- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

ROME The royal suitcases have been packed for weeks with Hermes ties, an assortment of lumbago and blood-pressure pills, a camera, the works of Moliere, and an old astrakhan hat. The Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, dropped in Saturday to say goodbye. Two Italian medics are on standby and the Filipina maid-cum-nurse has been suffering recurrent nightmares about being murdered in her bed.
Barring any unexpected developments, Afghanistan's former King Zahir Shah will board a plane within the next few days to return to his country after 29 years of exile in Italy.
It will be a moment of great emotion that some fear might be too much for the frail 87-year-old King Zahir.
"I have two kinds of feelings," he said in an interview. "One is my longing to return and breathe the air of my country again and to see the mountains of Kabul. But the other is sadness for what has happened to Afghanistan, all the destruction, all the innocent lives lost."
The king's departure, planned for today, was delayed suddenly, partly for logistic and partly for security reasons. Gen. Abdul Wali, the former king's son-in-law and military commander, said: "We have been informed that thousands of Afghans are making their way to Kabul for the king's arrival and the government needs to set up food and tents."
He said the king's departure was "imminent" but that the Italian government had asked them not to reveal the date for security reasons. "Besides," he added, "the king is not a train whose departure time can be announced like you would at a railway station."
Hamid Karzai, the leader of the Afghan government, is a close ally of the king and has flown to Rome to personally escort him back. Ordinary Afghans particularly the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan will line the streets to see him.
Accompanying the former monarch when he leaves on the Alitalia plane apart from his maid and doctors will be some 20 sons, grandchildren and other family members, though his wife and daughters will stay in Rome.
But this is no mere trip down memory lane: The king wants to save his country. Some of his more ambitious relations are praying that the loya jirga, or tribal assembly, which he will open in June to choose Afghanistan's head of state, will choose him, thus restoring the monarchy that ended in 1973 with a coup by King Zahir's cousin Daoud.
It is a risky venture. The murder last month of Afghanistan's minister for aviation and tourism, a key ally of the king who was stabbed on a plane at Kabul airport, was seen as a warning not to go back. But since making up his mind just before Christmas that he would return, King Zahir has become a determined man.
"It's impossible not to have some opposition but I believe that it is confined to a small group of people," said the former king. "I've been the target of an assassination attempt here in Rome and that didn't diminish my thoughts."
King Zahir plans to spend a few days in Kabul then travel to Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. "I want to be in close contact with my people again," he said. "It's something my heart tells me."


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