Between the Airport and the Mausoleum
When I first started out in the business someone told me that 5 percent of photojournalism was the actual picture taking and the other 95 percent was the stuff that got you to the place you needed to be to take the picture. This has always rung true with me and covering Benazir Bhutto's return visit from exile to Pakistan was no different.
It started a month before when I made the decision to cover Bhutto's return and applied for a press visa at the Pakistani consulate in Beirut. After nearly three weeks of waiting and follow-up phone calls, Bhutto's trip was quickly approaching with no signs of progress in getting the visa from the Beirut consulate. With only a few days until her arrival, I'd had it with waiting and around 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night at home in Beirut I started calling every contact I had trying to push my visa through. After a few hours on the phone, I was on a flight to New York City to meet and try and sort things out quickly with a press officer at the Pakistani Mission to the United Nations, as the clock was ticking for Bhutto's arrival in Pakistan.
I boarded the plane at around 3 a.m. Thursday morning and arrived in New York around 2 p.m. This plan seemed simple enough except for one small obstacle. It was almost Eid, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. In Pakistan the population celebrates for four to five days--meaning that the consulate in New York would close at 4 p.m. and would not reopen until the following Wednesday. If I didn't get my paperwork settled within the next two hours I would miss Bhutto's visit altogether. My agency, World Picture Network, had couriered all the necessary letters and documents to the consulate the day before so things should be in order but, nonetheless, retrieving baggage, getting a taxi, driving into Manhattan in time from JFK airport and having the consulate process all the paperwork before Eid was still a bit too close for comfort. Luckily, the traffic was light and I made it to the meetings with five minutes to spare and walked out the door with the press visa. Next stop: the agency's office to square away plane tickets and logistics for the trip. Unfortunately, the flight to Pakistan from JFK had already left so I was stuck in New York for the night. So with one extra night in the city before my flight to Islamabad I decided that drinking was in order prior to a three-week trip to a nearly dry country.
After a good night out of drinking vodka at my favorite Russian restaurant in midtown, a lunch meeting with the agency and a camera bag on my shoulder, I headed back to JFK. I've never really liked New York, being a kid from Oklahoma, even when I was living in Brooklyn, so keeping trips to the city to less than 24 hours always makes me happy. A few hours later I was in Islamabad and en route to Karachi after meeting with the Ministry of Information.
An estimated 1.5 million people were expected to line the streets from the airport in anticipation to see Bhutto's convoy parade its way from the airport to the Mausoleum of the Quaid-e-Azam and then to her home in Karachi. The whole drive was expected to take less than two hours. I photographed the celebrations in the streets for hours while waiting for her plane to land. Five hours after her arrival to the Karachi airport from Dubai her convoy had still not left the closed area surrounding the airport. Along with a few other photojournalists and TV people we had camped out on top of a bridge roughly one kilometer from the starting point of her trip hoping to get photos of her convoy passing under.
Bhutto's people had built a sort of pope-mobile for her to ride in. In reality, it was a fortified cargo container on wheels with a platform welded to the top for her to wave to the crowds from.
Once it started to get dark and still no Bhutto-mobile in sight from the bridge, I decided to huff it on foot back towards the airport until I came to her vehicle and I would just get shots from the street level since that was better than nothing. My walk back towards the airport, fighting through crowds that had amassed in the streets, took at least an hour.
By the time I finally spotted the convoy I was well inside the airport property that originally had been closed off from the crowds. At some point during the day the populace had made its way through the blockades. Meaning that in five hours, she had made virtually no progress in her trip and the convoy was literally moving at a snail's pace. I kept with the convoy for an hour or so waiting for Bhutto to show her face on top of the vehicle but she never surfaced. I decided to throw in the towel for the moment and head back to the hotel to file before it was too late. The streets were impossible to navigate by car because of the hundreds of thousands of screaming PPP party supporters. The plan was to quickly edit and file the pictures from the day at the hotel and then take a one-hour nap before heading back out around 1a.m. to the Mausoleum which was her second stop on the trip to her house. I figured at the pace she was going she would arrive around 3 a.m.
Five minutes after my very sleepy jet-lagged head hit the pillow; one of the four mobiles on my nightstand rang; by the time I could find the phone in the dark the line had closed, so I put my head back on the pillow. Seconds later all four mobile phones were ringing and vibrating in a sort of dance across the nightstand. I grabbed one phone and answered it. It was my international editor from the agency. All I heard was, "There was a bomb-- no details yet…." As she briefed me with what she knew I was pulling on my pants, grabbing cameras and heading out the door and down the elevator. I think I finally got my shirt buttoned and the second shoe on my foot at some point in the car en route to the bomb site.
Fifteen minutes and about a dozen phone calls later I was at the scene of what reminded me of working in Baghdad. It was too dark to see the street but below by feet it was slippery. After taking a few frames with the strobe it became clear that I was sliding around on pools of blood and diesel fuel caused by what would turn out to be the largest suicide attack in Pakistan's history.
Most of the bodies had been removed by the time I arrived and what was left were teams of people picking up body parts and bagging them for the ambulances. Ears, feet and bits of flesh: the scene was surreal. A man owning an ambulance company was pestering me to photograph him in front of his blood-splattered ambulance. Sandals from the dead were being thrown into a pile that continued to grow larger and larger while I photographed the scene. The attack itself was not surprising – numerous threats against Bhutto had been made prior to her arrival; the size of the attack was shocking.
The next morning, after two hours of sleep I started the day with the all-too-familiar routine for someone working in the Middle East these days: find hospitals to check on the injured, morgues to photograph the dead and then, start searching out funerals. Later in the day we learned it was in fact a suicide bombing prefaced with a grenade explosion. The final casualty rate had not come in yet but judging from the scene the night before and the size of the pile of sandals, I knew it would be high. The final number ended up at over 130 dead and over 500 injured. The morgues were gruesome and the fortunate families were those able to claim their loved one's bodies for burial while many other families were left only with body parts too difficult to identify, leaving lingering questions for the families and a lack of closure.
A month prior what started with the idea of photographing a historically important trip of a former prime minister of Pakistan had turned into a story altogether different: Bhutto's triumphant return became only a backdrop to the horror of the suicide attack. The idea was the 95 percent that gets you to the right place at the right time so you can do the final 5.
The final 5 percent is just a few moments in the much larger story of the turmoil in the region. Maybe at some point the coverage in the region will deal with its beauty rather than its destruction. That is what the million-plus Bhutto supporters were really in the streets celebrating: the hope for a better tomorrow. Unfortunately, the day ended with another pile of sandals.
© Paul Taggart
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