Songs of Blood and Sword

Excerpt that details the murder of Mir Murtaza Bhutto from FATIMA BHUTTO’s much-awaited family memoir

The Bhutto family in July 1978. To Zulfikar Ali’s left is daughter, Benazir. To his right are son, Shahnawaz, and wife, Nusrat. Seated in front of him are son, Murtaza, and daughter, Sanam. AP PHOTO
The Bhutto family in July 1978. To Zulfikar Ali’s left is daughter, Benazir. To his right are son, Shahnawaz, and wife, Nusrat. Seated in front of him are son, Murtaza, and daughter, Sanam. AP PHOTO
01 April, 2010

19 SEPTEMBER 1996. It was close to three in the morning and we were sitting in the drawing room downstairs, a room typical of the house’s abstract art deco style, boxed in with no windows, with maroon velvet walls and decorated with modern Pakistani art. We had just come back from dinner at the Avari Hotel. Papa’s birthday had been the night before and some friends had invited us for a belated celebration. He was forty-two.

The Avari is one of Karachi’s grander hotels, founded by an old Parsi family patriarch, Dinshaw Avari, who eventually passed it, as is the custom in Pakistan, to his son, Byram. It’s rather a plain hotel, painted blue and white on the outside, not too ostentatious, unlike the spate of foreign chain hotels that are the Avari’s neighbours. In the days before skyscrapers captured the imagination of the city’s architects, the Avari was advertised as the country’s tallest building. Now banks compete with each other over whose building is the highest as they struggle upwards to escape from the smog and poverty of the city. In the mid-nineties, the Avari Hotel was known for being home to Karachi’s only Japanese restaurant, Fujiyama. We had eaten there that night.

That Friday evening Papa was wearing a navy blue suit, one of the few he had that still fitted him. Like his father, my grandfather Zulfikar Ali, Papa was a dandy when it came to clothes and grooming. He was an elegant man, nearly six foot three with salt and pepper hair and a neatly trimmed moustache. Papa had put on weight over the past two years, the busy and tense months that marked our return to Pakistan and the start of a newly public life, and we teased him about it. He took it good-naturedly, insisting that he was going on a diet soon, while my younger brother Zulfi and I patted his belly.

Papa signed the Avari guestbook that night. The staff at the restaurant presented the book to him with a great flourish and opened it, ironically, on the very page where General Zia ul Haq had signed an effusive note. It was the absolute worst page they could have turned to. General Zia presided over the military coup that deposed my grandfather’s government. Two years later, after arresting and torturing him, General Zia put my grandfather to death. They say he was hanged, but my family never saw the body. The army had buried my grandfather’s body quietly, not even notifying our family, before they released the news of his execution to the public. Papa looked at the General’s handwriting. He calmly read the General’s thoughts on Fujiyama’s fine cuisine before making a face at me, sticking his tongue out and frowning comically, one of the few light moments we had that night at dinner, and then turned several pages on and began to write.

At dinner Papa was quiet. He sat across the table from me with his arms crossed in front of him, his chin resting in the bridge made of his intertwined fingers. It made me nervous to see Papa, usually animated and boisterous, so subdued.

Murtaza Bhutto was murdered on 20 September 1996. He was 42. B K BANGASH/AP PHOTO

Two days earlier, Papa had returned to Karachi from a trip to Peshawar feeling calm and rested. He had arrived late and was eating dinner and telling Mummy and me about his trip when, shortly after midnight, the intercom phone in the drawing room rang. It could only be someone in the kitchen or in the office next door at 71 Clifton: no one else was awake. The kitchen was close by and Asghar, our bearer, could have walked over if he needed to tell us anything. It had to be the office. Papa picked up the phone on the first ring. ‘Gi? ’ he said, yes? He listened quietly for a few minutes. ‘Gari tayar karo, jaldi,’ he said, get the car ready, quickly. His relaxed mood was gone. Papa put down the phone, stood up and walked towards the door that connected to my parents’ bedroom. ‘What’s happened?’ I asked. ‘They’ve taken Ali Sonara,’ Papa replied. ‘They just raided his house and took him.’ ‘Where are you going?’ I asked slowly as Mummy’s hands went softly to steady my back, patting me and reminding me that she was still there, that things were going to be OK. ‘I’m going to find him,’ Papa said and walked out of the drawing room.

