A former warlord branded the “Butcher of Kabul” made a triumphant return to the Afghan capital Thursday, met by uneasy residents two decades after leaving the city where he stands accused of killing thousands of people.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister, has returned to mainstream political life after his dormant Hezb-i-Islami militant group signed a peace deal with President Ashraf Ghani which sparked revulsion from human rights groups and Kabul's residents.
The peace agreement inked last September marked a symbolic victory for Ghani, who has struggled to revive talks with the more powerful Taliban, but it has also fuelled fears of more political division.
Ghani greeted Hekmatyar with pomp at the presidential palace Thursday. “Few people believed the peace efforts, would bear fruit, but today it is clear...that if there is sincere will and effort for peace it can be achieved,” he said.
Hekmatyar arrived at the palace after his convoy of several hundred vehicles, mainly pickup trucks equipped with machine guns, wound its way through Kabul's main thoroughfares watched by hundreds of onlookers.
Some were supporters bearing the green party flag and flowers, singing the national anthem or chanting “Welcome to Kabul, Honourable Hekmatyar” in Pashto.
Onlooker Jamshed, who goes by one name, told AFP the “rare happy news” meant the warlord's influence could help improve security.
But for others, his return brought memories of death and destruction in the capital rushing back.
Hekmatyar earned his bloody nickname for laying siege to Kabul during the 1992-1996 civil war, bombarding it with rockets that inflicted some of the worst damage in nearly 40 years of conflict, destroying one-third of the city and killing tens of thousands of civilians.
“He will be surprised to see Kabul rebuilt again,” said one wry onlooker who did not wish to give his name.
Many, like 20-year-old metal worker Edress Arabzada, could not forget the past but were pragmatic about the future.
Hekmatyar was the “chief destroyer” of Kabul, Arabzada told AFP, adding the warlord should apologise for the spilling the blood of innocent people. But, he added, “we welcome his arrival to Afghanistan if it leads to peace and stability”.
'We are tired of war'
Cucumber seller Sayed Mohammad, 52, agreed. “All the warlords are corrupt and have blood on their hands,” he told AFP. “But, we welcome (Hekmatyar) to Kabul because we are tired of war and conflict.”
Afghanistan has suffered near-continuous fighting since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and beleaguered security forces are currently struggling to beat back the resurgent Taliban, with more than one third of the country outside government control.
Hekmatyar is the latest in a series of controversial figures that Kabul has sought to reintegrate by granting judicial immunity for past crimes, and many residents who spoke to AFP called for him to apologise and be prosecuted.
Some were more accepting of the rehabilitation of the warlords, including figures such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, currently the country's first vice president.
“Hekmatyar's arrival to Kabul will not make a difference... We want him to continue a normal life like other warlords in Afghanistan,” said drinks seller Mohammad Nasim.
Hekmatyar first returned to public life on Saturday at a gathering in Laghman province, two hours east of Kabul. At the presidential palace Thursday he repeated calls for the Taliban to lay down their arms and hold talks, saying he would fight for their demands.
“Let's end the war, live together as brothers and then ask foreigners to leave our country,” he said. Huge billboards heralding his return sprang up around the city in the last week, but were quickly covered in paint or mud, testament to the polarising nature of the peace deal.