Light shed on a 30-year-old Afghan secret

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Ordered to bury 16 bodies in the dead of night in 1978, a wary young army officer did his best to remember the location, quietly counting the paces from the unmarked mass grave to the roadside.

He gathered from his fellow soldiers that they had just buried Afghanistan's first president, Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan, and his family. His assassination, during a Communist coup in those tumultuous days, precipitated three decades of war in Afghanistan, a succession of conflicts that are still not spent and that have since touched every Afghan family.

It took 30 years and the relative stability and freedom under President Hamid Karzai for the former officer, Pacha Mir, to reveal his secret. With his help and that of another witness, the government has at long last identified the remains of the former president and his family and announced preparations to reinter the bodies with a state funeral in coming weeks.

Daoud was the founder of the Republic of Afghanistan and a towering figure in the development of the modern state. He overthrew his own cousin, the last king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, in a coup in 1973, but it was his own assassination five years later that plunged the country into bloodshed and turmoil.

Daoud's funeral now will not only close one of the bloodiest chapters in Afghan history but also may bring some peace to his surviving relatives, some of whom were wounded in the shootings 30 years ago.

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