The young Afghan refugee, who stared from the cover of National Geographic in June 1985 was an enigma for 17 years.
But what was her name? Had she survived?
The Search For The Afghan Girl:
The Afghan Girl’s name was Sharbat Gula, and for seventeen years Photographer Steve McCurry was haunted by the beautiful face and mesmerising green eyes that he photographed in Afganistan in 1984. As he says, not a week goes by when someone didn’t ask about “The Afghan Girl.”
Steve McCurry finally decided that he had to try and find “the Afghan Girl” one more time and see what had happened to her. But the quest and journey turned out to be quite challenging and at times seemed as if it would be a failure.
Below are two videos that depict the journey that Steve McCurry and his crew took in their search for Sharbat. I’m so glad that they persevered, it’s an inspiring story.
Steve McCurry and the crew from National Geographic Television & Film searched for her methodically. They showed her photograph around a refugee camp in Pakistan where McCurry had encountered her as a schoolgirl in December 1984. Finally, after some false leads, a man who had also lived in the camp as a child recognised her. Yes, she was alive. She had left the camp many years before and was living in the mountainous Tora Bora along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He said he could find her, and three days later he and a friend brought her back to the camp.
Sharbat, of course, had no idea that her photograph was perhaps the most famous photograph in the world. She didn’t know that her eyes alone had mesmerised millions.
Her name, Sharbat Gula means sweetwater flower girl in the Pashto language of the Pashtun people. Many women share the name Gula; it shows the love of the citizens for flowers. But sadly, Shabat’s life did not live up to the suggested beauty of her stunning portrait or unusual name.
During the many years since Steve McCurry had first photographed her in a school tent in Afghanistan, Sharbat had lived a life filled with terror, fleeing back and forth across the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, dodging war and violence. As the world gazed upon her frozen idyllic photograph, she was living a brutal reality.
Ms Gula had lived a rural peasant life, and she now wore the hardship of the years on her unforgettable face. Her life story was one filled with fear and difficulty, always moving to avoid danger and terrorists due to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
When Sharbat was eight, her mother died of appendicitis. Then due to the never ending Soviet bombing, Sharbat, her father, four sisters and brother left her village and escaped to the mountains and hid in the caves. They eventually ended up in a refugee camp in Peshawar.
By arrangement, Sharbat was married at the age of thirteen and in total had six children. Sadly, one of her children died in infancy.
During her marriage, Sharbat lived alone with her children in the mountains during the summers due to her asthma while her husband worked for a dollar a day in Peshawar, Pakistan. Her daily existence was essential and often brutal.
This last update seemed like the conclusion of Sharbat’s moments of publicity, but surprisingly Sharbat’s image hit the media once again.
Sharbat Gula’s Return To The Media Spotlight:
Sharbat Gula was arrested in 2016 with two men, said to be her sons, in Peshawar, Pakistan because it was illegal for a non-Pakistani to possess an ID card.
The action was a “complete contradiction” of the Pakistan government’s efforts to “win hearts and minds” in Afghanistan and was criticised by Amnesty International.
Sharbat was held in jail in the north-west Pakistani city of Peshawar since her arrest which followed an investigation by the Federal Investigation Agency. The FIA accused her of possessing illegally obtained documents.
Judge Farah Jamshed said, “During her illegal stay in Pakistan, she twice misused her position by obtaining a Pakistani Computerized National Identity Card.”
The card recognises a person’s status as an “Afghan citizen temporarily residing in Pakistan.” This state allows the resident the right to support themselves and the fundamental human rights such as a means to earn money and find a residence with water. These rights would not be afforded to Sharbat if she returned to Afganistan.
Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s interior minister, did say that Pakistan would review her case because “she is a woman” and the government “should see it from a humanitarian angle.”
If Sharbat were to go back to Afganistan, she would face a life of dismal substandard living because returning Afghanistani residents become quarantined into camps. One such camp is situated in Char Rahi Qanbar, west of Kabul, and has more than a thousand families living in mud houses and tents. All residents are Afghan returnees from Pakistan and internally displaced persons.
