A Bhutto’s Search For Justice

March 8, 2010

Fatima Bhutto’s life has been shaped by death.

In 1996, Pakistani policemen fatally shot her father, Murtaza Bhutto, just 200 yards from her house. Fatima, then 14, watched him die hours later in a hospital too poorly equipped to treat him. The police would not let her mother file a report.

The search for justice—for her father and for her country—has become her cause.  Her willingness to confront power with truth has hardly won her friends. Relatives worry for her safety, and so, occasionally, does she.

“My father was not only my father, whom I adored; he was an elected member of parliament who was coming to his house,” says Bhutto (who writes for The Daily Beast). “He was an incredibly vocal critic of the corruption of the state, a critic of all the things that it seems got him killed and all of the things that only grew worse with each successive government.”

Pakistan’s violence and the story of Bhutto’s family are inseparable. Her grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was Pakistan’s prime minister in the 1970s, until his opponents declared martial law and later hung him. Her aunt Benazir served twice as prime minister; she was slain in 2007 after returning from exile to run for office once more. Her uncle, Benazir’s surviving husband, now leads the nation.

“This is a country where violence has always been the answer to everything, whether it is dissent or opposition,” says Bhutto from her family home in Karachi, close to the site of her father’s assassination. “We have no access to justice, we have no recourse to the law, we have no recourse to the police.”

That battle to bring better government to all of her country’s citizens, including women, has pushed the Columbia University-educated Bhutto to become a respected writer and an outspoken community leader. So far she has eschewed the family business in favor of journalism, using the sizable public profile her dynastic last name brings to fight on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves—even, and perhaps especially, when she believes her own family is responsible for the wrongs she seeks to right.

“It is strange to think that when I am talking about the need for transparency against corruption, I am also talking about things I saw up close with my aunt and people I know,” she says. “But at the end of the day, these are things we have to talk about; whether it affects people we know or don’t know shouldn’t stop us.”

What should give people pause, Bhutto argues, is that nearly all but the country’s wealthiest 2 percent lack access to education, the law, and basic services.

“We are a nuclear country that doesn’t have electricity,” Bhutto says, pointing at her own family’s reputation for siphoning off state resources and widening the gulf between the nation’s ultra-wealthy and its shockingly poor. “Diarrhea is still a major killer of infants during monsoon rains every summer, and then you drive five minutes and we have malls selling Rolex watches and cinemas showing Avatar in 3-D; there has always been a wide gulf in this country because of the corruption.”

Her willingness to confront power with truth has hardly won her friends. Relatives worry for her safety and so, occasionally, does she.

“With this government in power I have to keep a lower profile, I have to be alert and aware,” she says. She brushes off the idea of security, noting that both her father and her aunt had walls of armed men surrounding them at the time of their murders. “It is about being careful in other ways, in making sure that you are always speaking out of principle.”

And principle is what led her to Pakistan’s female prisons. Bhutto visits women’s jails regularly and says the worst thing is knowing that many of the women inside have been granted bail; they just don’t have the money to pay it. So instead they and their children live behind bars. Their stories must be told, says Bhutto.

“Who is there to record how women are treated in jail?” she asks. “When women anyway can be ignored, and women in prisons even more so, then it is even more important to keep an archive, otherwise their voices will never be heard.”

And keeping that archive alive is Bhutto’s life’s work, starting from the day her father was murdered 14 years ago. She released her first book of poems the year after his death. This spring she will publish Songs of Blood and Sword, a book she calls “both a personal and political story of this family and this country.”

“The only real justice we have is memory,” she says. “For me, what has always been most important, more than duty and responsibility, is this idea of not forgetting.”