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Debut of democracy near ruins of royalty

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SUJAN DUTTA   |   Kabul   |   Published 29.08.05, 12:00 AM

Kabul, Aug. 29: The Four-Mile Avenue breaks into a valley shrouded by a mist of dust and there on a rise is the ruined, pockmarked shell of the Darulaman Palace. There are snipers atop it, one with a telescopic gun mounted on a tripod, another flat on his stomach scanning through the sights down below.

Down below there are two Humvees with mounted machine guns manned by soldiers in desert fatigues. There are more soldiers all around. Soldiers, and this is serious, frisking soldiers. Those frisking are from the ISAF’s Canadian contingent or from private security agencies. Those frisked are recruits of the Afghan National Army.

The frisking routine for soldiers is the same as it is for journalists: a dog on leash nuzzles at bags to sniff out explosives; huge hands feel your shin, thigh, measure the parts, bums, empty pockets, turn you around, repeat the routine and then bark: “Okay, go!”

You head for the awning spread over what is now a freshly cleared field of war waste. All around, hardscrabble hills of the Hindu Kush, just southwest of Kabul, frame the venue like it were an arena.

It is. This is where the “world’s largest democracy meets the world’s youngest democracy”. Words used by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and repeated by President Hamid Karzai.

India is building Afghanistan’s parliament on a battlefield. Darulaman, the town just southwest of Kabul built by the king in the 1920s, has seen some of the worst fighting through the decades. Even today, it houses the Darulaman Garrison of the Afghan National Army, its corps of engineers and “Camp Julien”, Canadian troops. The Canadian troops are moving out shortly. The rest of the military establishment stays.

Towering above all is the Darulaman Palace, skeletal, its Corinthian columns chewed away by missiles but its hugeness still a reminder of its European architectural grandeur. And the man who can claim to be its rightful occupant is sitting here this morning, under a cloth tent.

He is not in his throne but on the dais, for he is no longer king. Zahir Shah is Afghanistan’s Baba-e-Millat. To his right is Singh, to his left Karzai.

In the row of front seats on the stage of Afghanistan’s leaders ? the two vice-presidents, the jihadi leader who is turbaned and sports a flowing grey beard is Sayyaf, foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Some on the stage have fought battles around Darulaman.

More than half the audience is made up of security-cleared Afghan National Army soldiers in green fatigues. This is their home. The guards at the site carry big, black guns and revolvers in hip holsters.

Outside the tent, Darulaman ? “abode of peace” ? is once again a frontline. In 1992, Hekmatyar and Dostum and the Jamaat’s mujahideen fought for its control. They bombed and shelled the palace that used to be the ministry of defence and a Soviet base. There is even now a restaurant up the Darulaman Hill that used to be a Russian officers’ mess.

In October 2001, after US bombing missions over Kabul, bulldozers used to clear the debris of the ruins in Darulaman came up with 100 bodies of Taliban and al Qaida fighters.

The grounds were mined. “Danger UXOs” (unexploded ordnance) notices on red under the logo of skull-and-crossbones were put up. Nearby was the main counting centre for the Afghan presidential elections in October. The grounds are now largely cleared under a UN-sponsored de-mining mission. The frontline remains.

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