KABUL, Afghanistan – Former King Mohammad Zaher Shah returned to Afghanistan on Thursday after 29 years in exile marked at home by war, poverty and fanaticism. Thousands of joyous Afghans lined the streets to welcome their frail former monarch, in whom they have placed their hopes for a peaceful future.
At Kabul's bombed-out airport, an honor guard saluted and spectators applauded as Zaher Shah, dressed simply in a brown leather jacket, stepped off an Italian military aircraft and walked down a red carpet with Afghanistan's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai.
Zaher Shah, waving and grinning widely, shook hands with tribal leaders in traditional turbans and tunics before boarding a black Mercedes-Benz for the ride to his newly refurbished home.
``His majesty said it was a great day for Afghanistan, and he's very happy to be back,'' Karzai's chief spokesman Yusuf Nuristani said, emerging from the former king's residence. ``He's a little bit tired, because it was a long trip, but otherwise he's joyous.''
He said the former king planned to rest Thursday and would meet with tribal elders on Friday.
Thousands of people lined the route to the former king's villa, desperate to catch a glimpse of him. Dancers in white tunics and red sashes swirled to the beat of drums and a flute, and people from across the country held up photographs of the ex-king and Afghan flags.
``This is a sacred day,'' said Jawaz Ismaelkhel, 55, wearing the black turban and long white beard that is traditional in his tribe in eastern Khost province. ``I think all Afghans hope he will bring peace to the country.''
But violence continues to plague this ravaged nation. The former monarch was forced to postpone his homecoming last month because of fears of an attempt on his life.
Italian Carabineri paramilitary police sat atop armored vehicles by the runway and thousands of Afghan police lined the route between the airport and the former king's house. An ambulance trailed Zaher Shah's motorcade. About two dozen international peacekeepers kept a close eye with binoculars from the control tower.
At 87, the former king is frail, and few observers expect him to be more than a benevolent father figure for a traumatized nation. But the symbolism of his presence is important. In June, he will convene a loya jirga, a grand national assembly of tribal elders and other Afghan representatives, who will select a new government to rule Afghanistan until elections in late 2003.
``I hope this day will be celebrated for years to come as Afghanistan's independence day,'' said Naqibullah Matoonwal, a 29-year-old welder.
Zaher Shah reigned from 1933 until 1973, when he left Afghanistan for the thermal baths of an Italian island and a cousin staged a palace coup, declaring himself Afghanistan's first president.
For much of his rule, Zaher Shah deferred to uncles, but he came into his own in his last decade, declaring a constitutional monarchy in 1964 and giving women the right to vote.
But most Afghans remember him most of all for his kindness. He is seen as a pacifist, in stark contrast to the warlords and Islamic fundamentalists who have ruled the country ever since.
In the three decades since the monarchy was toppled, Afghanistan has seen little but violence: the Soviet invasion from 1979-89, a savage civil war from 1992-96, the fanatical Taliban rule from 1996-2001 and the U.S.-led bombing last year that drove them from power.
``When he was here we had peace,'' Ismaelkhel said. ``In those days, nobody knew how to use a gun.''
Zaher Shah, who has lived out his exile in Italy, returned home with Karzai — his distant relative — and six Afghan Cabinet ministers, all of whom went to Rome to fetch him.
Zaher Shah's plane refueled in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov had the former monarch and Karzai inside for breakfast and tea. Zaher Shah thanked Kamilov, who told him he hoped Afghanistan would soon return ``to normal.''
Zaher Shah's arrival in Kabul was marked by celebration, as people from across Afghanistan lined the streets, dancing and singing — activities that were banned under Taliban rule only six months ago.
``Hey gardener,'' read a banner held up by two old men along the former king's route. ``Let's reopen the garden, because the flower you lost is once again blooming.''
The United Nations' special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and powerful Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum greeted the former king at the airport.
``It's a significant day,'' Karzai said before leaving Rome. ``His presence there I'm sure will add to stability and peace in Afghanistan.''
There are no plans for a restoration of the monarchy, but in an interview with The Associated Press last month, Zaher Shah said he wanted to spend his last years in Afghanistan serving his people.
``I'm a patriot who does his duty,'' he said. ``I will carry out any role or mission the people of Afghanistan wish to bestow on me.''