Days after a suicide attack took the lives of at least 136 supporters, Benazir Bhutto told TODAY in an exclusive interview that she knew her return from exile would put her own life at risk along with the lives of the throngs of supporters who would be there to greet her.
Nonetheless, Benazir Bhutto told TODAY’s Ann Curry, the trip had to be made for the good of a country teetering on the edge.
“I knew people would be at risk,” Bhutto said during an interview taped Sunday in Karachi amid tight security. “The people who came knew that they would be at risk. They put their lives on the line. And I put my life on the line. And we did it because we want to save Pakistan. And we think saving Pakistan comes by saving democracy.”
Bhutto could have taken a helicopter from the airport to her home in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Instead, she rode in an open truck in a motorcade. Hundreds of thousands of people packed the route, singing and dancing and chanting in celebration and turning a trip of less than half an hour into a 10-hour crawl.
Near midnight, the motorcade was attacked by a suicide bomber or bombers, killing at least 136 people and injuring hundreds more. Given the carnage, Curry asked, “Did you make the right choice to come back in this way?”
“I find this question very uncomfortable,” said Bhutto.
“Of course, you do,” Curry replied. “It’s a painful question.”
“The reason — let me tell you why,” Bhutto said. Had she taken a helicopter, she said, it “means that terrorists can dictate the agenda. It means that terrorists, by threatening violence, can take over nations and destroy the quality of life of their people.”
Long, bloody fight
Bhutto was the first female prime minister of Pakistan in 1988 and in 1996 served a second term. A member of a prominent political family, she was removed from office and imprisoned on charges of corruption.
Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had founded the Pakistan Peoples Party and served as prime minister, but was executed by the military in 1979 after a coup. She has also lost two of her brothers to political violence.
- Watch Helen Mirren Play with Helium on The Tonight Show (VIDEO)
- What It's Really Like ... to Make the Decision to Have Your Ovaries Removed and a Double Mastectomy
- Florida Holiday Inn Wakes Up Spring Breakers with 'Circle of Life' (VIDEO)
- Wait Until You Read What Martha Stewart Said to Justin Bieber at His Comedy Central Roast
- Mother Allegedly Smothers Her Child in NYC Restaurant Bathroom
Her husband was tortured and she was held in solitary confinement before being allowed to go into exile in London in 1999.
She returned after lengthy negotiations with President Gen. Pervez Musharaff, with whom she has discussed forming a political alliance.
Her return is timed to allow her to campaign for the Peoples Party in parliamentary elections to be held in January. Musharaff granted her immunity from prosecution on the corruption charges to allow her to return.
“You're a mother of three. You could be living in London fine,” Curry told Bhutto. “You don't have to do this.”
“Look into the eyes of the people who came to receive me at the airport, the joy, the happiness, the singing, the dancing, before the terrorists struck,” said Bhutto. “They were celebrating my return because they want hope. If I don't come back, the 160 million people of Pakistan won't have hope of a future free from terrorism, a future that there will be democracy.”
Pakistan is under enormous pressure from the United States and the West, which looks to the country to stand firm against the Taliban and al-Qaida, who have taken refuge in the mountains of Pakistan after being expelled from neighboring Afghanistan. But Musharaff is also under pressure from Islamists who oppose cooperating with the United States.
Bhutto said that she was warned before she returned to Pakistan that an attempt would be made on her life. Curry asked about a letter Bhutto sent to Musharaff, a letter saying that three high-ranking government officials were involved in the plot.
“I'm simply saying that there are individuals who could have abused their individual position to do this. And the threat is still there,” Bhutto said.
“The militants want an Islamist takeover of Pakistan,” she said. “They have to be stopped. I have a choice to keep silent and to allow the extremists to do what they're doing, or have a choice to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong. And I'm going to try to save my country.’ And I have taken the second choice.”
That choice means visiting women who have lost their husbands and her wounded supporters and witnessing the price they have paid in blood for their beliefs and for her.
“You know, it's very hard to look into the face of somebody who has lost — lost a loved one,” Bhutto told Curry. “I told them I wished that there were words that I could say to lessen their grief. But I know there are no words.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints