Fatima Bhutto: My Father’s Assassination

In an exclusive excerpt from her new memoir, Fatima Bhutto recounts the moments leading up to her father’s execution in Pakistan in 1996—and her own reaction to that terrible night.

File photo dated 1989 shows Pakistani poet and writer Fatima Bhutto (aged 7) posing with her grandmother Begum Nusrat Bhutto (2nd from L), her step mother Ghinwa (1st from L) and her father Murtaza Bhutto, at home in Damascus, Syria. (Newscom)

On his final night (September 20, 1996), Fatima Bhutto’s father, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, went to a political rally in a district of Karachi. He was challenging his own sister, Benazir Bhutto, who was prime minister at the time, for control of the family’s traditional party, the Pakistan People’s Party, and was openly confrontational with her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, then a government minister and now Pakistan’s prime minister. At the rally, he accused several police chiefs of trying to assassinate him and later that night some of those same men would succeed, as Fatima Bhutto recounts in her memoir. The investigation into the murder was blocked by Benazir and Zardari and the true story about who was responsible has never been revealed.

The last speaker of the evening would be my father. As he walked the short distance to the podium, the crowd swelled and began to raise their naras or slogans. " Zinda hai Bhutto!" they cried."Bhutto is alive." " Jab tak suraj chand rahaiga, Bhutto tera waris rahaiga" and the more romantically emotional, "As long as the shadow of the moon exists, Bhutto, your heir remains." They threw rose petals at the stage and clapped their hands loudly in welcome. Papa walked toward the podium, which was draped in an ajrak, traditional Sindhi fabric, printed in natural dyes of maroon, white and black. As he walked, Papa ran his fingers through his hair freeing the stray deep pink rose petals that had been caught there. He removed the necklace of garlands from around his neck and placed it on one side of the podium, only to be instantly garlanded in four more threads of jasmine. Papa adjusted the two old metal microphones to his height. They didn’t extend as far as they should and so he leaned into them.

He began with a thanks. "In spite of the pressure of this administration, the gathering of all of you in Youseff Goth is a referendum of our dissent. It is a referendum in support of Ali Sonara and his fellow workers and against the violence of this regime. The people of Youseff Goth are not afraid. Today you are with us, and we are not scared, despite the government’s actions." At this the crowd roared and my father’s voice was drowned out for a minute. He patted the air with both his hands. "Baat sonao," "Listen," he said.

Fatima Bhutto: Maid Murder Rocks Pakistan"In history, whoever fights the corruption of the state, whoever raises his voice against forced unemployment and abuses of power, whoever fights awam ki huqooq ki jang, the war to defend the peoples rights, they call them terrorists. But today in Pakistan, it is the state that is drinking the blood of its citizens. The government People’s Party is not your party. It is kamzor, weak, begharat, without decency or dignity. This is your party, we are the party of quaid-e-awam, the leader of the people, Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s party, so don’t try to frighten us." Papa shook his hand forcefully in the air.

His voice now growing hoarse, Papa turned to Wajid Durrani and Shoaib Suddle, addressing them directly in his speech. "We aren’t afraid of your CIA centers and we aren’t afraid of your police. We aren’t afraid of your chief minister, Abdullah Shah." At this Papa grew angry. "Abdullah Shah, sonao, listen. It is not possible for dogs to fight with lions. Your corrupt and criminal police force has been filling the papers for the last week with political statements, statements that are not their right, as protectors of the people with a neutral mandate, to make. They have put armored vehicles around my house for the last several days and they have been threatening to arrest me. 'We’re waiting permission to arrest Mir Murtaza Bhutto,' they say arrogantly. 'We’re only waiting because he is an MPA and the approval has to come from high above.”'Auw! Come! Begharatoon, you indecent men, I’m not afraid of your corrupt police."

Once more Sonara’s arrest [an associate of Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s] was raised. It was perhaps the most pressing issue at the jalsa, more so than the current atmosphere of danger imminently focused on my father. "Remember," Papa continued, shaking with the force of his words, "we are a political party. This injustice, this political violence against our workers, will not stand. We will go to the people, we will fight politically, and we will not be silent— Dham damadam Must Qalandar," he repeated, quoting Sufi poetry.

The naras picked up again as Papa, his brow furrowed throughout his speech, smiled as he walked off the rickety stage. Maqbool Channa, the organizer of the jalsa in Surjani Town, had invited Papa for a cup of tea in his home. Malik Sarwar Bagh begged leave, he had to go and prepare for the Press Club the next day. ‘I wish I had known,’ Malik Sarwar Bagh tells me 12 years later. ‘I wish I had known what was coming, I wouldn’t have left your father then.’

Back home at 70 Clifton [the Bhutto family home], the day had passed painfully. It was evening. Mummy was in the kitchen cooking and I went into my parents’ bedroom and sat with Zulfi [Fatima’s younger brother] as he watched TV on the bed. He was a little child then and was always so easy to take care of with his easy-going and affectionate nature. We were lazily watching Lost in Space, a show made in the 1960s about missing astronauts; there was nothing else on. Zulfi was lying down on his stomach, his head in his hands, and I sat on Papa’s side of the king-size bed, reclining and resting my head against the headboard. It was close to eight when the intercom phone rang. It was Nurya, a girl from my ninth-grade class at the Karachi American School. She was calling to arrange for us to meet over the weekend to discuss a school history project. I slumped down, leaning against the bed but sitting on the floor with my knees bent talking to Nurya. We were speaking when I heard the gunfire. It was a single shot and it sounded very close. I moved the phone from my ear and waited to see if Zulfi had heard it.

