For most Pakistanis, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is one of those moments in the history of this young country that will be remembered like we Americans remember the assassination of JFK; the tragic and violent end of a political voice that was a part of a family dynasty of national leaders.
I interviewed Bhutto on Nov. 8, just a day before she was to stage the first rally of her Pakistan People’s Party in Rawalpindi after President Pervez Musharraf’s state of emergency. I had heard from fellow journalists and read of her charm and how infectious her passion can be when you sit across from her. This was not a fabrication.
In the interview I was focused on why, just a month after a homicide bomber killed 130 people during her homecoming parade, she was going to risk her life and the lives of others by staging a rally to protest the state of emergency. Bhutto said it was worth risking her life to help bring Pakistan back to democracy. When saying this, there was no change in the tone of her voice, no inflection, nothing. In my mind, there was no question that she was willing to die for what she believed in.
It was about six weeks after my interview when she was killed for just that. And it was after staging a rally in that very city of Rawalpindi. Back in November, her rally was prevented by a house arrest imposed by Musharraf.
I lived in Pakistan for about a year just after 9/11 and even though Bhutto was thousands of miles from her homeland in self-imposed exile, her name was on the lips of her country's people. In a nation that only just turned 60 years old in 2007, a political brand like the Bhutto name does not fade quickly … for both good and bad reasons. To some, the name was synonymous with corruption just as to others it was selfless leadership.
The name will continue with the appointment of her husband and her 19-year old son as leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party. That’s about the age that Bhutto began cutting her political teeth. Her husband will hold the top job until her son finishes his university studies at Oxford.
For millions of Pakistanis, and now for me, her assassination last week will be one of those “where were you when you heard” historical moments. For me, it’s for two reasons -- first, because of my recent interview with Bhutto and my years of work and many friends in Pakistan whose future now has a question mark over it, but also because of where I was when I heard the news.
Due to the crazy work pace of coverage during the Pakistani state of emergency in November, I had earned some days off. I decided to sock them away until the week between Christmas and New Year's and spend them with my visiting in-laws. Their Christmas present was a surprise trip to Petra, Jordan, to visit the amazing ancient Nabatean city carved into the side of red canyon walls.
The Monastery is the last and most difficult part of Petra to reach as it rests atop the highest point of the 2,000-year-old city. The four of us were running a bit behind schedule and were worried that we would not make it to the top and back down before sunset, so we hired some donkeys for the last ascent.
Now, as a journalist living in the Middle East you never leave home without your cell phone and Blackberry … even on vacation. So, halfway up the steep, last mountain in Petra the cell phone in my backpack started ringing. This prompted immediate laughter from my father-in-law Stephen on the donkey just behind me. The narrow path and the small beast struggling on his last run of the day prevented me from twisting around to take my pack off and retrieve my phone. Then it rang again. OK, I thought, this might actually BE something, but still, it will have to wait until the top. Once we got off the donkeys and paid for the journey, I grabbed my phone. Two missed calls from Fox News Middle East correspondent Mike Tobin. Confirmed, now I knew it was something.
Thinking that a data connection was next to impossible this far out, I half-heartedly looked for my Blackberry to see if there were any new emails that might give me more detail on what might be happening … at least eight with subject lines ranging from “Bhutto’s dead, “Bhutto shot,” to “Explosion at Bhutto rally.” And here I thought, silly me, that on the highest point of an ancient city I would be out of reach of breaking news.
I spent the next hour slamming out all the information I could remember from my interview with Bhutto and coordinated an interview with Fox News Radio and then a live phone interview for Fox News Channel with the backdrop of a nearing sunset on the red rocks of Petra.
During this process, I nearly forgot where I was until a group of Indian tourists caught wind of the Bhutto assassination from overhearing our conversations. One of them saying, “Well, she was taking a lot of risks now wasn’t she.” I told them all the info I knew. It was a nice dry run for the interviews to come. I then snapped off a photo for them in front of the Monastery, before heading back down the rocky trail.
The radio interview was conducted as my wife bargained for a donkey ride back to the entrance of Petra so we’d make it through the narrow ‘Siq’ passage to the main gate before it closed. Surreal is an understatement.
At the end of every year I do a little mental flash back of the major news events I covered from the past year, a personal Year in Review. Until last Thursday, I thought my lead story was going to be reporting from outside Bhutto’s house as she was under her first house arrest in Islamabad back in November -- now, the lead story -- talking to Fox News HQ in New York while standing in the soft red sand of Petra, reflecting on the 24 minutes I spent with Benazir Bhutto six weeks ago.