IHT : Bhutto's return to family home provokes mixed response

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bhutto's return to family home provokes mixed response

By Carlotta Gall | October 26, 2007

LARKANA, Pakistan: At the gate of the Bhutto family home, a huge guard is on duty, magazines of ammunition strapped to his chest and an embroidered cap on his head. No one is allowed even a peek through the gate at the house, he said.

It is known here as the Prime Minister's House, the country home where Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader and former prime minister, is expected to arrive Saturday. It was the home of her father, too, who also served as prime minister until he was overthrown in a coup and hanged by the military dictator, General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.

Festive colored lights are looped over the high walls of the compound in readiness for the celebration of Bhutto's homecoming after eight years abroad in self-imposed exile.

Yet Bhutto, who returned to Karachi on Oct. 18, has delayed her visit to her home district apparently for security concerns. Since two bomb blasts devastated her arrival procession on that day in Karachi and killed 140 people, most of them her party supporters, she has ventured out of her home only on brief visits into the city to offer prayers or to visit the wounded and bereaved. She has said that there have been more threats on her life and has called on the government to provide her with better security.

She and her staff, meanwhile, are rapidly rethinking how to run an election campaign in the rural areas, the base of her support, without holding the big rallies and processions that are the political tradition here.

The cotton and rice farmers of Bhutto's home district, Larkana, live in low mud-brick homes, often with no electricity or television. Barefoot children herd goats and water buffalo through scrub land, and women dry cow dung on the walls of their homes to use for cooking fuel.

Not only poor, Larkana is one of the most lawless districts of the southern province of Sindh, where people complain of armed robbers roaming in the untracked countryside and corrupt police officers.

The police chief, Mazhar Ali Sheikh, who was transferred from Hyderabad two weeks ago to oversee security for Bhutto's return, acknowledges that violence and criminality is worse in Larkana than elsewhere in the province.

"There is kidnapping, vehicle theft, tribal feuds and murders," he said. "Since historical times this kind of crime has been dominating this area."

But, he said, sectarian or jihadist groups do not have a foothold here and the local people and that police would spot outsiders quickly.

"I think it will be all right and her stay will be peaceful," he said. But the police chief said he had nonetheless requested 300 more police officers to assist in security.

For Bhutto, whose family have been the feudal lords of about 4,800 hectares, or 12,000 acres, of farm land here for decades, the district of Larkana, and her own village, Naudero, should be the safest place, both in terms of physical security and politically.

The town and surrounding villages are overwhelmingly loyal to the memory of her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and to Benazir Bhutto, his eldest born and his political successor.

The feudal system is still so strong in rural areas of Pakistan that the people's allegiance to their landlords converts into unstinting loyalty at the polls.

"Since Oct. 18, we have been anxiously awaiting her - she is our leader," said Abdul Ghafoor Leghari, 51, keeper of the white-domed mausoleum where her father, who was executed in 1978, and her two brothers, who also met violent deaths, are buried along with seven generations of Bhuttos.

It is here that Bhutto intends to visit on Saturday, to visit her father's grave and again lay claim to his legacy.

"The whole place has been cleaned and the whole village has been celebrating her arrival," Leghari said.

He dismissed suggestions that Bhutto was delaying the visit because of fears for her security.

"She is the daughter of a martyr," Leghari said. "She is not a coward."

In the town of Larkana, Bhutto's supporters at the party office said the Karachi attack, which killed many party workers, were an attempt to intimidate them. Three people from Larkana died in the explosions and three were wounded, they said.

"The workers will not be scared - they are ready to sacrifice their lives," said Saleem Soomro, a party official. "Pakistan's stability and the well-being of the young people depend on her."

There is one voice of opposition, though, that will irritate Bhutto. It is that of her own sister-in-law, Ginwa Bhutto, who is Lebanese and the widow of her second brother, Murtaza Bhutto, who arrived in Larkana ahead of Bhutto this week.

The two women have been bitter rivals since Murtaza was gunned down by the police only meters from his home in Karachi in 1996, during Bhutto's second term as prime minister. Murtaza widow holds Bhutto responsible for his death and now heads a rival faction of the Pakistan Peoples Party in the name of her late husband.

She said in an interview here that she intended to run in the parliamentary elections due in January in an adjacent constituency to Bhutto's. Although her following remains small compared with that of Bhutto's, her presence will be a thorn in Bhutto's side, and possibly a security concern. Murtaza's supporters denied that there would be trouble from their side.

"Benazir is also our sister," said Abdul Hamid, 18, a Murtaza supporter who was sitting outside the party office. "It is not dangerous to come here. This is her own village."

Security aside, Bhutto will have her work cut out to meet expectations, even here in her home district. The poverty of the rural population is evident and people complain of inflation, unemployment and lawlessness, and they expect Bhutto to change that.

"There is no other leader than her in Pakistan," said Raza Muhammad, 51, a tailor with a shop in Larkana town. "She is the best option for the poor."

Mushtaq Ahmed, a 30-year-old rickshaw driver, said he barely made $2 a day. "If she comes to power, things will improve," Ahmed said. "Larkana got a lot of benefits when she was in power before. Now we hear a lot of money is coming from the West, but the contractors get away with everything."

Muhammad added: "The poor can hardly make ends meet. Rice, which is grown in our own area, is so expensive. How can leaders, who have big houses and cars, know the difficulties of the poor."

Supporters of Benazir Bhutto dismissed allegations that she amassed great wealth during her time in power as the jealousy of rivals. One supporter is Ejaz Ahmed Bhatti.

"Mohtarma Bhutto is the top leader," he said, using an honorific title that means respected one. "She is highly qualified, motivated, intelligent and loyal. She is worried about the poor people. There is no match for her."