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Former Afghan King Returns to Kabul

April 20, 2002

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ An old man named Amanudin leans on his shovel and squints up at the hilltop fort where one Afghan warlord ruthlessly shelled this city for years. He then points in the opposite direction to a place from where a rival warlord did the same.

What’s left is an apocalyptic wasteland of rubble and devastation, of bullet-pocked clay-brick houses so decimated they make this part of Kabul look like an archaeological dig.

This is the city Afghanistan’s former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, returned home to Thursday after 29 years in exile.

On Friday, the 87-year-old former monarch visited the tomb of his father and gaped at the rocket holes in the roof and the columns destroyed by gunfire. He held his hands out in prayer over his father’s tomb, but said not a word.

The capital was a very different place when Zaher Shah left it in 1973. It was peaceful back then, largely untouched by war.

``The king may not recognize it anymore,″ Amanudin says.

``All these buildings used to be six or seven stories high,″ he says, pointing low across a jagged horizon of blown-out houses in Kabul’s Jadah-i-Maiwand neighborhood. ``It used to be very beautiful. This was one of the busiest, most popular parts of Kabul.″

Zaher Shah was vacationing in Italy when his cousin, Mohammad Daoud, overthrew him in a palace coup three decades ago. To avoid bloodshed, the king abdicated and began a long life of exile in Rome, where he watched from afar as Afghanistan descended into chaos.

Daoud was assassinated in 1978 and a communist government took over. The Soviets sent in troops to prop it up, and ended up battling for ten years against Afghan resistance fighters before pulling out. Rival warlords then turned their guns on one another, vying for power in a 1992-96 civil war that leveled much of the capital.

By 1996, the Taliban had taken control of most of the country. But the fanatical Islamic regime was ousted late last year after an intense U.S. bombing campaign backed by northern alliance troops.

Jadah-i-Maiwand, in southeastern Kabul, is the most devastated part of the city, with 90 percent of its buildings destroyed in the civil war.

Today, single walls rise precariously from mounds of dirt and rubbish where entire houses and offices once stood. Three-story buildings are collapsed on themselves, the girders that once held them together twisting out into the air.

One staircase stands by itself, leading up to a floor that no longer exists. A rusted tank, burned out long ago, is parked on a roadside. Only a handful of people still live in the neighborhood.

``We hated all the warlords. They wasted everything,″ says Amanudin, whose shop was looted by troops loyal to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the commanders who made Kabul his battleground. The store was later destroyed by a stray missile.

Today, some 1,200 laborers, paid $2 a day by the United Nations, are trying to clear away the rubble and debris for the first time _ to pave the way for reconstruction.

Work crews are spread all over, tearing down fragile walls with pickaxes. A group of 10 men nearby is trying to pull down what remains of a lone three-story brick wall with a rope. Amanudin digs his shovel into the dirt, slowly clearing away a broken pile of bricks.

The plan is to reuse whatever material they can, rebuilding a new Kabul from the rubble of the old.

Shops have emerged again on the edges of Maiwand street, but ruined buildings still teeter next to them _ a far cry from the Jadah-i-Maiwand that Amanudin remembers bustling with stores selling jewelry and carpets. Gone are the late afternoon strolls down tree-lined streets; drinks with friends in tea houses.

Green jeeps and armored cars mounted with heavy guns belonging to the 4,500-man international peacekeeping force cruise by on patrol, in curious juxtaposition with the horse-drawn carriages and donkey-carts they pass.

They share the roads with rickshaws and huge trucks overflowing with refugees just returned from Pakistan _ more than a few on word that the former king is back.

Many residents credit Zaher Shah with keeping Afghanistan at peace during his 40-year rule, and hope now that he has returned he will be a unifying force.

``During the king’s reign, there was peace. We want that old life back,″ Amanudin says.

Zaher Shah will convene a grand council, or loya jirga, in June that will select a new government, but his role is largely symbolic _ there are no plans to restore the monarchy.

Interim Information Minister Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, said the former monarch had mixed feeling about his return.

``He was very happy to see Afghanistan after all this time,″ Raheen said. ``But of course anybody who comes to a destroyed city like Kabul will feel sad.″

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