By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Policeman Abdul Sameh drew his gun when he saw a suicide bomber approaching the Kabul base he was paid to protect. They fired at each other and Sameh brought down his man, but took a bullet to the head himself. The shot was fatal.
Hundreds of Afghan police officers are killed each year, but Sameh's self-sacrificing heroism in the line of duty was rare.
Many Afghans are deeply cynical about the fast-growing police force, often decried as corrupt and inept. Police posts, the first line of defense against militant attacks in rural areas, are often easily overrun by better-armed, more committed insurgents.
So since Sameh's death last month, government officials have been queuing up to associate themselves with his memory, and to use him as an example of how they want the police to be seen.
Posters of the slain policeman have been printed and stuck up on the road leading to the Interior Ministry and around the ministry building in Kabul, great parts of which are under constant surveillance by armed guards, and where the memory of September's assault by rocket-firing insurgents is fresh.
"This is part of a campaign for us to promote the image of the police force among the public," a senior police official said at the weekend, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We mention these rare acts of heroism whenever we can."
The deputy interior minister helped pay for Sameh's burial, the governor of his home province Wardak gave the family a plot of land, and officers at the national intelligence agency donated a month's salary to his family.
In a statement from the presidential palace, President Hamid Karzai offered land to the families of shot police officers, and praised the heroism of three other police who were killed on the same day as Sameh.
Winning the confidence of the public is critical at a time when violence is at record levels and foreign forces have already started a security handover in parts of the country before a full withdrawal of foreign combat troops by late 2014.
"Sameh is a hero, I hope the government help his family and respect his sacrifice," said Mohammad Gul, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul city.
"This was a brave act by a single officer. If there were other officers like Sameh, people would trust their government and their security forces," he said.
The public show of support for his family may also help convince ordinary Afghans that they are not risking poverty by having a breadwinner on the frontline.
The relatives of others killed in the line of duty are unlikely to do as well in life or death.
The country lacks proper programs to provide for dependents and, as an elite policeman, Saleh earned 15,000 Afghanis ($300) a month, around three times the average salary.
According to one police official, most of the families of those killed in the line of duty get only 100,000 Afghanis, handed over to the family when they pick up their loved one's corpse for burial.
"Sameh's case is exceptional, there are tens of thousands of people who have lost their loved ones in the line of duty but received little assistance," the official said.
(Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Paul Tait)