Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari is the daughter of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan’s current President. So will she too enter the violent political arena of her homeland?
At Edinburgh University she is known as Itty Bee, a gregarious final-year English literature student with a penchant for MIA, Jay-Z and impromptu boom-box-and-barbecue picnics with her close-knit circle of friends. She has been, like most of her contemporaries, locked away in her bedroom lately, forcing on her “revision face” and keeping herself fortified with Diet Coke, political rapper Immortal Technique and regular bursts on Facebook. Her dissertation is finally in the ring binder after several weeks of hard slog, and now, with her finals over, there is at last time for going out.
When she gets on the train to London, however, Itty Bee enters a different world. Here, she dons a headscarf and becomes Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari, the eldest daughter of Benazir Bhutto; the scion of a clan that has gripped Pakistani politics for four decades. She has experienced more than her fair share of family tragedy. Her mother was assassinated just a few months before she went to Edinburgh. She never knew her grandfather, who ruled Pakistan in the Seventies but was hanged in 1979. Two uncles have been murdered. And her father – whom she calls “Baba” – is Asif Ali Zardari, the President of a fractious country that has been described in the West as “the most dangerous place on Earth”.
As a result of all this, Itty, 22, is extremely cautious when it comes to making friends. But after her graduation this summer, she will face some life-changing decisions. Will Itty, whose Urdu name, Bakhtawar, means “a harbinger of good luck”, choose to go into the family business that has claimed so many Bhuttos? The answer is almost certainly yes. There is already a political buzz around her, with thousands of supporters following 20 Facebook pages dedicated to her, such as the one entitled “Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari, our great leader”.
We meet at Benazir’s old flat in Queen’s Gate, London, around the corner from the Natural History Museum. Scattered between tapestries and keepsakes from around the world are dozens of images of Benazir and Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967. Itty’s dissertation sits on the dining room table. Its title is telling: “Shakespeare’s political heroines in Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, Othello and The Winter’s Tale”. For Itty, these characters demonstrate how human frailty is the cause of failure, rather than fate or, especially, gender. It is a view her mother voiced repeatedly, having constantly lived with taunts from Pakistan’s male-dominated political system that women were politically incapable and naive.
Dressed in her trademark black, Itty settles into an armchair. Her BlackBerry is buzzing with messages from friends and relatives wanting to see her during the few days that she is in town. “I’m proud of my family,” she says, as her younger sister, Aseefa, 19, pours a Diet Coke.
For most of their childhood, Itty, Aseefa and older brother Bilawal lived with their mother in Dubai, where Benazir had gone into self-imposed exile after the collapse of her second government in 1996. The girls didn’t see their father, who was in prison in Pakistan on corruption charges (the family maintain these were politically motivated). “By the time the authorities allowed us to have regular phone calls, I was almost a teenager and yet he was still telling me to go to bed by 8pm, not to watch television or read comics,” recalls Itty. “In Baba’s mind we must still have been the young kids we had been when he was arrested.”
These days, both parents are absent, although Itty and her sister stay in daily contact with their father on their phones. “Baba gets really cross when I don’t answer, and says he’s going to send in the Army,” jokes Aseefa. The image of a doting father massing troops to protect his kids sits oddly with President Zardari’s battered public persona back home, where newspapers portray him as vain, incapable of taming the military, muddled, corrupt and never able to shake off the resulting moniker, Mr 10 Per Cent.
The endless sniping makes Itty fume and at Edinburgh she has earned a reputation as a fierce defender of the family name. “As part of my degree I took a course in South Asian studies and on the first day went into the lecture hall to find an enormous photo of Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who hanged my grandfather, projected on to the wall,” she says. “All the recommended books were telling me how my grandfather was the worst man in history. I had big arguments with the teacher. He didn’t like the Bhuttos.” She jumps up and starts pacing around the room: “I’m sick of hearing how corrupt my mother, my father and grandfather are supposed to be – until they die, of course. Then, they become the best thing Pakistan has ever had.”
