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Benazir Bhutto Lived Life of Tragedy


Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination following a political rally Thursday ended a life that was filled with great privilege and steeped in family tragedy. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in our South Asia bureau in New Delhi has a look back at her remarkable life.

Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan, emerged as a public figure, in many ways because of tragedy, and, with her assassination, she will share a similar legacy with her father.

Ms. Bhutto was the daughter of the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Her mother was of Kurdish and Iranian origins. Her father was hanged after he was deposed in a 1977 military coup by General Zia al-Huq, which brought an end to one of Pakistan's few non-military governments.

Benazir Bhutto, born in Sindh province in 1953, enjoyed the advantages of being a daughter of one of Pakistan's wealthiest and most politically savvy dynasties. She was educated at Harvard's Radcliffe College in the United States and Oxford University in Britain.

At college in the United States, where she was known by her nickname of Pinkie, she participated in the movement against the Vietnam War. Classmates say she got a reputation as dynamic orator there, vociferously defending her father when he was criticized by professors.

Her friends say that, while the young Muslim woman took to wearing jeans, she did not have a boyfriend and would not smoke, drink or eat pork. Graduating from the elite American school, her thesis, on Muslim Separatism and the Origins of Pakistan, was reportedly submitted on pink paper.

After completing a Master's degree in the United States in 1977, she went home, taking the helm of her father's Pakistan Peoples' Party. After his ouster, she was initially jailed while her father awaited execution.

Speaking recently to VOA, Ms. Bhutto remembered the words of her father at that time, saying he believed contesting elections, despite the barriers to fair elections, was better than boycotts.

"When my father was in prison under an earlier military dictatorship, he had still told the party to go ahead and fight, so we could keep my party political machinery well-oiled, and we could have an opportunity to meet the public, meet the voters, and communicate our message to them," she said. "So, we thought it was better to have a political process than to leave the field open."

She would spend five years in solitary confinement before exiling herself to London upon her release in 1984.

She returned home again two years later, vowing to help drive her father's successor from office.

Donning the veil, agreeing to an arranged marriage and quoting the Koran, she took on a new public image.

The transformation gave her greater legitimacy, and helped to propel her twice to being elected prime minister, first in the late 1980s and then again in the mid 1990s.

That made her one of the few democratically elected female leaders in an Islamic country and one of the youngest heads of government, and, perhaps, the only one ever to give birth while in office. She would later have two other children.

She had remarked that she faced threats from the beginning of her political ascent, with some conservative Muslims calling for her to be killed because she had usurped a man's place.

She was forced from office both times she served as prime minister, amid corruption allegations tied to her controversial husband, Asif Zardari. Critics branded him a greedy businessman, who took advantage of his wife's position to allegedly drain Pakistan's treasury of millions of dollars. Although he would be acquitted of all such charges, he was jailed for years.

Ms. Bhutto spent much of her time in her second exile in Dubai and London, but remained a prominent figure, meeting government officials around the world.

Less than two and a half months before her assassination, she returned home when President Pervez Musharraf gave her amnesty from still-pending corruption charges. At that time, she chafed at the image of Pakistan as being a global source of terrorism.

"It hurts us when people say, the terrorists who come, whether they are bombing tubes [subways] in London, or whether plotting plots in Germany or doing things in other countries, and have their trail leading back [to Pakistan]," she said. "That is not the real image of Pakistan."

In Karachi, in October, her convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing more than 130 people, but narrowly missing her. Blaming the attack on pro-al-Qaida militants, Ms. Bhutto criticized President Musharraf for not checking the spread of extremism.

"The political process is under attack, political leaders are being bombed, political activists are being bombed, our country is in danger," said Ms. Bhutto. "Our country is in danger from the extremism that has spread under dictatorship."

Bhutto had long known the dangers she faced personally by going home to make a third bid to become prime minister. She had concluded her autobiography with a promise to return to her country and in her words, "take the risk for all the children of Pakistan."

It is expected Ms. Bhutto will be laid to rest in her native Sindh province, where her father and her two brothers, who also both died tragically, are buried.

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