Farewell to pride of Kabul Zoo

SUN JOURNAL

Death: Mourners worldwide honor Marjan, the lion that "outlasted the Taliban but couldn't beat old age."

January 29, 2002|By E.A. Torriero | E.A. Torriero,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KABUL, Afghanistan - People from all walks of life and nationalities file into the battle-scarred Kabul Zoo, paying homage to Marjan, the ailing one-eyed lion who came to symbolize this nation's determination and endurance amid years of suffering.

Malnourished and barely able to walk, Marjan died Saturday, apparently of kidney and liver failure. He was thought to be about 23.

Today, his freshly dug grave stands in the drought-dried earth on the edge of the zoo. Here, the mourners come to say goodbye.

Over the weekend, militiamen with Kalashnikovs draped on their shoulders saluted him. Mothers lifted their powder-blue veils for a peek into his cage. Kids who used to tease him cried. Foreign envoys offered condolences to zookeepers. Journalists from the London tabloids, People magazine, world news wires and major television outlets sought details to craft his obituary.

"He's finally at peace now," says Johnathan Pearce, one of several international relief workers who arrived this month to rehabilitate the zoo's sick and shellshocked animals.

"He died with the best medical attention around him, had all the money in the world behind him, and was in the company of his friends," says John Walsh, leader of an aid effort organized by the World Society for the Protection of Animals that raised nearly $1 million in donations.

"He outlasted the Taliban but couldn't beat old age," says Walsh, a tough-talking Bostonian who broke down in tears when he heard of Marjan's demise.

With a golden mane and scraggly beard as long as some sported by Taliban men, Marjan's conflict-weary face was plastered on fund-raising placards and ads distributed by zoo societies from Australia to the United States.

In 1993, Marjan mauled a militiaman who leaped into his cage and tried to tease him. The next day, the warrior's brother came for revenge and tossed a hand grenade at him. Marjan, named after an Afghan jewel, lost an eye.

As the Taliban fled in November, Marjan gained international fame when zoo organizations used pictures of him to raise the $400,000 needed to rebuild the Kabul Zoo. The campaign was so successful that it netted more than 2 1/2 times the amount needed.

"It was Marjan that did it," Walsh says. "When you looked at pictures of his sad condition you couldn't help but give money."

Some Afghans say that Kabul's humans could benefit from such largesse.

"The Afghan people really need a lot of support," says Kabul's municipal planning director, Abdulrashid Jonbaz, speaking at the parched brown grave strewn with brightly colored paper flowers.

"Because of war, not only Marjan lost his eye, but humans lost their eyes," Jonbaz says.

When Walsh arrived two weeks ago, he found Marjan to be blind, arthritic, dehydrated and undernourished. Longtime Afghan caretakers say Marjan had been severely depressed and quite grumpy since his mate, Chucha, died of natural causes two years ago.

Walsh changed the lion's diet by varying the kinds of meats to boost his immune system. He injected Marjan with vitamin supplements, heated his sleeping den and installed a mat to keep him off the concrete floor. It was a regal life compared to the cold winters Marjan spent without warmth for most of his life.

At first, Marjan seemed uplifted. But in the last week, his health deteriorated. On Friday evening, workers had to carry him into his den, where he was found dead after dawn.

On Sunday, Afghan zookeepers dug a vault-sized grave not far from where Marjan's mate is buried. They skinned Marjan and removed his eyes, teeth and claws in hopes of displaying them if the bombed-out National Museum is ever rebuilt.

A German television crew, armed with a letter of permission from the Kabul mayor, filmed the dead lion in his den in hopes of getting viewers to send in money to help buy two lions for the zoo.

For the past week, since a news magazine aired a feature on Marjan, Germans have been in hot debate over whether Marjan was one of them. Legend has it that a German zookeeper gave Marjan and his mate to Kabul in 1973. But Afghan zookeepers believe the lions are Russian, even though they lack paperwork to prove it.

"Russian or German?" a German television asked viewers last week while offering close-up shots of Marjan's eyes.

Another debate raged between foreign aid workers and representatives of the Kabul mayor over how to best remember Marjan. The Afghans were in favor of quickly stuffing Marjan's skin with hay and putting the lion replica on display in the dusty zoo parking lot.

Walsh, however, says he thinks a donated bronze statue resembling Marjan is more appropriate.

"Think of it," he said to the Afghans, "a giant sculpture with the words underneath it `old, ailing and brave.'"

For the time being, however, both sides agreed to bury him at the Kabul Zoo.

Although Marjan was a media phenomenon in his last weeks and reporters crowded the memorial event yesterday, he was buried out of the glare of cameras in a private ceremony Sunday night.

Asked what was said at the burial, Walsh replies in a voice hoarse with emotion and the cough that afflicts everyone in this dusty smoke-laden city: "That's between us and the lion."

For now, the lion is commemorated only by a hand-painted metal sign hung on a rough-sawn board against a background of jagged rocket-blasted house ruins.

"He was about 23," the sign says. "He was the most famous lion in the world."

E.A. Torriero is a writer for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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