A Daughter Remembers

Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari pays tribute to her mother, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto on her 62nd birthday

I have been asked many times for tributes and shared memories but I have always found it difficult to put pen to paper; it’s not easy to write about a mother who was so much larger than life. There’s so much to talk about I don’t quite know where to begin.

Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was so many things all at once: to the world she was an icon, with good reason. She was the first democratically elected female Prime Minister of Pakistan, recognised nationally and internationally for her multiple contributions. From challenging a military dictator to bringing fiber optics to Pakistan – she was a woman ahead of her time. Most importantly, and at least to me – she was simply my mother.

Many who didn’t know her may well presume that she was unable to give the kind of time and attention a mother would, but the truth is she was everywhere, all at once, the proverbial modern day superwoman. Not a single parent’s evening was ever missed, she was always at the front row of school plays, supporting all my “phases” – the rapping rebellious teenager being the last. I have a plethora of memories to sift through, and like her archives, I am still working my way through them.

At my high school play, for instance, instead of being embarrassed at my ensemble, which was a fitted hat, headphones and chains, she was supportive and encouraging.

I remember on one birthday, she insisted that her children need not get her any presents. When we took that literally, she was quite shocked. Improvising on the spot, I quickly scribbled a song as a birthday tribute to save myself from more parental lectures. She was so incredibly touched by my song that it was (embarrassingly for me) shared amongst many guests for weeks to come.

It’s not as if she didn’t set boundaries or bars for achievement. In fact, she always expected the highest of grades at school. She equally devoted time and energy to all three of us. Education, she believed, was of the utmost importance – from her own experience she would always exclaim how everything could be taken away from you, except for your education, and therefore it was the key to real success. So since the age of 17, I have been looking after SZABIST, giving the same lectures to fellow students about the importance of their education. Some lessons resonate forever!

The good times are etched in my memory. Summers in London, walks in the park, internships and worries about university placements, were only some of them. I realise that it was due to all her efforts that we enjoyed a very privileged “normal life” amongst all the high-level party meetings and interviews. In 2007, Bilawal was already settled at Oxford and I was just applying to go to university – even when she was on the fateful homecoming truck on October 18th in Karachi, she was still forwarding me emails of referrals for universities I should apply to. None of us could have imagined that she would not be there when I actually received my grades, nor when I was finally accepted at the University of Edinburgh. At no point did I think that she would not be part of my graduation ceremony. Sadly, she could not be there for any of our graduations – Aseefa will finally be graduating with her Master’s this year.

Birthdays were certainly a time for celebration. My siblings and I would always attempt a midnight surprise – balloons and cake – the expected basics and every year, precisely at midnight the blushing roses would arrive. In dozens. Sent from my father in prison, each dozen to commemorate a year. I remember counting all 50 dozen on her 50th birthday. This year we will be laying down 62.

Not a day goes by that we don’t think of her many times at different junctures. For the most part of our lives she was the only parent that we had, because my father was in jail, and we were not allowed to see him. I still miss her at our dining table. I miss the lectures. I miss the laughter. She was the most extraordinary woman, and I do want to say that we are indebted to her to have been raised like ordinary families.

Army Public School – Daily Times

A year ago our country suffered another horrible tragedy. The Taliban attacked defenceless students at the Army Public School in Peshawar killing and maiming yet more of Pakistan’s future. The attackers were from amongst us. Pakistanis killing Pakistanis in the name of religion. The beautiful words of the Quran mangled by the ‘keepers of the faith’.

The very first word in our Quran is ‘Read’. And here we are attacking schools and killing children. There is no religion, there is no God to forgive murder – especially of unarmed innocent children. In our quest to protect the so called honour of God we have forgotten the rights of His creation. We seem to have skimmed over the verse, ‘I shall forgive all sins committed unto Me, but I shall not forgive any sins committed unto others’.

And then we add insult to injury. It happens. We condemn it. It happens again. Just when you think it couldn’t get worse. It does. More tragic. More barbaric. As a country we are so used to hearing such horrors – witnessing bloody, graphic images on channels with no respect for the dead. We have been so damaged; our mental and emotional scars being ripped anew with each tragedy. And all we do is condemn each tragedy, a reflex reaction before we move on.

