The caretaker of Kabul: Afghan dedicated his life to guarding the embassy By Terri Judd Guardian Published: 22 August 2007 When British soldiers turned up at the embassy in Kabul following the fall of the Taliban, their path was blocked by an elderly Afghan gentleman. For 12 years, Zahoor Shah had tended the roses in the compound, hidden away the silver and barred fighters from entering. It took the British some hours before they could persuade him that the rightful owners had finally returned. By the time the new Charge d'Affaires Stephen Evans and his staff turned up the following day, Mr Shah was properly attired to welcome them. "I arrived on the afternoon of 19 November 2001. We came down the curving drive and pulled up at the entrance of the embassy. Mr Shah was at the top of the stairs, wearing his white coat with gold buttons and black trousers to greet us," said Mr Evans. He had found heating oil and the old grand table was set for dinner with the ambassadorial china, silver and crystal glasses. "From somewhere he had found a couple of bottles of wine and there were candles on the table," explained Mr Evans. Yesterday the current British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles paid tribute to Mr Shah after news that he had lost his battle with throat cancer. "We owe him an enormous debt for the loyalty and resilience he showed during the years of Taliban rule," he said. Nobody was entirely sure how old he was, though it is believed he had started life at the embassy as an eight- or nine-year-old ball-boy in the forties. Mr Evans, who returned as ambassador in 2006 until early 2007, remembered him as a gentle, courteous man who was proud of his job and his embassy. "Because he had worked for the embassy for so long he provided a continuity with the past when Afghanistan was essentially peaceful, before things went terribly wrong in the 1970s. He was someone who had stuck through the Soviet period, through the civil war, through the Taliban era and the later transition. He was very loyal," he added. The former Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon founded the embassy in Kabul in the 1920s declaring its ambassador should be the best-housed man in Asia. A large section of it was later passed to the Pakistanis but the smaller "hospital compound" was kept on. After the Soviet invasion, the mission was left with only a Charge d'Affaires and by 1989 the last diplomat had gone. Mr Shah and his team of six staff hid away the portraits of Queen Mary and King George VI, the gilded Wilton china service, the silver teapots and monogrammed tureens. They stood guard through the fiercest fighting, despite one of the staff being killed by a rocket in 1996, and slept in the gatehouse to repel intruders. The gatekeeper Sayed Afzal once kept a Taliban delegation at bay, informing them there was nothing left but "a few old tables and chairs". The British High Commission in Islamabad called regularly to make sure they were alright, while the odd intrepid visitor would drop by. Money for the upkeep was passed through the UN offices until the embassy reopened in November 2001. Nine months later, Mr Shah, along with Mr Afzal, was presented with a MBE for devotion to duty through so many years of conflict. At a traditional tea party on the lawn, to the sound of Highland piper, the men were honoured. "You have performed remarkable service over very many years," said the then ambassador Ron Nash. "You have worked faithfully to protect our embassy. There has been physical danger and war around you... and you have taken care of your possessions for many years when there were no British officials." When the embassy staff moved to new premises a couple of years ago, Mr Shah decided to retire. He developed throat cancer and had been very frail for months when he died on Saturday, surrounded by his extended family.