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Fatima Bhutto on the Floods in Pakistan, the Government Response and Her Memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword

StorySeptember 24, 2010
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As Pakistan struggles to recover from one of the worst natural disasters in its history, President Asif Ali Zardari is coming under criticism for his handling of the crisis. We speak with Pakistani writer and poet, Fatima Bhutto. She is the niece of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Her father, Murtaza Bhutto, was killed in 1996 in Karachi. She has written a memoir about her family called Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Pakistan is struggling to recover from one of the worst natural disasters in its history. The devastating floods that hit the country last month submerged as much as one-fifth of the nation underwater. Some 20 million people are now struggling to survive the aftermath, and the battle has now turned to aid and a global appeal for fund to help spur recovery. Meanwhile, President Asif Ali Zardari is coming under criticism for his handling of the crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Zardari came to power after his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December of 2007. Our next guest has been critical of the Zardari government long before the floods. Fatima Bhutto is the niece of Benazir Bhutto. Her own father, Murtaza Bhutto, was killed in 1996 in Karachi. She has written a memoir about her family; it’s called Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir. She joins us in the studio today.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Fatima.

FATIMA BHUTTO: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Start off by talking about the crisis now in Pakistan and what you feel needs to be done.

FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, we’re watching a devastation that is unlike anything Pakistan has ever seen. As you said, 20 million people are affected. We know that millions of homes have been destroyed. The agricultural food belt of the country has been submerged. And we have six million children at risk of fatal diseases like cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, and many millions more in desperate need of food aid. We also know that this is a crisis that ought to have been contained. It could have been contained. According to Transparency International, 70 percent of World Bank funds given to Pakistan for dam maintenance was siphoned off. This is the face of corruption in Pakistan, and it’s a disaster that we’re going to spend years recovering from.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you’ve called this flood “Zardari’s Katrina.” Could you explain?

FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, you know, that — I said that really a week into the floods. It’s much larger than Zardari’s Katrina now. At the time that the floods were raging, President Zardari embarked on a publicity tour, really. He went to Dubai. He went to France, where he visited a personal chateau in his family’s name. They went to England.

AMY GOODMAN: This is your uncle you’re talking about.

FATIMA BHUTTO: By marriage, I hasten to add. But yes, and we also know that the criticism that was leveled at him for leaving the country at a time of dire need was not enough to ground the President. He traveled again to Russia weeks later. It’s been criminal the way that the Pakistani government has handled these floods, to the point that the BBC even reported that government officials who deigned to visit flood-affected areas were physically assaulted.

AMY GOODMAN: The beginning of your memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword

, you’re talking about some of the casualties from US drone attacks.


AMY GOODMAN: And today, at the top of the show today, we — I read this headline about Bob Woodward’s new book called Obama’s Wars, where he’s reporting CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed many Westerners, including some US citizens, as part of the secret US war inside Pakistan, how the former head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, disclosed the killings of Americans to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari in November 2008, days after a deadly attack in the tribal area of North Waziristan. The names of the Americans killed in the drone attacks have not been released. During the meeting, Zardari reportedly gave the Bush administration the green light to carry out more drone attacks inside Pakistan, saying, “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

FATIMA BHUTTO: It clearly doesn’t. We know that in 2009 some 700 Pakistanis were killed in drone attacks. We know that so far in 2010 around 300 people have been killed. These are all nameless, faceless Pakistanis. The media will say they are largely civilians, but I wonder if they are not all civilians. They are unindicted. They are unconvicted. We know that at the height of the floods, America launched two drone attacks. We know that last week, within twenty-four hours, they launched three drone attacks. There were double drone attacks just days ago. President Obama has been enthusiastic in his use of employing Predator drone attacks, and President Zardari has been very pliable in allowing them to come and kill Pakistani citizens.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you’ve been outspoken in your criticism of the US role in Pakistan from almost the beginning of its involvement in Pakistan.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about the analysis that you’ve reached about the damage that the United States has done to your country?

FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, Pakistan is a young country. It’s only sixty-three years young this year. You will find, though, that every single one of Pakistan’s military dictatorships has been funded and supported militarily, financially and politically by the White House in America. America has always been a great friend to Pakistan’s military regimes. They have always been great friends to Pakistan’s autocratic and oppressive governments. The Zardari government has launched several censorship initiatives since being in power for the last two years, including the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which makes it a crime to spoof or satirize the person of the president. It makes having an email address not registered in your full name an offense worth six months in jail. And yet we see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton come to Pakistan and praise the freedom of the Pakistani media. Unfortunately, it’s always been a bit of a dirty relationship between the two countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Your memoir tells the story of your country through your own family’s story. You’re the granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was assassinated — who was killed. He was prime minister of Pakistan.


AMY GOODMAN: Your father, Mir Murtaza, you begin the book — or you talk in the book, in September of 1996, you were fourteen years old, you’re in Karachi, and your father is assassinated, along with others. Tell us your family’s story.

FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, it is a violent history, and it shares that violence with the country. We know that Pakistan has a history of political assassinations, a history of assassinations of public figures, but not just of public figures, of journalists, of activists, of lawyers, that carries on every day. And the Bhutto family has been at the center of that violence. It has suffered it, and it has perpetuated it. And Songs of Blood and Sword is about that trajectory and about a country that seems to include violence as part of its political ethic.

AMY GOODMAN: When did your grandfather become prime minister — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto?

FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, he became — he ascended to the highest office in the land after the partition of Pakistan in 1971. And he was the country’s first democratically elected head of state. And he won an election again. He was returned to the office and, after that, overthrown and put to death while the rest of the world watched as Pakistan’s democratically elected leadership was unseated in a bloody coup, and a coup that would Islamicize and brutalize Pakistan in a way that we have never recovered from.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, this violence and civil strife that you talk about, the strife has occurred within your own family, and that, in some senses, you have at one point accused Benazir Bhutto of being involved in your father’s death. Could you talk about that?

FATIMA BHUTTO: At the time that my father was killed, his sister Benazir was the prime minister for the second time in Pakistan, and she had empowered the police forces in the city of Karachi — the police forces and the security agencies, under the aegis of Operation Cleanup — to, quote, “clean up” Karachi. And it was in that period, that year-and-a-half period that Operation Cleanup was in effect, that some 3,000 men were murdered in the city of Karachi. They were political activists, they were journalists, they were opponents of the government. And they were all killed in extrajudicial murders. My father was one of those men. He was a very strong critic of the government. He was a member, an elected member of Parliament. And he spoke very vocally and very sharply about his sister Benazir’s corruption, about the human rights abuses. And really, fourteen years ago, almost to the week, he was assassinated along with six other people outside our home.

AMY GOODMAN: You were close to your aunt, to Benazir Bhutto, when you were growing up.


AMY GOODMAN: You appealed to her when your father was imprisoned. How long was he in prison? Why? What was he charged with? And what did your aunt say? She was prime minister.

FATIMA BHUTTO: After their father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown, all the Bhutto children lobbied for clemency for their father. And at the time, it was Murtaza and his brother, his younger brother, Shahnawaz, who traveled around the world. They met senators in America, they went and met members of the UN, they spoke to media organizations, organized law conferences, all to push for clemency. And after two years, their father was killed. And they chose, young as they were at the time — twenty-five and twenty-one years old — to then attack the government more forcefully, to launch an armed movement against the government. It was that choice that resulted in upwards of ninety cases being filed against them, not just the two brothers, but also Benazir, by the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq.

All of the siblings, Benazir included, were charged with sedition, treason, hijacking, acts of terrorism. And when Benazir ascended to the office of the prime minister, after negotiating with the military regime that had placed those cases on her, her cases were expunged, but her brothers’ never were. So when my father returned to Pakistan in 1993, he was arrested on those twenty-year-old charges of treason. And he, ‘til now, is having his name cleared in the Pakistani courts. The same courts that accused him of all those really heinous acts have been honorably acquitting him. He was in jail under his sister’s government for eight months. Every judge that awarded him bail was sacked. But eventually he was freed. And he launched a political reform movement that sought to change the trajectory of the People’s Party in Pakistan to return it to its socialist roots, to return it to its history of bilateral foreign policy and away from a very cozy and very tricky relationship with Western powers, with the IMF, with the World Bank.