The returnees from Pakistan started flooding the camps that were set up for internally displaced persons in Afghanistan who fled the war between the Taliban and the Western forces in their hometowns.
Sharbat’s arrest highlighted the desperate measures many Afghans were willing to take to avoid returning to their war-torn homeland as Pakistan cracked down on undocumented foreigners.
Pakistan had for decades provided a haven for millions of Afghans who fled their country after the Soviet invasion of 1979 and until recently the country had hosted up to 1.4 million Afghan refugees, according to UNHCR, making it the third-largest refugee hosting nation in the world. A further one million unregistered refugees were also believed to be in the country.
But since July 2016 hundreds of thousands have returned to Afghanistan in a desperate exodus amid fears of a crackdown, as Pakistan’s famed hospitality ran out.
Multiple media articles noted that the Pakistan government had stepped up its crackdown on Afghan refugees, insisting that many attacks in the country had links with Afghanistan and therefore the refugees must now go home.
Unfortunately, many Pakistanis hold hostility towards the Afghan population who are still refugees in their country after Russia’s invasion of their homeland. The Pakistani people believe that The Afghans have outstayed their welcome.
Photographer Steve McCurry, who took the famous photograph of Sharbat when she was 12-years-old in 1984 also raised concerns about her arrest and offered care and support.
Later in October, Steve McCurry said: “We urge the international community to speak out on her behalf and the millions of others who simply need a place to live without fear.”
Here is a video showing Steve McCurry discussing Sharbat Gula’s case. Via YouTube.
In the end, Mr McCurry’s concern and offer of help in Sharbat’s case were not needed or part of her release. Sharbat was released per the decision of Pakistan’s government and judicial system.
Sharbat Gula Returns To Her Native Country:
Upon her release, Sharbat Gula returned to her native country, Afghanistan, amid a flurry of media and a special welcome greeting from the current President, Ashraf Ghani. She also has a new apartment to live in with her children. All was supposed to be well.
But some unspoken questions hung in the air. Would everything have happened in the same fortuitous way if Sharbat had not been the face that launched one of the world’s most famous photographs in 1984? Would her new home have been in one of the atrocious camps that so many other Afghani refugees find themselves inhabiting, instead of an apartment, but for her former celebrity?
I wondered how Sharbat herself was processing all of these new and sudden changes? What thoughts were going through this shy, devout, Muslin woman’s mind as everything spun into action around her?
I realised that I would probably never know.
Here is the video of President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, greeting Sharbat Gula. Video Via YouTube
Disaster Strikes Again For Sharbat:
All seemed well, but only a few days after her controversial departure from Pakistan, an official statement from Afghanistan said that Sharbat Gula had Hepatitis C and would be travelling to India for treatment.
Just when The Afghan Girl was finally safe and in a new apartment with her children this latest sad news broke. It felt as if a bit my heart broke too.
On Twitter, Shaida Abdali, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, announced: “The Iconic Afghan Sharbat Gula will soon be in India for medical treatment free of cost.”
Sharbat, who is in her 40s, had apparently been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and was scheduled to travel to Bengaluru to receive treatment.
Hepatitis C treatment can often be a harsh and exhausting process. But I am glad to hear that she is receiving treatment and it will be free.
Sharbat Gula, The Afghan Girl’s Latest Update:
Sharbat Gula and her children are living comfortably in Pakistan. She has spoken about her gratitude for being safe and with her children. She is still receiving treatment for her hepatitis C.
Ms Gula’s husband and oldest daughter both died from hepatitis C a few years ago. Her oldest daughter left behind a two-month-old daughter.
Sharbat can write her name but not read so she is more confident now that her children can get an education. This has been a long-term dream of hers. She is hopeful for a happy future.
Author’s Notes: I first became interested in Sharbat Gula and her story in 2014 and started to follow her story. I have written about her and different episodes of her life a few times. You can check a few of them here.
For this updated post I wish to thank and give credit to the following sites for some of the images used. A number of them have been edited for this article. Many thanks for everyone’s generosity in sharing.
First, of course, Steve McCurry