Ali Sonara was from Lyari, one of the most densely populated, politically radical and poorest neighbourhoods of Karachi. He belonged to a Katchi Memon family, a small Sunni community whose roots in the region can be traced back to the Ran of Kutch and Sindh desert regions. He had been a loyal supporter of the Bhutto family since his early schooldays. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been overthrown and arrested by General Zia’s military coup in 1977, Sonara abandoned his studies and became one of Lyari’s most prominent activists.

He joined the Save Bhutto Committee in his community and worked tirelessly to oppose General Zia’s abrogation of the 1973 constitution. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was killed by the military government in 1979, Sonara joined the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) and worked closely with my aunt, Benazir Bhutto, for the next ten years. He was a member of the movement’s Karachi Committee and spent his time distributing pamphlets against martial law and the illegality of Bhutto’s execution, holding covert meetings to enlist local support and organizing protests and demonstrations.

In 1984, during the height of Zia’s dictatorial repression, a bomb was planted in central Karachi’s popular Bori Bazaar. Bori Bazaar is a busy market named after the religious sect of Bohri Muslims who wear distinctive long petticoats and blouses with hijab-like hoods. When the bomb exploded, scores of women and children who frequent the bazaar to shop for fabric, beads and colourful homeware were among the injured. Upon hearing the news Ali Sonara ran to the bazaar from his home nearby in Lyari.

He was certain that the bomb had been planted by the military but if Bhutto activists raised protests, the neighbourhood would be swept and men would be swiftly carted off to jail or, worse, to stadiums for public lashings. Resistance was dealt with severely by General Zia, and Sonara, who had spent several stints in Karachi jails for his leadership role within the Sindhi community, knew that the harder you fought, the more vicious was the punishment.

When Sonara arrived at Bori Bazaar he ran back and forth between ambulances helping to shift bodies onto stretchers. He coordinated blood donations and was dealing with the panicked families of the dead and injured as best he could when Zia’s Chief Minister, Ghous Ali Shah, turned up surrounded by film crews to survey the wreckage.

Ali Shah claimed that the blast had been the work of the antimilitary activists, terrorists they called them then, and that the state would soon find these terror mongers and punish them without mercy. As soon as Sonara saw Ali Shah, he raced over to him and punched him squarely in the face. It was the desperate act of a desperate man. The Chief Minister promptly arrested Sonara for planting the bomb in Bori Bazaar.

He was later released without charge.

When, in May 1986, Benazir returned to Karachi from self-imposed exile in London, it was Sonara, with the help of several other prominent activists, notably Ali Hingoro, who arranged for her reception in the city. At the time, General Zia’s supporters in Sindh, the Muhajir Quami Movement (MQM) party, had been set up in Karachi to present an alternative to the People’s Party, whose power base was in the province. The MQM were created to present an alternative, and, failing that, simply to frighten people into switching their allegiance. Lyari had been one of the neighbourhoods first seized upon by the MQM and it was a dangerous time to show your party colours, but Sonara took the risk. He organized a jalsa or rally for Benazir at Kakri Ground, an enormous sports stadium in Lyari. Benazir thanked him and the others at the rally, calling Sonara out from behind her where he was acting as her chief bodyguard. ‘This is my brother,’ she said.  ‘Yeh mera bhai hai.’

Benazir, new to organized party politics and intent on building a career that would see her reach the pinnacle of power, came to depend on Sonara. He was one of the naujawans, or youth leaders, who organized public meetings for her throughout the city and travelled with her as part of her security detail as she visited cities across Sindh. As a member of the Karachi Committee Sonara was a key player in the Pakistan People’s Party grassroots politics and provided the backbone for Benazir’s election victory.

But Sonara soon fell out of favour. His loyalty to my father Murtaza, Benazir’s younger brother in exile, was proving difficult for Benazir to handle. By 1988 as Benazir began to appoint her first cabinet and bestow ministries upon those brought into the party fold by her new husband, Asif Zardari, Sonara’s fondness for plain speaking had become wholly inconvenient. At a party meeting at 71 Clifton, the dispute between Sonara and Benazir came to a head. He was objecting to the apparent favours that were being distributed to members of Pakistan’s business and feudal community when Benazir, who famously had very little tolerance for dissent or criticism, reacted. ‘Sit down, Ali!’ she commanded. ‘Behave properly. I’m the chairperson of this party and you have no right to speak in front of me this way. ‘Mohtarma,’ Sonara began, using the title that Benazir now insisted on being addressed by, ‘it is absolutely my right. I am a political worker and it is my right to tell you what I see going wrong.’

