Songs of Blood and Sword
By Fatima Bhutto
Review by Roderick Matthews
Fatima Bhutto was 14 years old when her father, Mir Murtaza, was shot dead by police after a gun battle outside his Karachi home in 1996. Songs of Blood and Sword is an account of his life seen through her eyes. In clear and unpretentious prose it gives a vivid impression of the brutal and corrupt world of Pakistani power politics, which has resulted in the violent deaths of four members of the Bhutto dynasty in the past 31 years.
Murtaza's adult life, we learn, was dominated by two great causes. The first was to avenge the death of his father, ex-president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the hands of the man who ousted him, General Zia-ul-Haq. Then, after Zia's own death in 1988, the second was to protect his father's political legacy from his sister, Benazir. The rivalry between the energetic and idealistic Murtaza and the calculating and ambitious Benazir gives the book its central dynamic.
Fatima was not witness to any of the central political events described in the book, so most of the detailed narrative is recounted secondhand, recovered from Murtaza's friends and colleagues. Her general description of him is affectionate and largely uncritical – rather as one might expect from a young girl who adored her father.
Murtaza fled Pakistan in 1977 after the Zia regime took power, and did not return until 1993. This prolonged absence gave Benazir a free hand in Pakistan, allowing her a clear run at the leadership of Zulfikar Ali's political creation, the Pakistan People's party. It was only gradual disillusionment with Benazir's conduct, principally her ineffective premiership from 1988 to 1990, that prompted him to return from exile, determined to clean up the country in line with his father's original modernising, anti-feudal, socialist vision. His return therefore represented a threat to Benazir's status; he became "the only politician speaking against the status quo, instead of lining up to join it".
The book's depiction of Benazir is a nuanced affair. Fatima adored her aunt as a child, but slowly a distance opened up between them as ambition lured Benazir into Pakistan's military governmental machine. Fatima identifies two key decisions that set the course of Benazir's life. The first was to make peace with the Zia regime in 1986 by agreeing to participate in elections; this brought her into the military-political establishment, from whose grip she could never then escape. The second was her marriage in 1987 to Asif Ali Zardari, playboy scion of a feudal family.
Fatima's descriptions of her aunt become increasingly damning. This builds into a classic clash of good versus evil, with the author eventually joining up all her father's and grandfather's enemies into one secretive coalition – an army-Benazir-feudal-US alliance. Into this unpleasant stew she then adds the cynical and greedy Zardari.
But Benazir's treachery becomes much darker even than this. Fatima points out that her father was shot while Benazir was prime minister, and that the policemen accused of killing him were acquitted when Zardari was president in 2009. These acquittals were what prompted her to publish this book, in order to publicise the evidence contradicting the official version of her father's death. There are indeed highly suspicious circumstances surrounding the so-called "shoot-out" with police. There was no warrant for Murtaza's arrest; only police bullets were fired during the so-called "gun battle"; Murtaza and six of his guards were killed that night, but no policemen; evidence was destroyed, witnesses were arrested, suspects went free.
The only official inquiry was a purely advisory tribunal that declared that "the order to assassinate Murtaza Bhutto must have come from the highest level of government". On this basis, Fatima awards Benazir and Zardari "moral responsibility" for her father's death.
And the accusations do not stop there. Fatima also believes that the mysterious poisoning of her uncle Shahnawaz in 1985 was the work of some combination of the Zia regime, the CIA and Benazir.
This book is not an explicit prosecution of the Pakistani government; there are no damning documentary revelations. But for those who like their history presented in personal terms, it will not disappoint. Hope, injustice, drama and grief are all ably captured and conveyed in what is a highly readable introduction to the grim realities of domestic politics in Pakistan.(The Observer)