AMY GOODMAN: And how exactly did he die? And why do you believe that your aunt was responsible for his death?

FATIMA BHUTTO: He was returning home from a rally on the outskirts of Karachi. As he returned to our residence on Clifton Road, his car was surrounded. There were seventy to a hundred policemen on the roads that night. Some were in the trees in sniper positions. The street lights had been shot, and guards of the nearby embassies — because we live on a road where the British high commission is, the Italian consulate — were all told to retreat within their embassies. Seven men were killed that night. Five of them were killed with single shots to the heart or the head from the snipers — sorry, four of them were. Two of them, my father included, were shot several times, but were killed by point-blank shots. My father was killed by a shot to the jaw that the autopsy showed was fired as he was laying down by someone standing over him.

After the men were shot, they were left to bleed on the roads for up to an hour. They were not moved. And when they were moved, they were all taken to different locations, but none to emergency hospitals. And it was in the aftermath that it was Benazir’s government who arrested all the survivors and the witnesses to the murder. They were held until her government fell, without access to lawyers, without access to their families, while all the policemen were honorably cleared and put back on their beats. Many of them served in the central committee of Benazir’s Pakistani People’s Party. They were promoted within the ranks.

We were prevented from filing police cases, which is our right under the Pakistani law. We had to go to the courts of Sindh to have that right returned to us. And we were stopped from filing criminal charges. Eventually, the government put a tribunal in place that would have no legal authority to pass sentence, but it was that tribunal that determined that the order to assassinate Murtaza Bhutto could only have come from the highest levels of government.

AMY GOODMAN: A decade later, your aunt is assassinated then, Benazir Bhutto, upon her return to Pakistan. Who do you believe assassinated her?

FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, we have no answers. It is almost three years since Benazir’s assassination, after her murder. No autopsy was carried out, against Pakistani law. No charges have been filed. No one has been arrested. And no investigation has been opened up in the country. We still don’t know.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Zardari would not have been elected had it not have been for her assassination and then his being catapulted, once again, into a positive light in Pakistan society. Now you’ve talked about that his trip to Europe was actually an attempt to begin to prepare the role for his own son to succeed him. Could you talk about that?

FATIMA BHUTTO: Well, yes, obscenely, that was what was being prepared in the media in Pakistan. We were being told that this was going to be the launching of a new political heir. And we know that dynasty is what keeps this government in power. This is not a government that runs on platform. It’s a government that runs on photographs, on ghosts, and on the vague hints of personalities. It was after his wife’s murder that Zardari changed his children’s name. He —-


FATIMA BHUTTO: To Bhutto, from Zardari -— and launched what was essentially a hostile takeover of the Pakistan People’s Party, which, that said, is not a party that has ever had elections, under its current leadership. And it is the blood of this family that keeps Zardari in power.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you run for political office in Pakistan, Fatima?

FATIMA BHUTTO: No. No, I refuse to perpetuate a system that, at its core, negates participation. I think we have to choose democracy or dynasty.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you — what role do you feel the US plays in that issue of democracy versus dynasty — dynasty, as we say? I mean, ISI, the Intelligence Services in Pakistan, very close to the United States, many feel they are responsible for the formation and the support of the Taliban.

FATIMA BHUTTO: Absolutely. And I think we see that America is very comfortable with the idea of dynasty, whether it’s a military dynasty that follows through the ranks, without any say from the Pakistani people, or whether it is through a government such as this one, that follows orders, that doesn’t care, as you mentioned earlier, about collateral damage. If it weren’t for American money and political support, this government would not be in power.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Fatima Bhutto.


AMY GOODMAN: Her memoir is called Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir.

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