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Afghanistan: Masoud Largely Recalled As Hero, Two Years After Assassination

By J.M.Ledgard

Thousands of mourners gathered in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley this week to mark the second anniversary (9 September) of the death of celebrated military commander Ahmad Shah Masoud. Masoud is buried in a domed mausoleum on a hilltop near his home village of Jangalak. In Kabul, Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and other officials, including Masoud's young son, gathered at the city's sports stadium and praised him as a hero and a martyr.

Kabul, 11 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- His picture is everywhere in Afghanistan.

The scraggly beard, the wool cap set back on the head, the piercing eyes -- a mix of musician Bob Marley and Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara, a poet and a warrior.

He stares out from windscreens of blacked-out Toyota Land Cruisers, from stickers on the butts of Kalashnikov rifles, from portraits hung on the wall of every ministerial office. A 12-meter likeness of him, arms imperially folded, hangs from the side of a ministry in central Kabul. It is his image that presides over the national stadium in Kabul -- not that of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai or former king Zahir Shah.

He is Ahmad Shah Masoud, the so-called "Lion of Panjshir," the leader of the Northern Alliance, which fought against the Soviets, resisted the Taliban, and swept to power after a U.S.-backed military campaign in late 2001.

Masoud -- one name is enough -- was the most charismatic commander in a nation of commanders.

Karzai and other dignitaries honored Masoud during a ceremony on 9 September in the capital's football stadium. "We should feel proud about the anniversary of a martyr who sacrificed himself to fight terrorism and the Soviet invasion, foreign intervention, and aggression," Karzai said.

Masoud is not universally popular, however. Ethnic Pashtuns -- especially in the south of the country -- are scornful of his legacy. Karzai, himself a Pashtun, has been criticized for not distancing himself from Masoud's associates.

But the realities of Masoud's life -- the part his troops played in the killings of hundreds of minority Hazaras and in destroying large sections of Kabul in the early 1990s -- seem hardly to matter today. His life and vision of a united Afghanistan -- a vision bloodied and compromised by war -- has been used to cement the position of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan's transitional government.

Masoud was murdered by suicide bombers disguised as television journalists on 9 September 2001. The assassins are suspected to have had links with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, and his death is viewed as the precursor to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.

By killing Masoud, it is thought, bin Laden knew America would come after him and his Taliban hosts. He correctly guessed that Washington would prefer to do this in part through the proxy force of Masoud's Northern Alliance.

Getting rid of Masoud, the reasoning goes, would buy bin Laden more time. Perhaps it did. The Saudi terrorist is still at large. But in death, Masoud stepped from being a factional commander to a national hero -- at least of non-Pashtuns.

In Kabul this week, RFE/RL spoke to Afghans about their memories of Masoud.

General Suleman Bakshi is a 38-year-old serving in the Interior Ministry who says he was with Masoud when he was assassinated: "I was preparing for a trip. It was about 11:40 when the explosion happened. When I got there, one of these terrorists was alive. He was arrested but escaped and then killed himself. There was a scuffle and the soldier shot him. I saw that. When I got to the room, [Masoud's] body was just burning. There were just the shoulders and head of that Arab who held the camera with the bomb in it. The rest of the body had disappeared. Whenever I remember that day, I cry. I lost such dear and kind friends."

Wahid Jamshady is a 23-year-old driver from Bagram, north of Kabul: "Well, I was at home in Kabul at the time. I remember the day. We knew Masoud and his personality. Our feeling was so bad. We were afraid of the Taliban. We could never show our feeling about his martyrdom or speak about what was in our heart in the bazaar to other people. Then two days later, we heard the news [about the attacks in America]. Those thousands of people who died were innocent people. Al-Qaeda were the worst people."

Mohammed Shah is a 35-year-old Defense Ministry employee from Paghman Province: "We were in despair when we heard the news of his death. It was the worst news I have heard in my life. We felt -- how to explain -- that we were missing life, that we were getting out of life, and only a dead body was left. Masoud was a warrior, a social militant, and a political person. In every path of life, he had a superiority."

Sayed Mahmoud is an 83-year-old Kabul resident who gets around with the help of a metal walking stick: "Oh, yes! We were extremely saddened when we heard about his death. We thought of day as night. All the world became darkness. Masoud was a real warrior. He believed in god. He was benevolent to the people -- a humanitarian. He was a hero that no one could defeat."

Naim Mohed is 12 years old and sells water on the streets of Kabul for one cent a glass: "He was a great guy. He was a hero of Afghanistan. How we loved him! I was living in Iran [with my family]. They showed his news on TV, and I cried very much."

Abdul Qahar, a 19-year-old Kabul resident, ekes out a living by selling Korean cigarettes on the street. He says he makes about $1 a day: "He wanted to free the country so that people will live in peace. I hope there will be happiness and peace."

For Masoud's supporters, there is the promise of inheritance. Masoud's only son, 14-year-old Ahmad, lives in undisclosed locations around Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Europe.

With princely poise, standing next to Karzai, he addressed some 10,000 people gathered at the national stadium on 9 September: "I am honored to find myself once again among my fellow citizens, this heroic warrior nation. This day is a reminder of the sacrifices and compromises that have been made."

Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, and former mujahedin leader Abdul Sayyaf also spoke.

"Masoud's name goes deep in the history of the three decades of our fight and struggle," Fahim said.