After Benazir’s government fell in 1990, Sonara went underground. He had made too many enemies, powerful men who pushed him out of the party that he had helped build as a bulwark against military dictatorship. He resurfaced in 1993 when national elections were called. When my father filed his nomination papers, Sonara joined his campaign. It was what Benazir had feared.


By the evening my father would be dead. In the morning there was a flurry of activity in our house – bearers were rushing to prepare the meals and Mummy was planning a belated party for my brother Zulfikar’s sixth birthday the following day. We had planned to hold his birthday party at a children’s amusement park, Sinbad. It was ten minutes away from our house and had been built in the 1970s as a casino but was now an Islamically acceptable games centre. With its kitsch, windowless architecture Sinbad lorded it over Sea View, staring out at the grey sand on Clifton Beach and the Arabian Sea beyond.

My room was being redecorated, being made my own after two years of living in the bedroom my two aunts had shared as angsty teenagers in the 1970s, so Papa came upstairs to the TV room, used as a makeshift bomb shelter during the 1965 war and where I now slept, to wake me up. After I’d got dressed we walked over to take a look at the renovations. My parents had waged a mini-war over who was going to decorate my new bedroom. The problem was that Papa had no taste at all when it came to décor. He tried to woo me with the promise of a disco ball in the centre of the room. It almost worked. Otherwise, his plans were wholly embarrassing. While Mummy knew that I wanted light green walls and a girly flowery look, Papa hadn’t a clue. He still thought of me as an eight-year-old tomboy. ‘We can put in Western-style swinging saloon doors like the ones in the old movies.’ No, Papa, we can’t. ‘OK, well how about rounded windows like in a submarine?’ No. The glittering disco ball was his finest moment.

We walked into my freshly painted room. It was all white – only the base coat had been applied – and empty except for the wrought iron bed, which was pushed to one side of the room along with two side tables that hugged each other at another corner. The room looked clinical, like a hospital. ‘Nice,’ smirked Papa. ‘I bet you’re really happy you went with Mummy’s design.’ He laughed. Khe khe khe. Papa sounded like a naughty schoolboy when he laughed like that, his eyes wrinkling at the corners and his cheeks widening with each khe. Papa had brought back some panes of traditional stained glass from the interior of Sindh a while earlier. They were orange, blue and green.

They were, in truth, repellent, but Mummy had vetoed putting them anywhere

else in the house so I sided with Papa and insisted they were gorgeous. My reward was a set of my own Sindhi glass windows. They had already been installed and with the sun so bright that day and the room so white, their colours bounced across the room. ‘Good windows though,’ Papa murmured as we walked out of the room and down the stairs.

At two that afternoon my father held a press conference. Journalists from various local papers and television crews were assembled in the press hall in 71 Clifton, an open room with windows facing towards the garden. Papa entered the room and sat at a long wooden table facing the press. Next to him sat Ashiq Jatoi, the president of the Sindh chapter of the party, and Malik Sarwar Bagh, an elderly gentleman who was PPP (SB)’s Karachi division president. Papa was wearing a midnight-blue shalwar kameez that day, so dark it seemed almost black, and at his neck he wore the two-pointed sword of Hazrat Ali, the courageous disciple of the Prophet who became the first Imam of Shia Islam. Papa was not a religious man but he revered the warrior who fought for the struggling Muslims in the days when they were outnumbered and under threat. The sword, small and golden, had the words la illah ill allah, there is no god but Allah, with small crisscrossed etchings finely imprinted around its curved shape. It hung on a black thread around Papa’s neck. He almost never wore jewellery, only a watch given to him by his father on his left wrist.