I am so tired of condemning these tragedies. It makes me physically nauseous to even say the word. Society can help, we can do so much more than merely condole. Victims of terrorism need our help. They need our comfort, our company, help in job placement, support for education, financial assistance for their treatment and medical aid. They certainly do not need our pity. I recently read a blog by an APS survivor. He said people kept telling him to move. I was horrified. How does one move on from such trauma? Have we become so immune to terror that we fail to grasp what death really means? For a society so crippled by terrorism we have no means to aid our healing. Forget adequate psychological facilities and trauma centres; we as a country still stigmatise mental health. We expect our nation to get up and move on. Not one person in this country has been left unaffected by terrorism. And yet harbingers of change claim the murderers are our brothers. We justify every act of violence, make excuses for the murderers and muddy the waters. Short term political gain outweighs the cost in blood of our brothers and sisters.

The fact our children continue to go to school despite seeing their classmates gunned down before them is a testament to their bravery. And our children have time and time again had to be incredibly brave. Be it Malala who was shot trying to get an education, or Aitzaz Hassan who sacrificed himself to protect his classmates or the children of APS who continue to pursue an education despite the trauma they have faced

I too lost my mother to terrorism. And the adage, time heals all wounds, couldn’t be further from the truth. The void left in ones life is never filled. All that remains is a lingering emptiness. And there can be nothing more condescending than being told to move on. Platitudes of being brave and empty words of condemnation are not enough. No country should expect it’s children to be this brave. Let us stand up today and be counted. Let us take action. Let us unite.

Bhutto-Zardari Sibling’s Interview in Hello! Magazine

indexBilawal, Bakhtawar and Asifa Bhutto-Zardari gave their first exclusive interview to Hello! Magazine for their February issue along with a family photo shoot. In this interview, Benazir Bhutto’s three children describe growing up in Pakistan’s grandest political dynasty, their years overseas and their return to Pakistan in tragic circumstances.

Bakhtawar and Bilawal have been in news for weeks now because of the grand Sindh Festival that they had organized and promoted, and which has been quite a success so far. The interview to the magazine was their attempt to promote the Sindh Festival, in which they not only talked about the festival but also about their life before returning to Pakistan, and how they had longed to return to their homeland for so many years.

Bakhtawar, 24, who has worked for a number of charities assisting flood and earthquake victims, said their mother juggled running the Pakistan People’s Party with bringing up three young children.

“We always wanted to return back to Pakistan, my mother frequently spoke about returning home and we often reminisced about our memories of Bilawal House,” said the Edinburgh University graduate, referring to the family home in Karachi. “Tragically, we came back for our mother’s funeral. It was not the sort of homecoming we had planned…” she added.

Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack as she left a campaign rally in 2007, weeks after she flew back into the country for the first time in almost nine years. Her return was possible only after corruption charges against her were dropped as part of a deal to restore democracy and usher Pervez Musharraf out of office.

Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, spent eight years in prison after being arrested in the late 1990s, years which weighed heavily on his young children as they grew up in Dubai.

Asifa, 21, said: “It was a very traumatic time for all three of us. I was only three years old when my father was imprisoned and it wasn’t until I was eleven when he was finally released. My childhood was quite bereft.” She was famously the first Pakistani baby to be vaccinated against polio after her mother launched a major immunization drive in 1994 and has since become a national ambassador for the campaign.

Many people have wondered why Bilawal has kept away from politics for such a long time now that he has completed his studies and reached the age of 25 which is the appropriate age to run for the National Assembly. His other two siblings have been more active than he ever was. In recent months, however, Bilawal has developed a higher profile, improving his Urdu and carving out an outspoken leftist position on tackling extremism and reforming the economy.

Talking about his absence from Pakistani politics and his love for his country, he said “My identity is Pakistan, where else can I be authentic? Where else would I see and actually feel the love of so many people? Pakistan is my final destination; this is where I would return to eventually”

“Our shared experiences have drawn us together so tight that it is hard to find times, when we are all in the same country, when we aren’t all together and enjoying each other’s company until the early hours of the morning”, said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari when talking about the bond between the three siblings.

He also had a great time organizing and leading the Sindh Festival. While sharing his experience of the event, he stated: “One of the most enjoyable parts of Sindh Festival has been working alongside musicians like Ali Gul Pir and the Beygairat Brigade as they recorded songs for the various events of our festival.”

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari became the third generation to run the family party when his mother died, just as she had inherited the post when her father was hanged after a military coup. “I never planned to be doing this,” he said. “Like my mother, this crown of thorns was entrusted to me at a very young age. I see it as both an honour and an opportunity.”