was a question and statement entirely out of left field. Was she testing me? In light of my subsequent understanding of her I would say, yes, she was.

A provocative statement leading to a vigorous exchange was a Bhutto learning technique. In any event I said no. She asked if I knew her friend Alan Jones from Australia who had been at Oxford with her. I said I knew of him as he was a well known rugby coach and radio broadcaster.

Jones later told me that he used to chauffer her around in her little yellow MG. Late one night he was summoned to come and pick her up at her college. Once in the car she said she wanted a hamburger, so Jones drove her toward a popular Oxford hamburger establishment, realising where he was going she said, “No Alan, I meant the one we go to in London.” So off to London they went bought a hamburger and drove back to Oxford.

Benazir was charming, articulate, strong willed, stubborn, courageous, charismatic and a born politician.

We chatted for over an hour on a range of issues of concern. I took my leave having obtained enough information to provide an extensive record of conversation for Canberra. We both agreed that there was a lot more to discuss so I invited her to drop in at my home when next she was in Islamabad. She took me at my word and over the next two years, sometimes with a day’s notice and at other times with an hour’s notice she would drop in, often with a cavalcade of anything up to ten vehicles, police and minders, the watchers and the watched.

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Benazir was always accompanied by at least two female companions, even at dinner or lunch and many male minders who secreted themselves around the house awaiting the signal. When the signal came a rush of activity would follow. Men would appear around corners to open house and car doors, engines would start, gates open, goodbyes waved through open windows and the caravanserai would depart in a fanfare of tooting horns and sirens. The signal was a raised arm and click of beautifully manicured fingers.

When Benazir was jailed at the end of 1986, on advice from the embassy, Canberra issued a strong protest.

I was the first diplomat to meet with Benazir following her return to Pakistan. When she was released from prison I suggested she meet with more diplomats in order that she give herself a greater measure of protection should she be imprisoned again. This was a measure I had employed in South Africa with respect to black activists. I proposed a lunch at which she would be the guest speaker. I invited about 30 deputy heads of mission and a number of foreign correspondents. The spectre of Zia was enough to deter about 10 of the invitees.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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