The remains of the day-Part I

Anjum Niaz
“The prime minister is here,” announced an American protocol officer in a flat voice. We made a spirited dash outside. Up in the sky that sunny afternoon in June, our hearts thumped with national pride as we saw streaking across the blue sky a big white bird. As it began its descent, we could see clearly the Pakistani flag fluttering atop the plane, holding high the crescent and the star. The sight swelled our pride. We had lined on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force base outside Washington DC. The door opened and out walked Benazir Bhutto, 36, wearing an electric blue shalwar-kamiz with a white dupatta covering her head. In her arms was baby Bilawal.

Behind the prime minister was her husband Asif Zardari (looking a bit lost) and a huge delegation of ministers, politicians, the media, sister Sanam and her husband, and a clutch of very close friends. If I am not mistaken Dr Sethna, the doctor who delivered Bilawal, too was in the entourage. It was a joyous gathering. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto soon boarded a helicopter that was to take her to Jefferson Memorial where the President of the Unites States and First Lady Barbara Bush awaited her arrival. The rest of the delegation members hopped on to the limousines assigned to them and drove away to their hotels. The media party was told to assemble at a local hotel and pick up their security passes that would permit them entrance to the White House for a formal welcome ceremony and later a press conference.

Minutes changed to hours and yet there was no sign of any security passes arriving for the Pakistani media people, who had either accompanied the prime minister or were joining the party from DC. Endless cups of coffee and a constant stream of chatter finally took its toll. Fatigue, jetlag and aching bones began to tug at our physical and mental stamina. It was past the midnight hour, when two beefy looking security men with blonde crew cuts, big red unsmiling faces and dark suits came and sat down on desks lying in wait for them for hours. They began calling out our names (butchering the names in the process), asking us for our IDs. The white, austere looking pass saying that one had been security cleared and allowed inside the White House is the strangest piece of permit I’ve ever seen. It looked surreal.

The next morning, we arrived early to take our places at the press stands put up in the famous Rose Garden of the White House. Before being ushered outside, we assembled in the basement meant for the press. It was horrible – brown worn-out rugs with weather-beaten chairs greeted us. “Where’s the coffee?” we asked around, hoping that caffeine would relieve the late-night ordeal we had been put through waiting to be security cleared. “The vending machines are right in front of you,” we were told. Now this was the first time I had seen a vending machine installed in the press centre for the journalists to pay a dollar and buy their own coffee!

The White House, located in the richest country of the world, could not afford to give coffee/tea to the media people assigned to cover it! It seemed very odd. Desperate for coffee, we scrambled our folded dollar bills, straightened them out and pushed them in to buy ourselves a cup of coffee.

Outside on the lush green lawn, the American TV crews had already set up their cameras. The print journalists were shunted up on the scaffolding. One wrong move and you’d find yourself between the rungs, as it happened to me. A big thud and a crash later, I found myself suddenly caught between two planks. Quickly I stood up despite being badly scratched by the craggy wood and monumental embarrassment. My camera was unharmed. Seconds later, I saw our young, beautiful and charismatic prime minister, resplendent in green, being welcomed by the world’s most powerful man at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the home of American presidents for the past 200 years. It was a historic welcome and the speeches by the two leaders at the podium were impressive. President George H W Bush cut a gracious father figure for the young prime minister on her maiden state tour of the US. He brought a personal touch when he fondly recalled his memories of the late Z A Bhutto and his love of roses. The daughter smiled and acknowledged the presidential compliments. He presented her with an American rose bush to remember him by.

We then moved inside and filed past Bush and Benazir seated by the famous fireside posing for photos as our cameras clicked furiously. Both looked relaxed and at ease with each other. Later in the East Room, furnished in colours of burnished gold with giant size crystal chandeliers, the press conference began in real earnest. BB and Bush were mounted on a dais fitted with two podiums and microphones. To be honest, I can’t for the world of me remember the questions asked. The East Room, where once lay the body of Abraham Lincoln after he had been assassinated, seemed to bring alive the ghosts of the past presidents. It was surreal. Later that night Benazir, dressed to kill in a green flowing ghagra with a heavily worked “zari” shirt and dupatta, descended the stairs of the White House, looking every inch an empress. Walking next to her was President Bush in his DJ and black bowtie. Behind them came Asif Zardari, dressed as a Baloch prince sporting a daunting white headgear strewn across his head and shoulders.

Benazir’s best performance was yet to come. The day after her arrival in the capital, her scintillating address to the joint session of the Congress was made memorable by the standing ovation she got some 30 times. Our press party was bunched together in the press gallery upstairs. We had the best seats and could see everyone from atop. There she stood in her white dupatta and fawn silk printed shalwar-kamiz looking like a queen wearing not a crown but carrying a thinking head and drawing gushes from all corners of the House.

Four years later, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh made a stunning revelation. Writing in the March 29, 1993, issue of The New Yorker he said: “Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto tells a joint session of the US Congress: ‘We do not possess, nor do we intend to make, a nuclear device. That is our policy.’ The statement receives thunderous cheers from members of both houses. However, Bhutto has been aware of Pakistan’s nuclear program for some time and received a detailed briefing on it from the CIA.”

Little did one know the real story as it emerged during Benazir Bhutto’s five-day state visit to Washington. Seymour Hersh in his New Yorker article has pieced together the events of those five days and how Bhutto received a detailed briefing by CIA director William Webster. “For Bhutto, who receives only limited information about her own country’s nuclear programme, … Webster arranges…to be shown a mock-up of a Pakistani nuclear bomb. Mark Siegel, an associate of Bhutto, will later say she experienced feelings of disbelief: ‘The briefing was more detailed’ than any information she had received from her own military and ‘showed that the military was doing it behind her back.’ The next day, President George Bush tells her that in order to continue to receive US aid, she must assure the White House that her government will not take the final step of producing nuclear-bomb cores. Bush says he will still allow the sale of sixty more F-16 planes needed by Pakistan, even though Pakistan has fitted such planes with nuclear weapons in the recent past, despite promising not to do so. Despite this, the sale will not go through.”

Nineteen years later today, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, 55 (had death not cheated her), would again be landing in Washington as the guest of the son of President George H W Bush. Her parleys with President George W Bush would not have been much different from what his father discussed in June 1989. The CIA and other American intelligence agencies would again be ready with their knives sharpened to cut the Pakistani PM to size with proof (videos and audios) that Pakistan was playing a double game in nabbing the militants in its tribal areas.

Instead of BB, Gilani will face the music now, while Rehman Malik will harp the same tune, insisting to his American interlocutors that he, and not the army, is the new boss of the ISI.

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting


Source: The News, 29/7/2008

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