- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

BAZARAK, Afghanistan The grave of Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda a week before the World Trade Center attacks, is being transformed into a shrine reputedly capable of miraculous healing powers.

Thousands of Afghans are now flocking to the gravesite on a wind-swept hilltop in the Panshir Valley, not simply to pay their respects to the man known as the Lion of the Panshir, but to seek healing for maladies ranging from epilepsy to mental illness.

Many come from far beyond the valley that Mr. Massoud spent 23 years successfully defending against the Soviets and later the Taliban, in the belief that simply touching his grave and praying beside it will cure them.

"A lot of people have been coming here with their sick relatives", said Mehrullah, one of two young soldiers tending the grave. "We don't know if they have been cured yet, but we believe it's possible."

Mehrullah, who uses just one name, said that there were plans to build a library and a cultural center as well as a marble mausoleum in place of the current brick and tin-roofed structure.

The transformation of the grave of a general, albeit a famous and charismatic one, into the Afghan equivalent of Lourdes is almost unknown in Afghanistan.

Although Mr. Massoud has been honored as a martyr, healing powers are normally attributed to the graves only of saints or relatives of the prophet Muhammad.

But in the months since he was assassinated by two men posing as journalists from an Arab television station who had concealed a bomb in their camera, Mr. Massoud has rapidly become a cult figure, inspiring innumerable posters, paintings and even carpets depicting him praying.

Visitors to his grave, overlooking the brilliant green wheat fields of Bazarak, Mr. Massoud's village in the Panshir, are now welcomed by a green-and-white painted sign reading, "The Hill of the Chief of the Martyrs" in Persian and English.

Green flags the Islamic color which in Afghanistan marks martyrs' graves snap in the wind. At the entrance to the grave itself, a Persian poem welcomes "everyone from everywhere" to the grave of "the flower that was very sweet, who dedicated himself and his body only to the way of Allah."

Among the worshippers who trekked up the hill recently was an Afghan family who had come from Tehran with their 2-year-old son, Iqbal, who was suffering from an increase in cerebrospinal fluid.

As the women, clad in blue burkas knelt around the grave to pray, the child's mother laid him against the green cloth-covered mound.

His father, Shukhur, a well-dressed man who works at the Greek Embassy in Tehran and spoke English, said that they had taken the child to doctors in Iran as well as Afghanistan but had been unable to cure him.

"We've come here as a last resort", he said. "I spent many years with Massoud, and I'm hoping that as a martyr, his spirit will be able to heal him".

A visitor's book contained messages from Afghans who had traveled from all over Afghanistan as well as a number of adulatory inscriptions in French: Mr. Massoud's hawklike good looks, his schooling at the French Lysee in Kabul, and his dashing style he always wore his pakhool, the Panshiri wool cap, at a rakish tilt had made him something of a hero in France. One wrote: "To a brave warrior and a lion."

In Kabul, where the interim government is dominated by fellow Panshiris and members of the Northern Alliance, of which Mr. Massoud was the defense chief, the cult of Mr. Massoud is flourishing.

Government buildings and cars are now pasted with posters of Mr. Massoud.

Not all Afghans, though, hold such rosy views of the man who once devastated much of their capital city and other parts of the country. Recalling the bitter fighting over Kabul in the early 1990s, one Kabul resident commented: "Massoud has become far greater in death than he ever was in life. It's a cult, but not all of us subscribe to it."

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