Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the 27 December 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
I had the privilege of meeting her, when I accompanied Bob Hawke on an official visit to Pakistan in February 1989. She had become Prime Minister of Pakistan only three months previously, so it was a time when everything seemed new and full of hope.
The visit came up at very short notice. It had been intended that Hawke would go to Saudi Arabia on that trip, as well as Korea, Thailand and India, and in early December 1988 I had gone to Bangkok, Riyadh and New Delhi for preparatory talks with senior officials. Meanwhile, Benazir had become Prime Minister of Pakistan in November, and when January came and there was still no word of formal Saudi agreement to Hawke’s visit, Islamabad was substituted for Riyadh on the Prime Minister’s itinerary.
It was a very Pakistan experience right from the jump – and I don’t mean that in any pejorative way. We would be arriving in Islamabad from New Delhi in a RAAF B-707, and the Pakistanis offered to escort us in as soon as we entered Pakistan air space from India. The RAAF politely declined – it is the strong preference of the RAAF to travel without fuss and fanfare, just concentrate on the flying.
Of course the Pakistan Air Force wasn’t taking no for an answer and the moment came when we suddenly had a Pakistani fighter on each wing-tip – and I mean on each wing-tip. I had a window seat over the wing of the B-707, and when the Pakistani pilot smiled and waved, grinning from ear to ear, I could clearly see the walrus moustache and the gleaming white teeth.
When we landed Benazir met Bob at the foot of the gangway and she and her Foreign Minister accompanied us to where a guard of honour was lined up – complete with that great relic of empire, the pipe band, dressed in tartans composed from colours that would be found in the dyes made from plants indigenous to the region. As Bob and Benazir inspected the guard, the Foreign Minister observed, in that impeccable English that seems to be spoken only by the Indian and Pakistani elites and Pakistani cricket commentators, “I have always had a very high regard for Australians, ever since we served together in Tobruk”.
For me the highlight of the visit was a small private dinner at the home of Benazir’s mother, Begum Nusrat. The program for the visit also included the usual grand state function, in this case a luncheon; the small dinner party was a very hospitable little extra. Begum Nusrat’s place was a home (a nice one) not a typical official residence set up for grand entertaining – the dining table would take the ten or twelve of us that were present and no more, so there were just five or six of us from each side. We stood around chatting over pre-dinner drinks, and when we sat down to dinner it was very informal, everyone was part of the one conversation, and it was a very pleasant evening. Begum Nusrat and her daughter were excellent hosts, and it was a memorable occasion.
Over the pre-dinner drinks Bob said to Benazir that he would like her to make a return visit, to which she instantly responded, “Oh, yes, I’d love to do that. Wouldn’t it be fun if it could be timed to coincide with a cricket test – we could go to the cricket together.” This never happened, of course – life became very difficult for Benazir and after her defeat in the 1997 elections she went into self-imposed exile in Dubai.
Benazir Bhutto remains one of the most interesting people I have ever met, and she was genuinely charismatic. As a political leader she was by no means perfect, but I think she was probably Pakistan’s best hope at the time. Someone else obviously thought so too.