In recent months, both she and her sister have started using Twitter to get their message across. Itty’s profile declares: “Proud daughter ofshaheed [martyr] Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari.” Between them, they have nearly 50,000 followers, although for several days in May supporters were unable to pick up messages after Zardari’s Government banned Twitter, accusing the website of posting blasphemous content against Islam. Itty carried on tweeting anyway: on drone strikes, a bloody Nato attack against Pakistani troops last year and the continuing investigation into her mother’s assassination.
After the cushion of four years in academia, Itty is clearly aware that many eyes are on her. She will graduate around the same time that her father begins plotting the PPP’s future. After a series of collisions with the country’s all-powerful military and its cantankerous judiciary, Zardari is widely predicted to call a general election in October, bringing his five-year term as President to an early end. Officially, it is Bilawal whose hat is in the ring to succeed him. A handsome Zardari lookalike and Oxford graduate, Bilawal is co-chairman of the PPP with his father. If Itty joins him in Pakistan, they will become a mirror image of the Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi brother-and-sister team across the border in India. And almost before we sit down, she is talking like a politician. “I want to continue my mother’s work on social issues such as women’s rights, education and poverty.
“I don’t consider myself Western,” she goes on. “I do recognise that I’ve benefited from a UK education for the past four years, but otherwise I consider myself Eastern. I’ve got a lot to learn. I want to educate myself about my country. I want to wander around and see real life for myself. There’s an awful lot to do.” She talks about the country’s rapid slide towards religious extremism and how the population has more than doubled since her mother was in power. “There was one baby I saw in the flood-hit areas in 2010,” she says. “She was lying on the ground, covered in flies, while the mother just sat there. When I asked why she didn’t swat away the flies and pick her baby up, she looked at me and said, ‘This is how I was brought up, so why should I treat my child any differently?’ That’s one of the things that needs to be remedied in my country. We need to make life worth living.”
The last time I was here at the Queen’s Gate flat was in 2006, when I came to interview Benazir Bhutto on her self-imposed exile, only to discover that she was planning to end it. Then it was filled with advisers and chain-smoking party workers, talking up her plan to go home and
contest new elections, having already served twice as prime minister.
Bilawal, Itty and Aseefa were away at school in Dubai. Zardari was recuperating, after his 11 years in prison, at a clinic in New York. It was a bizarre scene, with Benazir hopping around in jogging pants, picking at a plate of uncooked vegetables, her raw diet designed to get her in shape for the arduous campaign trail ahead, as calls from political leaders on three continents pinged around the living room.
Today the flat is quiet, although Itty gets minute-by-minute text updates about the storms raging in Pakistan. Her father, whom she has not seen for five months, is defending his coalition government against multiple challenges from the courts, the Opposition and the military. There are continuing attempts to prosecute him for corruption charges. There remain whispers of a coup in the offing and Pakistan’s relations with its closest Western ally, the United States, are at an all-time low following the revelation that Osama bin Laden lived in the country for up to nine years. Only last month, the two countries came to blows again after a Pakistani doctor, Shakeel Afridi, was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for his role in helping the CIA to monitor the bin Laden compound.
Itty’s life has been a political rollercoaster for as long as she can remember. “The family had one summer together after my mother was killed and before my father became president,” she recalls. “Our private time is very special. It’s the only time I can really relax.” When Aseefa last saw her father it was on official business, accompanying him to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma in January this year. “They were joking about spending 11 years in prison,” Aseefa says. “Aung San Suu Kyi told my father the first ten years were the easiest.”
The closest the girls had to a normal life was between 1997 and 2004, when they were living in London and Dubai. “It was the only time we had Mama to ourselves,” says Itty. After Benazir was killed in 2007 at the age of 54 and the children returned to Pakistan for the funeral, the local press declared open season on the Bhutto offspring, even ridiculing Itty for a rap she wrote in memory of her mother and uploaded to YouTube: “Shot in the back of your ear/ So young in 54th year/ Murdered with three kids left behind/ A hopeless nation without you, you are in all their hearts.”