Before coming in to speak to the press, Papa called Yar Mohammad and Sajjad over to speak to him privately. The young men were his two bodyguards. They were political workers too, but once my father was released from jail they rarely ever left his side. They protected him as if he was their own father, never moving too far from him. He had information from the police, Papa explained. He asked Yar Mohammad and Sajjad to leave Karachi. ‘Go where you want, it doesn’t matter where, but I don’t want you or your families nearby. We don’t know what they’ve done to Sonara and I want you safe until we find out.’ Yar Mohammad and Sajjad were not to accompany Papa to his public meeting in Surjani Town after the press conference; he made it clear that he would not risk their lives. The men protested, without effect. Things were just too dangerous to take a chance. They didn’t ask where the information about their lives came from or what it meant. But Papa was insistent. They were to leave him today and get out of the city, end of discussion.

Fatima Bhutto with her mother, 31 January 1997. Fatima’s raised fist is the symbol of her father’s party. DAVID AHMED/REUTERS

When Papa started the press conference, there was a weighty silence in the room. The papers had been full of stories, some falsely titillating, some accurate, about Papa’s midnight visits to the police centres two nights earlier. On 18 September, General Naserullah Babar, Benazir’s powerful Interior Minister who would proudly herald the

Taliban in next-door Afghanistan as ‘my boys’, had taken to the floor of the National Assembly in Islamabad. General Babar announced that there were going to be, according to his top-level information, two bomb blasts in Karachi as a protest against the arrest of the terrorist Ali Sonara. He informed the assembly members and the press that the perpetrators of the violence were going to be from the MQM party or the Shaheed Bhutto party. Sure enough, there were ‘blasts’, and the government was quick to blame my father’s party. The journalists at the press conference on 20 September were eager to hear what Murtaza Bhutto had to say about all this. General Babar’s clairvoyance was making for serious copy in all the papers.

Papa began his statement. ‘There is a plot against me, formulated by the most criminal elements within the police force, such as Wajid Durrani and Shahbaig Suddle.’ Papa named two notorious police officers. Rumour had it that they had achieved high rank owing to their close personal friendship with Benazir’s husband, Zardari, and also to their well-documented penchant for violence. Suddle was the District Inspector-General of Karachi and Wajid Durrani was the Senior Superintendent of the Police, heading one of the police stations my father visited on the night of the 17th. But Papa mispronounced one of their names; it wasn’t Shahbaig Suddle, it was Shoaib Suddle. We wouldn’t forget Shoaib Suddle’s name again, not ever.

‘These men,’ my father continued, ‘under the supervision of Abdullah Shah, the Chief Minister of Sindh, want to kill me. My life is in danger today. I’m giving this press conference to tell the government that my bags are ready. Bring a warrant for whatever it is you are accusing me and my party workers of and I’ll come myself and sit in your car.’ In fact, Papa’s packed briefcase had been sitting by the side of his bed since the night of the 17th.

Fatima Bhutto at an event in Karachi, 1 June 2008. ZAHID HUSSEIN/REUTERS

‘I want to answer the allegations the government has made about my visits to several police stations. Regarding this, let me remind you that I am an elected official, an MPA, and it is my right to enter government offices.’ At this Papa held up a picture of Ali Sonara. It is a photograph of one of Benazir’s jalsas, her political rallies; she is standing up with her head and shoulders poking out of the sunroof of a jeep, and waving at a crowd swarming around her. Several men stand behind her, eyes fierce, shielding her from every side; they are her bodyguards. Sonara is circled in the picture. ‘This is the man taken by the government,’ Papa said and pointed to Sonara. ‘Naseerullah Babar, the Minister of the Interior, said on the floor of the National Assembly that there would be blasts after Sonara’s “arrest” and that the MQM or SB would be behind it. If he had this information what did he do to avert any danger of the blasts actually going off? Nothing. There was nothing to do. This is a crackdown on the Pakistan People’s Party (Shaheed Bhutto). The Interior Minister knew about these supposed blasts because it is his office that planted them. I want to tell the government that we are a political party and we will resist these illegal, warrantless arrests and extra-judicial killings politically. . . We will not go into hiding. We are ready. It is not my style – in times of trouble – to hide behind my workers for protection. I stand on the frontline, they are behind me.’

