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Masood's Legend Continues in Afghanistan - 2002-03-03

When the Taleban were finally driven from power in Afghanistan, there was one key figure not there to share in the victory. Ahmed Shah Masood, who first came to prominence fighting the Soviet occupation and then the Taleban, had been killed by suicide bombers. But the man's legend looms large over the Afghan political landscape.

For Mohammad Hakim, the job of being a bodyguard for Ahmed Shah Masood did not end with his commander's death.

On a barren, windswept bluff high in the Panshir Valley, Mr. Hakim continues to care for his fallen leader. He watches Mr. Masood's simple grave, greeting the steady flow of visitors who come to pay homage.

It is a lonely job. Life is hard in the Panshir, a place where teenage boys hunt for food with 150-year-old flintlock rifles. Mr. Hakim lives in an old, rusting army trailer, surrounded by tall, snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. His eyes tearing and his voice choking with emotion, Mr. Hakim said people everywhere need heroes and especially so in Afghanistan. He said, "You know, the people of the world, they like their heroes. And Mr. Masood, he was a great man. He was a pious and religious man. He was in favor of democracy and freedom. He had all these good qualities. And I just don't have the words to say more about that."

Mr. Masood was dubbed the "Lion of the Panshir" for his military prowess against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. Later, Mr. Masood headed the military resistance to the Taleban. His redoubt in the Panshir was the one area the Taleban could never capture although they tried.

On September 9, two men posing as Arab journalists seeking an interview with Mr. Masood detonated bombs, killing themselves and Mr. Masood. It is not known if the suicide bombers were Taleban agents, al-Qaida operatives, or someone else. Mr. Hakim was not at his leader's side that fateful day.

Speaking by Mr. Masood's graveside, Sammy Panah, an Afghan-American who has come to pay his respects, said Mr. Masood's legend has grown to mythic proportions. Mr. Pannah said, "I don't think it's only people from Panshir Valley or Tajik people who respect him, you know. What I heard from my friends is that if you stay here, you can see people from different parts of the country that come here to pay respect to this man. I think he became more famous on the national level after his death than before."

Mr. Masood's ghost hangs over Afghanistan's political landscape. He was an ethnic Tajik as are a majority of the Northern Alliance. But Afghanistan has been traditionally run by the country's largest ethnic group, Pashtuns. There are fears that the Northern Alliance will invoke the name of its leader - the victorious Masood - as a rationale for demanding the largest share of the political spoils when Afghanistan's future government is negotiated in a Loya Jirga, or grand council, in June.

Standing at the simple grave of the man for whom he would have gladly given his life, caretaker Hakim says it does not matter who governs Afghanistan as long as it is the people who freely decide. That, he said, is the true legacy of Ahmed Shah Masood.