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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 14:15 GMT
Afghan hopes ride on ex-king
At times over the past few months, I've felt like I'm living in JRR Tolkein's Middle Earth.
The last part of The Lord of the Rings, when evil is defeated and everything is put right, is called the Return of the King.
In Afghanistan, that long awaited event is due to take place very soon.
Zahir Shah was deposed as king in 1973 after ruling the country for 40 years.
He signed his abdication after being forced out by his cousin, Daoud.
Since then, he has lived quietly in exile in Rome.
When I first came to Afghanistan, I never took people seriously when they spoke longingly of Zahir Shah.
I dismissed it all as mere fantasy.
He was never a particularly effective ruler and had grown very old in exile.
But when Afghans from all ethnic groups - villagers, townspeople, refugees and even Maoists and a few war-hardened warlords - started speaking about the king, I realised I had to take this particular fantasy seriously.
It seemed that the former king was the only unity figure in the entire country.
Although neither side in the civil war thought much of him, he evidently embodied something deep and enduring and hopeful for many war-weary Afghans.
The 11 September attacks on America made radical change in Afghanistan possible and inevitable.
At a time of extreme crisis, when Afghans feared their country would be pulverised by a massive military reprisal from the United States, I was struck by just how many people were speaking about the former king.
I telephoned Afghan colleagues in London, suggesting they might ask if Zahir Shah would give one of his rare interviews.
They had come to the same conclusion.
He granted an interview - speaking for just a minute or so - saying that efforts were under way to solve the crisis with the support of the international community.
He spoke about the convening of a consultative assembly - or loya jirga - to put an end to the civil war and establish a broad-based government.
And he said that the Afghan people were not responsible for the attacks on America.
Overnight, the Afghan currency, which had lost 10 % of its value after the 11 September attacks, rallied - if rally is the correct term for a threefold strengthening in value.
"I was almost crying," said one young man.
"You can't imagine how reassuring it was to hear his voice. He was the only hope we had left."
Chance of democracy
In the end, the American onslaught wasn't the annihilating flood most Afghans had feared. It washed away only the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
An internationally recognised government has taken power in Kabul.
A loya jirga is to be convened at the end of June which should be a form of indirect elections.
If all goes well - if people can act without too much fear from the armed men - the loya jirga should usher in the most democratic government Afghanistan has ever had.
And the former king is due to step back onto Afghan soil for the first time in almost 30 years.
Officially, Zahir Shah is coming as a private citizen, an Afghan civilian exercising his right to return.
He is a fatherly figure, said Hamid Karzai, the current Afghan leader and a member of the king's camp.
He is a symbol of unity, a very kind man, an elderly Afghan.
This is his country and he should come.
Many of the armed men, particularly the fundamentalists, don't like the former king.
They include figures wielding considerable political and military power.
Otherwise, it seems upwards of 90% of the population want Zahir Shah back.
Decades of hell
"When he left Afghanistan, all of God's blessings dried up," some people say of the man who was once officially known as the shadow of God.
"Our country was at peace during his reign", is another much-repeated comment.
Afghanistan has been through a season of absolute hell since Zahir Shah's abdication - from the tens of thousands of people arrested or executed by the early Communist governments five years after he left, to the five million people made refugees, the 1.5 million killed mainly by aerial bombing during the Soviet occupation, the terrible internecine fighting by the mujahadeen and then the last totalitarian excesses of the Taleban and the take-over of the country by foreign militants.
Even now, all is not right.
In much of the country, warlords are back in power.
Afghans have not forgotten who has carried out past atrocities - rocketing civilian areas, looting and rape.
At least three members of the interim government could probably stand trial in The Hague.
In The Lord of the Rings, the king spends most of the novel fighting evil and restoring the ancient kingdom of his forefathers.
In Afghanistan, there is no popular movement for the restoration of the monarchy.
But most people seem to believe Zahir Shah can somehow unify their war-ravaged country.
Just by stepping foot on Afghan soil, he will make everything better.
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Profile: Ex-king Zahir Shah
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