Kabul: A former warlord branded the “butcher of Kabul" returned to the Afghan capital on 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 the government last September, which sparked revulsion from human rights groups and residents of the capital.
His convoy of several hundred vehicles to Kabul on Thursday, mainly pickup trucks equipped with machine guns, was greeted by hundreds of onlookers, including supporters bearing the green party flag and flowers.
As it progressed through the capital’s main thoroughfares, he was joined by hundreds of cars ferrying people waving flags, singing the national anthem or chanting “welcome to Kabul, honourable Hekmatyar" in Pashto.
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.
The peace agreement inked in September marked a symbolic victory for the government, which has struggled to revive peace talks with the more powerful Taliban, but has also fuelled fears of more political division.
Some of the city’s residents greeted Hekmatyar’s return with hope, such as 35-year-old Jamshed, who said the “rare happy news" meant the warlord’s influence could help improve security.
For others, memories of death and destruction in the capital came rushing back.
“He will be surprised to see Kabul rebuilt again," said one wry onlooker who did not wish to give his name.
Others 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 said, 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".
Cucumber seller Sayed Mohammad, 52, agreed. “All the warlords are corrupt and have blood on their hands," he said. “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 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 (and himself a former warlord).
“I do not think 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.
After his return to the capital on Thursday, he travelled to the presidential palace to meet and shake hands with President Ashraf Ghani.
In the week ahead of his return, huge billboards sprang up around the city, but were quickly covered in paint or mud, testament to the polarising nature of the peace deal.