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Friday, 19 April, 2002, 05:47 GMT 06:47 UK
Ex-king a sign of better times
Mohammed Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan, is back home after 29 years in exile.
He looked younger than he has for years as he stepped off the Italian military plane at Kabul airport, escorted by the Afghan interim leader, Hamid Karzai.
He spent a few minutes greeting ministers and delegations from across the country, shaking hands and smiling, before being ushered away to his new home by aides fearful that he might overextend himself.
Zahir Shah will find Kabul a city ruined and shattered by war.
Since he was forced to abdicate by his cousin, Daoud, in 1973, Afghanistan has suffered coups, occupation and bloodshed. No wonder many Afghans look back at his 40 year long reign as a golden era.
"This is a day of great happiness, the best day," said Nafisa Nazeera, one of the delegates from the women's affairs ministry.
"Now we will be at peace again - for evermore."
It has been difficult to find Afghans who do not want the former king back.
Many still refer to him as the king or his majesty or Baaba - grandfather.
However, there are figures who are less impressed, who fear his popularity could be used as a rallying point.
It was noticeable that the Defence Minister, General Fahim, who is also the military chief of the dominant armed faction in Kabul was absent - on a state trip to France.
Also missing were the former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and the other old Islamist mujahideen leader, Abdul Rassoul Saif.
The man likely to benefit the most from this return is the interim leader, Hamid Karzai.
He will be remembered as the man who brought the former king home.
Like Zahir Shah, he is an ethnic Pashtun, but is seen as a nationalist.
Despite the pomp, the former king is back as a private citizen.
However, there are those who would like him to be more.
"Why not, why shouldn't he become king again?" said Taj Mohammed Wardak, governor of Paktia province.
"Maybe the loya jirga - the national gathering of Afghans which will chose a new government in June - maybe they will ask him to take the throne again." said another delegate from the south of Afghanistan.
On the road from the airport to his new home, ethnic Pashtun tribesmen danced the atan - the national dance of celebration - hair flying, in white and red shalwar chemise whirling round.
It was organised by the pro-king, Tribal Affairs Ministry.
Generally, Afghans were prevented from getting near the airport road.
Except for those who live close by, it was impossible for ordinary people to get near the motorcade.
The organisers may have feared insecurity - or they may not have wanted the former king to seem too popular.
Most of compatriots hope the king will bring new life to Afghanistan.
"This is a moment of happiness for Afghanistan - to see his majesty coming back," said Asif, a student, waiting on the road from Kabul, with many others carrying banners and placards.
"Our father is coming home," said another man, "now there will be peace and stability in our country."
It has been a recurring comment.
Somehow, many Afghans believe their elderly, former king will bring better times to their country.
Zahir Shah left Afghanistan 29 years ago to get medical treatment in Britain for an injury sustained playing volleyball.
He had been ruling Afghanistan for four decades, when his cousin, Daoud, seized power.
Since then, his country has seen revolution, occupation and bloodshed - millions killed or made refugees.
"When he left, God's blessing left our country," was how one woman in the crowd put it.
The former king is probably the only Afghan who enjoys nation-wide support, from every ethnic group.
It has been difficult in the last few weeks to find anyone who did not want him back.
Two years ago, sitting on a quiet news day with a couple of Afghan journalist friends in Kabul, we were discussing what news stories we'd most like to cover.
That's easy said one, the return of the king.
We laughed - it was such an unimaginable event.
Then deep in the civil war, neither the Taleban nor the Northern Alliance favoured Zahir Shah.
I realised only gradually how important the fantasy of the king still is for Afghans.
Asking people what they think about him, they keep saying he'll bring peace and stability.
He's a potent symbol of a kinder, pre-war era.
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