Archive for Thursday, March 14, 2002

Workers toil around the clock to fix up residence for returning leader

March 14, 2002

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— The two-story home on a quiet Kabul street is no palace, but it does feature a sauna, fireplace and pool  and repairmen are working day and night to try to get them ready.

Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, will be living in pretty comfortable digs when he returns to Kabul this month, taking up residence in a family-owned home that was last used by the Taliban's prime minister.

The main kitchen was destroyed by a rocket five years ago. And if the 87-year-old former monarch wants a swim, he'll see a rocket hole in the pool-house roof.

But the main house in the gated compound, with its six bedrooms, five baths and balconies overlooking gardens and snowcapped mountains in the distance, is almost fit for a king.

"We tried to find the best, according to our availability," said the project's chief architect, Hafiz Ullah.

"If you look at any other home in Europe, it doesn't compare, but I hope it will be a good start," he said. "I hope he will appreciate us."

Symbolic figure

Zaher Shah is expected to return to the Afghan capital around March 23 for the first time in three decades. Plans call for him to be accompanied from Rome by interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.

In June, the former monarch is to convene a traditional tribal assembly, or loya jirga, which will select a transitional government to rule Afghanistan for 18 months, until elections.

Zaher Shah is beloved in much of the country, remembered for the progress and relative prosperity that accompanied his 40-year rule, which ended when he was ousted in 1973 by a cousin.

Many here and abroad have looked to him as a symbolic figure who could help heal Afghanistan's war wounds and bring together feuding ethnic and tribal groups.

"We are very optimistic about Zaher Shah's arrival because during the recent years we suffered too much," said Jalalluddin, 35, as he took a break from plastering the entry gate to the king's new home.

"We believe that if Zaher Shah comes, it will resolve all the problems," he said, his face and hair speckled white from plaster drips.

Renovations

Inside the gate, buzz-saws hummed as carpenters, electricians and plumbers finished repairs on the Bauhaus-style home, which was last used by Mullah Mohammed Hassan, the Taliban's No. 2 man.

"The windows were all broken. The toilets were all destroyed. The water system  destroyed," said engineer Fazel Mohammed.

In the past several weeks, workmen have installed new electric wiring, toilets, sinks and water heaters, replaced windows blown out by bombs and varnished the wood paneling in the dining room and staircase.

Four gardeners have tended to the parched grounds, while 12 tailors made curtains. Eight stonemasons laid new Afghan marble on the balcony floors, said contractor Fata Mohammed Dost.

Much remains to be done, including renovation of a secondary kitchen to be used in place of the one that was destroyed. Furniture, carpets and other fixtures have yet to arrive.

But Fazel Mohammed said construction work would be completed by week's end. "We're even working during the night," he said.

It's not clear who is picking up the tab for the renovation, which architect Hafiz Ullah said cost up to $30,000.

The king's finances always have been something of a mystery, with reports that "a friendly country" was supporting his luxurious lifestyle in Rome, where he has lived in exile since the coup.

His life in Kabul won't be quite so genteel, but the small bedroom selected for him is outfitted with a carved wood bed frame. And the adjoining tiled bathroom is freshly renovated and has a new water heater.

"Even a small house is nice," said Hafiz Ullah. "If there's peace, you are happy."

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