We ate lunch at home in 70 Clifton while Papa was giving the press conference next door, and left afterwards for Sea View, to continue the preparations for Zulfi’s party. As Mummy and I returned home, we ran into Papa, who came striding across the lobby. He was on his way out. The press conference was over. Ashiq Jatoi was waiting for him in the car outside on our driveway. I ran over to talk to my father but he was in a hurry and looked tense. ‘I’m late. I have to go,’ he said, stroking my back, as he moved towards the heavy wooden door. ‘Papa, wait,’ I said. ‘Let me change, I’ll come with you.’ I had only climbed one or two stairs, bounding towards my bombshelter bedroom, when Papa gently caught my elbow, stopping me in my tracks. ‘No, Fati, you can’t come,’ he said. ‘Things aren’t safe right now. Stay here, I’ll be back soon.’ I stood on the stairs and watched him walk out of the door, pulling it shut on his way out.

As Papa walked towards the car he spotted Yar Mohammad and Sajjad. He walked over to them, visibly upset. ‘I told you both not to come with us today.’ The threats against the two men were serious. They were very close to my father and he depended on them greatly. ‘How can we leave you now?’ Yar Mohammad asked. ‘If things are as dangerous as you believe them to be,’ continued Sajjad, ‘then our place is not at home, but by your side.’ They would not be dissuaded. Papa called the other guards forward, there were seven men that day. ‘If the police try to arrest us on the way to the jalsa, surrender peacefully. Don’t try to protect me, I’ll be fine. Let them produce the warrants and we’ll go with them.’ The men nodded, they understood.

Four cars set off from 70 Clifton that Friday. Papa sat in the passenger seat of a blue Land Cruiser belonging to Ashiq Jatoi, who was driving the car. Yar Mohammad sat in the back, behind Papa, along with Asif Jatoi, Ashiq’s family driver, and Asghar, a bearer from our house who often joined my father on his trips. Ahead of them was a red double-cabin pick-up truck carrying six people. Mahmood, Qaisar, Sattar Rajpar, Rahim Brohi – my father’s guards – and two others. A small white Alto car, matchbox shaped and compact, drove alongside Papa’s. It was carrying three people, two men who came along that day for the jalsa, and Sajjad. It was at Sajjad’s request that the Alto drove next to my father’s car, so it could act as a buffer in case anything happened. The last car was a white Pajero jeep belonging to a gentleman who had also decided to tag along to the public meeting; he was not a political worker but a well-wisher of sorts. Wajahat Jokio, the last of my father’s seven guards, sat with the Pajero owner and another passenger.

Back home at 70 Clifton the day had passed painfully.

It was evening. Mummy was in the kitchen cooking and I went into my parents’ bedroom and sat with Zulfi as he watched TV on the bed. He was a little child then and was always so easy to take care of with his easy-going and affectionate nature. We were lazily watching Lost in Space, a show made in the 1960s about missing astronauts; there was nothing else on. Zulfi was lying down on his stomach, his head in his hands, and I sat on Papa’s side of the king-size bed, reclining and resting my head against the headboard. It was close to eight when the intercom phone rang. It was Nurya, a girl from my ninth-grade class at the Karachi American School. She was calling to arrange for us to meet over the weekend to discuss a school history project. I slumped down, leaning against the bed but sitting on the floor with my knees bent talking to Nurya. We were speaking when I heard the gunfire. It was a single shot and it sounded very close. I moved the phone from my ear and waited to see if Zulfi had heard it.

The sound was still ringing in my ears when several seconds later, the echo of the first shot was interrupted by a barrage of bullets. They were coming from right outside the window; I could hear the shooting as if the guns were firing over our heads. ‘Nurya, I’ll call you back!’ I screamed into the phone. I leapt across the bed and pulled Zulfi into my chest. He was so close to the window and though I had no idea what was happening, I knew that was the one dangerous position to be in in the event of gunfire. I carried him, skinny six-year-old Zulfi, into the dressing room, a small windowless corridor. I slammed the door shut and went over to the bathroom door. The bathroom had windows and connected to the dressing room. I closed the door tightly before sitting down with my back against the wall. Zulfi was small and gentle. His shiny black hair was parted neatly across his head. His bird-like features betrayed his sudden fear and confusion. While the shooting lasted, five minutes at the very least, and with no pause in the crack of the bullets, Zulfi huddled against me. I hugged him and pushed his face into my arms and chest, as if I could protect him from the sound. ‘Where’s Mummy?’ I didn’t know. I hoped she was still in the kitchen, it faced the other side of the house and the gunfire wouldn’t have been as close to her as it was to us.

