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US Reopens Afghan Embassy With Local Help - 2001-12-18

The United States has reopened its embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, 12 years after rioting and violence forced the embassy's American staff to leave the city.

But a group of Afghan employees chose to stay behind in Kabul to safeguard the embassy compound.

U.S. Marines raised the American flag Monday during a ceremony marking the country's return to Afghanistan.

As the flag began unfurling, a dozen Afghan employees of the embassy broke into wide smiles and gave each other hugs. For them, the event marks something much more personally significant.

"The return of the Americans has given them the courage to hope again for stability and peace in their homeland," said Ghulam Ahmazai, 58. "To tell you honestly this is the only hope because when they left the bloodshed in Afghanistan started," he says.

Mr. Ahmazai knows first hand the violence that engulfed the country after the last detachment of Marines closed the embassy in January 1989. He was one of about 50 local caretakers the embassy staff had to leave behind.

At the time, the Soviets were completing their withdrawal from Afghanistan after a decade of occupation. The Afghan rebels who defeated the Soviet Army were divided along factional lines and were preparing to fight each other.

Amid the chaos, Mr. Ahmazai and some of the other Afghan employees reported they came up with a plan to keep the embassy from being looted and destroyed. They circulated a story around town that the Americans had booby trapped the embassy building with explosives and installed hidden surveillance cameras throughout the complex.

The deception worked for the next seven years. While rockets rained down on Kabul and law and order disappeared in the city, the U.S. embassy remained relatively undisturbed.

Asked why he and the others stayed in Kabul to take care of the embassy during the Civil War, Mr. Ahmazai simply said, "that was their job."

"I am not so loyal to the United States. I am loyal to everybody, but since we were working here and we were paid and they have been good to us, why should not we be. If you are paid, you have to do your work," he says.

Mr. Ahmazai says before leaving Kabul, the U.S. government arranged to keep the Afghan employees on its payroll - their salaries are still deposited every month into a bank in Islamabad, Pakistan. Their relatives then travel to Islamabad and bring the money back to them in cash.

Some of the Afghans have worked for the embassy for 20 years as gardeners and gate guards. Others, like Ghulam Ahmazai, have worked for more than 30 years as compound security officers.

During the Soviet occupation, Mr. Ahmazai paid dearly for working as a U.S. government employee. Convicted as a Cold War spy, he spent the entire 1980s in Soviet jail cell. "I went to prison for 10 years for working at the American embassy and I was not the only one; there were some other colleagues. By 1992, we got released from prison and have been working ever since in the embassy," he says.

He says the U.S. embassy came under severe threat at least twice under the Taleban. In 1998, an angry mob participating in an anti-American demonstration tried to rip down the embassy gate and enter the compound.

In October, shortly after the United States and its coalition partners began bombing Taleban installations and military bases in Kabul, anti-American demonstrators broke into the embassy's outer compound. They burned the maintenance building and the guard quarters.

"There was little anyone could do to stop the rioters," said Mr. Ahmazai. But the guards did manage to stop the demonstrators from reaching and destroying the main embassy building.

During the flag-raising ceremony Monday, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, James Dobbins, read a thank you note from Secretary of State Colin Powell to the men for their years of dedicated service.

"You, our Foreign Service colleagues in Kabul, have performed a critically important mission of safeguarding the U.S. compound and other U.S. government property. Despite many hardships, you persevered and accomplished your mission," he said, reading the letter.

Standing next to Mr. Dobbins, Ghulam Ahmazai gently wiped a tear from his eye.