Since then, the girls have kept a low profile. For three years, Aseefa has lived with her sister in Edinburgh, having enrolled at the city’s St George’s School for Girls. “Baba and Bilawal were in Pakistan. I just wanted to be near Itty,” she says, glancing at her sister. But she has started a degree at another British university. “I don’t want to name it because I don’t want the attention,” she says apologetically. “Why not?” challenges Itty. “Everyone knows who you are anyway.”
Both girls understand the need for caution, Itty citing her launch of a relief charity during floods that crippled Pakistan in 2010. “It became some story about me starting a political party against my brother,” she says. “They said the dynasty was splitting. It’s total fiction. I want to support my brother. My mother always told us to be proud and to stick together.”
Keeping an eye on them today is Benazir’s younger sister Sanam Bhutto, their default mother. “Sticking together is the most important thing,” Sanam says, nodding at the girls, who call her Aunty Sunny. “My father [Zulfikar Ali Bhutto] used to say, ‘You kids must hold together like a fist. Individual fingers can be broken, but together as a fist you are strong.’” Not all of Zulfikar’s children heeded his advice. Benazir’s oldest brother Murtaza, who set up a political movement to rival his sister, was shot dead in 1996, a crime pinned for a time on Zardari, while Shahnawaz, Zulfikar’s younger son, was poisoned during a family holiday in Nice, France, in 1985. Only Sanam, who has lived in London since her father was killed, has shunned politics. “That’s why I’m still alive,” she says grimly.
Despite the risks, Itty is keen to get back to Pakistan this summer, although she is well aware some will not welcome her. “People say to me, ‘What do you know about Pakistan? You don’t know how we suffer.’ But our family has also suffered so much for Pakistan.” When Itty thinks of home, she thinks of Bilawal House, the family home in Karachi, where she spent her first six years. When she returned in 2004 to greet her father on his release from prison, she found all her childhood toys still in her bedroom, arranged by her mother. “Even now, I feel like I’m literally coming home. My mother’s make-up is still in her bedroom; our family photo albums are still on the shelves.”
Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari’s life has been overshadowed by Pakistani politics, from her birth. Benazir Bhutto became pregnant with her second child in March 1989, just three months after being voted into office, the first woman elected to govern a Muslim state. She kept the pregnancy a secret for as long as possible, determined that the men around her should not exploit the situation.
“Once they learnt I was pregnant, all hell broke loose,” Benazir told me in 2006. Facing a parliamentary vote that it was unconstitutional to have a pregnant head of government, she secretly arranged to have her daughter delivered by Caesarean section. “I drove over to Bilawal House wearing a burka,” Sanam says today. “We swapped places and then she drove off in the burka to the hospital. Nobody had a clue.” The following day, Benazir was back on the job. Sanam beams: “As a baby, she was so tiny my sister called her Itty after the song, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie,” she says, explaining the pet name.
Seven months after Itty’s birth, Benazir was ejected from office on corruption charges. Zardari was arrested, accused along with his wife of accepting millions in bribes. But in October 1993, she was voted back into power and the family was reunited at the Prime Minister’s house in Islamabad. Then in November 1996, Benazir’s government was again overthrown, Zardari was re-arrested and the children sent abroad.
Zardari was finally released in December 2004. Itty remembers the summers following his release as “the best times ever. We’d all go off to the US, where Dad was undergoing medical treatment. He was known as Mr Ali so we could just disappear from the scene.”
However, by 2007, politics again loomed. Pakistan was reeling amid a wave of suicide bombing and support for President Pervez Musharraf, a general who had seized power in a military coup in 1999, was dwindling. Behind the scenes in London, Washington and Dubai, the PPP, spurred on by the British Foreign Office and the US State Department, secretly hatched plans to return Benazir to Pakistan.Itty says they were not unduly worried. “We were excited about her going back because we knew how happy she was to return. We didn’t think, ‘It’s a life and death thing.’”
Benazir told me before leaving for Pakistan that autumn that she was not frightened; she had survived several attempts on her life already. However, she had not witnessed the growth of the lawless Pakistan Taleban, a deadly and invidious force aimed against domestic targets. Within hours of her arrival on October 18, 2007, she was targeted again.