The body of Murtaza Bhutto being rolled out of the hospital, 21 September 1996. STR NEW/REUTERS

We waited for a few seconds. It had stopped. I told Zulfi to wait for me; I was going to check where our mother was. As I stood up, Mummy burst into the bedroom screaming. ‘We’re here!’ I yelled and she threw open the door to the dressing room instantly pulling me into her arms and pulling Zulfi up off the floor. ‘Let’s go to the drawing room,’ Mummy said, breathing quickly. It too had no windows and was not as confined as the yellow dressing room we had been hiding in.

We sat in the drawing room for close to half an hour, waiting. The shooting had stopped and we asked our chowkidar, our gatekeeper, to check outside and tell us what had happened. The area was thronged with police, he said. They wouldn’t let him out of the house. ‘There’s been a robbery, there are dacoits outside,’ the police told the chowkidar.

‘Stay inside until it’s safe.’ Mummy sat on the sofa in the drawing room with her hands to her face. I paced up and down the room. There were no mobile phones in Pakistan then. They had been banned by the democratic government (who managed to keep a few for themselves before closing down the market for the rest of the country). We had no way of reaching Papa and no choice but to wait for him, patiently.

It was past eight in the evening and he should have been back home, but we tried not to worry. I grew more agitated with every minute. Not for one instant did I imagine Papa had been hurt. Maybe he had been arrested and the firing was the police signalling their victory. I worried out loud – there had been a lot of gunfire, more than the typical burst of bullets one heard in Karachi in those days. ‘Don’t worry, Fati,’ said Zulfi as he swung playfully behind Papa’s green armchair, ‘it’s only fireworks.’ It must have been close to nine, forty-five minutes later, when I’d had enough. I couldn’t wait any longer. I told Mummy I was calling my aunt, the Prime Minister. By that point I was convinced that Benazir had had Papa arrested and I wasn’t going to sit by while my father was taken to jail. I picked up the red intercom phone and asked whoever answered in the office to connect me to the Prime Minister’s residence in Islamabad. ‘Don’t take no for an answer,’ I said fiercely. ‘I have to speak with Wadi.’

The phone rang minutes later, much sooner than I thought it would. It was usually a considerable hassle getting through to the Prime Minister, even – or especially – if she was your wadi bua, or father’s elder sister in Sindhi. I picked it up and was placed on the line with the Prime Minister’s aide-de-camp. I sat down in Papa’s armchair to take the call. ‘Hello, bibi, is everything all right?’ The ADC sounded shaky, scared even. I didn’t know whom I was speaking to – we certainly didn’t have a relationship this ADC and I. ‘Yes, everything’s fine. Can I speak to my aunt please?’ I was curt, but he kept speaking. ‘Is your family OK? Is everyone fine?’ Yes, yes, I responded. Satisfied with my grunts and promises that everything was fine, the ADC put me on hold.

Bereaved supporters cling to the helicopter as it carries the body of Murtaza Bhutto, 21 September 1996. MUZAMMIL PASHA/REUTERS

The music on the other end of the line was soon interrupted by a click and a silence.

‘Hello? Wadi?’ I said, calling my aunt the name only I used for her. ‘No, she can’t come to the phone right now,’ came the reply. It was Zardari. It was no secret that none of us in the family liked Asif Zardari, my aunt’s oleaginous husband. On the few social occasions where I saw him, we shared nothing other than a cursory hello. ‘I need to speak to my aunt,’ I said tersely, not wanting to speak to Zardari. ‘You can’t,’ he replied, equally brusque. ‘It’s very important, I need to speak with her now.’ ‘She can’t come to the phone right now,’ Zardari replied. ‘It’s very important and I don’t want to talk to you, I need to talk to her,’ I insisted, my voice quickening. I had wasted enough time on this phone call already. ‘She can’t speak, she’s hysterical,’ Zardari replied. As if on cue, there was a loud wailing sound in the background. It had been quiet before, with no indication that anyone was in the room with Zardari, and all of a sudden there was an almost desperate crying shattering the silence. ‘What? No, I have to speak with her, please put her on the phone,’ I continued, growing confused at what seemed like a theatrical attempt to keep me from talking to the one person who was in charge. ‘Oh, don’t you know?’ Zardari responded. ‘Your father’s been shot.’