Afghanistan's former king returns after 29-year exile

Reception muted as he arrives at Kabul's airport under heavy security

April 19, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - After 29 years in exile, the former king of Afghanistan returned to a poignant but muted welcome in his native land yesterday.

Protected by heavily armed soldiers from a half-dozen nations and greeted by a sprinkling of applause, the 87-year-old Mohammed Zahir Shah climbed out of a military cargo plane at Kabul Airport about 11:45 a.m. It was the first time he had been in Afghanistan since his ouster in a bloodless palace coup in 1973.

No bands or cheering throngs were on hand yesterday. Instead, the former monarch, dressed in brown leather jacket, blue shirt and slacks, found a few hundred carefully screened guests, including diplomats, government officials and tribal chieftains from across the country.

As Zahir Shah walked down the red carpet, many well-wishers kissed his hands in a gesture of respect. Someone presented him with a copy of the Quran. (Zahir Shah's full royal title includes the phrase, "He Who Puts His Trust in God.") Later, he told Kabul television, "This is the happiest day of my life."

Surveys show Zahir Shah is the most popular figure in Afghanistan. He is a Pashtun - the nation's largest ethnic group. But he still has broad support from Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others because he refused to play favorites in interethnic conflicts during his 40-year reign.

The king and his supporters say he is not coming back to reclaim political power - but would not refuse it if offered. He has been invited to give the opening speech at the traditional council of elders, called the loya jirga, which convenes in June. The council will plan the country's transition to a constitutional government over the next two years.

Islamic radicals oppose the return of the king, a moderate. He is considered a target for terrorist attacks here. Many warlords who became rich and powerful during the struggle against the Soviets regard the king as a potential rival.

Some Afghans who want a modern, secular society are not enthusiastic about him, either. "We want to have a democracy, not a kingdom," said Yahya, a 40-year-old lecturer in chemistry at the Institute of Medicine in Kabul.

But to many Afghans, the king embodies Afghanistan's tribal traditions and history. Many refer to him simply as baba, or grandfather. People of all backgrounds recall his rule, from 1933 to 1973, as a proud and peaceful era, in contrast to the spasms of bloodletting that followed.

Many times over the past three decades, said 48-year-old trader Mirajadin Nuran, people had whispered that the king was coming back. Before, it had always been wishful thinking.

"Now it's a reality," Nuran said, waiting his turn in the single chair at the Fayz Mohamed Barber Shop in western Kabul. "Now, the people of Afghanistan, they are showing their happiness. They are showing their excitement. They are showing their respect."

Sima Tabib, an Afghan of Pashtun and Tajik heritage, stood at the airport yesterday for hours holding a sign bearing the king's photograph. "This is very important for Afghanistan's future," said Tabib, about 40, who has lived abroad since 1980 and only returned recently to help rebuild her country.

"With the king, for the first time, we had peace and equality and respect for human rights," she said. "But it was all destroyed."

Omar Sultan, a former Afghan archaeologist who lives in North Carolina, says the king can play an important role in avoiding further bloodshed. If factions start fighting again, he said, Afghanistan will be carved up by its neighbors.

"I think this is the last chance," he said. "If we do not get unified, then Afghanistan will be wiped from the map of the world."

Some, though, are skeptical of Zahir Shah's value as a symbol of unity. At Kabul's currency exchange, the afghani has fluctuated wildly in recent months, rising every time people expected the king to return, falling all three times his trip was postponed. Yesterday, it unexpectedly sank against the dollar - falling from about 30,000 a few days ago to 33,840 in the morning.

The king's arrival didn't raise confidence here enough to budge the currency. "His presence was useless," said Shir Ahmad, a 27-year-old money trader. Ahmad said the other traders decided Zahir Shah wouldn't help pacify the nation.

The king has been living near Rome with his family since he was deposed, his expenses paid in recent years by Saudi Arabia. He arrived yesterday by way of Uzbekistan, where he boarded a military aircraft for the final leg of his journey to Kabul.

He spent a few minutes shaking hands, then climbed into a black Mercedes-Benz limousine for a brief motorcade - consisting mostly of similar Mercedeses and white Toyota Land Cruisers - down roads lined with soldiers.

Zahir Shah and his family had lived in the Arg Palace, a stone fort in central Kabul with lush gardens and a grove of evergreens. Yesterday, he went straight from the airport to his new residence, "Palace No. 8." The six-bedroom, Bauhaus-style home with a pool was being built for the king's son when the monarch was ousted. A year ago, a senior Taliban official lived in the house.

An Afghan official who flew with Zahir Shah yesterday said that when the plane crossed the Afghan border and the Hindu Kush mountains loomed ahead, Zahir Shah stared out a window.

"He didn't turn his eyes from the mountains," said Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

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