Itty reveals that her mother had asked her daughters to accompany her. “But I was sitting my A levels two weeks later,” she recalls. “So we stayed at home with Baba and followed it all on TV.” That night, Benazir’s tank-like lorry wound its way through Karachi flanked by supporters chanting, “Long live Bhutto.” Itty remained in touch with her mother by text and e-mail. “She was waving with one hand and messaging me with the other. We were discussing my university application form.”
Just before midnight on October 18, after the girls went to bed, two huge explosions rocked Benazir’
s convoy, killing 126 people. She had just ducked down into the truck to remove her sandals, so survived the blast. Even more horrific was Benazir’s belief that one of the two bombs had been attached to a baby. “Just before the blast, a man was trying to pass this child to her and she almost took it,” says Itty. “After realising there were too many people, she gesticulated not to bring her the baby and the security van behind took it instead. That’s when the first explosion happened.”
Benazir returned to Dubai, telling her family she was shocked at just how far Pakistan had fallen. But when Musharraf declared a state of emergency soon after, she decided to go back. “Mama came into my room the night before leaving,” says Aseefa. “She said, ‘Don’t wake up tomorrow morning. We will say goodbye now.’” But Aseefa insisted on coming to the airport anyway. “In the lounge Mama said, ‘Come with me. You can sit on my lap on the plane.’ And I said no, I had school,” she recalls, sobbing. “I wish I’d gone with her. I should have been with her. My biggest regret ever is that I didn’t go with her on that last trip.”
Their worst fears were realised on December 27, 2007. The family were at home in Dubai watching television when a news flash popped up. Benazir had been injured during a gun and suicide bomb attack as she left a rally in Rawalpindi. Dozens of PPP supporters were dead. “I remember it like it happened yesterday,” says Itty. While her father and brother tried to find a plane to take them there at short notice, “I was ringing all these people in Pakistan, demanding updates about her condition. I thought she was just injured, that we would see her in the hospital… But nobody was telling me the truth.”
On the way to the airport, she listened as her father took a call. “I heard him say, ‘You must put the body on ice,’ and my world turned upside down.”
It was chaos when the family landed in Karachi. Itty recalls, “My father and brother were taken in an ambulance with my mother’s body and the doors didn’t even close properly.”
The funeral was held in Naudero, the Bhuttos’ ancestral village near Larkana, in Sindh province, 400 miles to the north. “It was unreal,” says Aseefa. “People were so upset they were setting themselves on fire. All I wanted was to have a little time alone with her. But people were desperate with grief. They were climbing onto the roof of our house and breaking all the windows.”
Aseefa says that after the funeral, Zardari told his children he was ready to pack the family up and get them as far away from Pakistani politics as he could. But when he found that Benazir had placed him in charge of the party founded by her father he pledged to stay. “We were all in a room together when he read out my mother’s will,” says Itty. Almost immediately, Zardari suggested that Bilawal should stand as PPP chairman. “It was his idea, not anyone else’s. He had tears in his eyes. He said we have to let the party vote.” At the time it was widely reported that he was so desperate to seize power that he had faked his wife’s will, but Aseefa says it was the opposite. “He was angry and upset. He wanted to get us away from politics until we were married with children. He himself had no intention.”
After the funeral, Zardari and Bilawal remained in Pakistan to contest the elections of February 2008, while Itty and Aseefa returned to Dubai. “It didn’t hit home that Mama really was not there,” says Aseefa, “until I came home from school one day months later with a good grade for my essay. I wanted to show her like I used to. Finally, I knew I would never be able to do that again.”
During my last interview with Benazir Bhutto, she admitted that her children had suffered as a result of her political career. “With me coming and going, I always worried they were fearful I wouldn’t return, like their father didn’t return one day. I told them no matter what I would always be back.”
Now she is gone, Bhutto’s daughters say they respect their mother’s choices. “I’m not angry,” says Itty. “I’m just sad it has to be this way.” She also understands Benazir’s political legacy. Like her mother, Itty is resolute that home is Pakistan, whatever the chattering classes in Islamabad say about her foreign upbringing. She also has a clear sense of duty. “I want to stand up and be counted; to make an effort to help my country.” That voice, if you close your eyes, is her mother’s.