Pakistan’s most fiery family feud has been reignited with the publication of a tell-all memoir that links assassinated Benazir Bhutto with the deaths of her two brothers.
Songs of Blood and Sword by Fatima Bhutto [http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/apr/17/fatima-bhutto-pakistan-politics" title="Fatima Bhutto], Benazir’s 27-year-old niece, has received mostly praise from reviewers [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/25/songs-blood-sword-fatima-bhutto" title="reviewers] touched by her rich, pacy account of life inside one of South Asia’s most famous, and cursed, political dynasties.
Currently on a publicity tour of the UK, Bhutto [http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/jan/11/women.pakistan" title="Bhutto] has given talks to packed houses hosted by luminaries such as Henry Porter, the London editor of Vanity Fair; in India her book is topping the non-fiction bestseller list.
But back in Pakistan, Songs of Blood and Sword has stirred an angry reaction from critics, including several relatives, who accuse her of twisting history to make unsubstantiated allegations that slur the memory of her aunt Benazir, who was assassinated in December 2007. They warn that the book could ensure that a feud between one generation of Bhuttos will now pass to the next, pitting Fatima against her cousin Bilawal, the presumptive heir to the Bhutto political legacy, who is currently studying at Oxford.
“This is nothing more than a fictionalised history,” said Tariq Islam, a close relative, who broke his silence this week. “I don’t want to get into a family feud, and Fatima is my niece so I love her. But unfortunately this book is full of faults. She has taken second- and third-hand accounts that are distorted to enhance her own version.”
The controversy centres on the unnatural deaths and sulphurous family arguments that have plagued the Bhutto dynasty, Pakistan’s version of a Greek tragedy, for over three decades.
For Fatima, the central death is that of her father, Murtaza, a failed revolutionary who was gunned down by police outside his Karachi home in 1996. Fatima blames Benazir, Murtaza’s sister, who was PM and estranged from him at the time, for his death. But the incident has never been officially resolved and critics accuse Fatima of ignoring contradictory evidence in order to embellish her case. “It’s so obviously a one-sided version of events,” said Mahir Ali, a columnist with Dawn. “What she writes about her father is very affecting. But it shouldn’t be looked on as history, or even a serious political analysis of recent events.”
One police officer named in the book said Fatima’s description contained numerous inconsistencies. He declined to be named because he was seeking legal advice.
Other critics accuse Fatima of whitewashing her father’s role in Al Zulfikar, a revolutionary organisation that tried and failed to overthrow Pakistan’s military dictatorship.
But it is her suggestion that Benazir also played a role in another family murder: the poisoning of her brother Shahnawaz in the south of France in 1985 that has elicited the most vivid reaction. Based on an interview with Jacques Verg’s, a French lawyer involved in the case, Fatima suggests the blame for the killing usually linked to Pakistan’s military lay at Benazir’s door.
“It was scandalous, mind-blowing,” she writes. Islam, her relative, said the allegation had “greatly upset” the family; analysts say there is no evidence to support the theory. “It doesn’t really make sense,” said Ali, the newspaper columnist.
President Zardari, and her children, the eldest of whom is Bilawal, have avoided comment on the furore. “They’re trying to adopt a dignified approach and not descend into a slanging match,” said a family friend.
But in December 2008 Sanam Bhutto, the last surviving Bhutto sibling who lives in London, told Geo television that Fatima’s allegations distressed her greatly. “It breaks my heart, it burns me, it hurts me. I cannot tell you how much,” she said. “She seems very, very angry and I cannot understand why.”
Fatima declined to respond to questions from the Guardian about the controversy. A planned publicity event for the book at Chatham House was cancelled after her publicists objected to the choice of Dr Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan expert who had previously interviewed her, to moderate the event. Fatima defended the book in a lively BBC World interview. “The road to justice is long and difficult,” she said. In a Twitter entry, she responded directly to the criticism at home, saying: “The good news is that they still hate me in Pakistan!”
Another comment criticised a “dodgy” question from Victoria Schofield, a South Asia expert and Bhutto family friend who, she said, “badgered me about my cousins”. The only person who hasn’t had a chance to comment on the book’s claims is Benazir.
A few months before she was killed she was asked about Fatima’s criticisms. “She is a sweet girl. She’s very nice and everybody says she’s just like me,” she told a journalist. “I hope that one day her eyes will open.”