I couldn’t wait any longer. I told Mummy I was calling my aunt, the prime minister. By that point I was convinced that Benazir had had Papa arrested…

The sound was still ringing in my ears when several seconds later, the echo of the first shot was interrupted by a barrage of bullets. They were coming from right outside the window; I could hear the shooting as if the guns were firing over our heads. ‘Nurya, I’ll call you back!’ I screamed into the phone. I leapt across the bed and pulled Zulfi into my chest. He was so close to the window and though I had no idea what was happening, I knew that was the one dangerous position to be in in the event of gunfire. I carried him, skinny 6-year-old Zulfi, into the dressing room, a small windowless corridor. I slammed the door shut and went over to the bathroom door. The bathroom had windows and connected to the dressing room. I closed the door tightly before sitting down with my back against the wall. Zulfi was small and gentle. His shiny black hair was parted neatly across his head. His bird-like features betrayed his sudden fear and confusion. While the shooting lasted, five minutes at the very least, and with no pause in the crack of the bullets, Zulfi huddled against me. I hugged him and pushed his face into my arms and chest, as if I could protect him from the sound. ‘Where’s Mummy?’ I didn’t know. I hoped she was still in the kitchen, it faced the other side of the house and the gunfire wouldn’t have been as close to her as it was to us.

We waited for a few seconds. It had stopped. I told Zulfi to wait for me; I was going to check where our mother was. As I stood up, Mummy burst into the bedroom screaming. ‘We’re here!’ I yelled and she threw open the door to the dressing room instantly pulling me into her arms and pulling Zulfi up off the floor. ‘Let’s go to the drawing room,’ Mummy said, breathing quickly. It too had no windows and was not as confined as the yellow dressing room we had been hiding in.

We sat in the drawing room for close to half an hour, waiting. The shooting had stopped and we asked our chowkidar, our gatekeeper, to check outside and tell us what had happened. The area was thronged with police, he said. They wouldn’t let him out of the house. "There’s been a robbery, there are dacoits outside," the police told the chowkidar. "Stay inside until it’s safe." Mummy sat on the sofa in the drawing room with her hands to her face. I paced up and down the room.

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There were no mobile phones in Pakistan then. They had been banned by the democratic government (who managed to keep a few for themselves before closing down the market for the rest of the country). We had no way of reaching Papa and no choice but to wait for him, patiently.

It was past eight in the evening and he should have been back home, but we tried not to worry. I grew more agitated with every minute. Not for one instant did I imagine Papa had been hurt. Maybe he had been arrested and the firing was the police signaling their victory. I worried out loud—there had been a lot of gunfire, more than the typical burst of bullets one heard in Karachi in those days.

"Don’t worry, Fati," said Zulfi as he swung playfully behind Papa’s green armchair, "it’s only fireworks." It must have been close to nine, 45 minutes later, when I’d had enough. I couldn’t wait any longer. I told Mummy I was calling my aunt, the prime minister. By that point I was convinced that Benazir had had Papa arrested and I wasn’t going to sit by while my father was taken to jail. I picked up the red intercom phone and asked whoever answered in the office to connect me to the prime minister’s residence in Islamabad. ‘Don’t take no for an answer,’ I said fiercely. ‘I have to speak with Wadi.’

The phone rang minutes later, much sooner than I thought it would. It was usually a considerable hassle getting through to the prime minister, even—or especially—if she was your wadi bua, or father’s elder sister in Sindhi. I picked it up and was placed on the line with the prime minister’s aide-de-camp. I sat down in Papa’s armchair to take the call. ‘Hello, bibi, is everything all right?’ The ADC sounded shaky, scared even. I didn’t know whom I was speaking to—we certainly didn’t have a relationship this ADC and I. "Yes, everything’s fine. Can I speak to my aunt please?" I was curt, but he kept speaking. "Is your family OK? Is everyone fine?" Yes, yes, I responded. Satisfied with my grunts and promises that everything was fine, the ADC put me on hold.

The music on the other end of the line was soon interrupted by a click and a silence. "Hello? Wadi?" I said, calling my aunt the name only I used for her. "No, she can’t come to the phone right now," came the reply. It was Zardari. It was no secret that none of us in the family liked Asif Zardari, my aunt’s oleaginous husband. On the few social occasions where I saw him, we shared nothing other than a cursory hello. "I need to speak to my aunt," I said tersely, not wanting to speak to Zardari. "You can’t," he replied, equally brusque. "It’s very important, I need to speak with her now." "She can’t come to the phone right now," Zardari replied. "It’s very important and I don’t want to talk to you, I need to talk to her," I insisted, my voice quickening. I had wasted enough time on this phone call already.

"She can’t speak, she’s hysterical," Zardari replied. As if on cue, there was a loud wailing sound in the background. It had been quiet before, with no indication that anyone was in the room with Zardari, and all of a sudden there was an almost desperate crying shattering the silence. "What? No, I have to speak with her, please put her on the phone," I continued, growing confused at what seemed like a theatrical attempt to keep me from talking to the one person who was in charge. "Oh, don’t you know?" Zardari responded. "Your father’s been shot."

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Fatima Bhutto is a graduate of Columbia University and the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is working on a book to be published by Jonathan Cape in 2010. Fatima lives and works in Karachi, Pakistan.