Three Decades After National Geographic's Green-Eyed 'Afghan Girl' Became Its Most Famous Cover, Its Subject Is in Jail

It has been days since the most famous female Afghan refugee in the world was free. Sharbat Gula, whose photograph as a young refugee with luminous green eyes was published on the cover of National Geographic in 1986, making her a worldwide sensation and a symbol of her nation’s suffering, was arrested this month in Peshawar, Pakistan on charges of fraudulently obtaining national identity cards.


Despite appeals from Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan and Steve McCurry, the photographer who made Gula famous, the Afghan woman is languishing in jail and awaiting possible deportation. While many observers concern themselves with Gula’s fate, just a few are wondering why she still is a refugee—and what the Pakistani government is actually doing with the Afghan refugees in its midst.  

At least 2.5 million unregistered Afghan refugees are facing deportation from Pakistan, where the authorities see them as a security threat. Most of them have lived in the country for decades. During the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, many Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan, and according to recent reports, at least 5,000 Afghan refugees are forcibly returned to their war-torn home country each day. This is also one of the reasons Afghanistan is facing an inner refugee crisis at the moment which is widely ignored by Western countries. The returnees from Pakistan aside, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country is growing: About 3.7 million people are living in IDP camps in Afghanistan.

According to the U.N., civilian casualties in Afghanistan have reached a new peak since the beginning of the census in 2009. Between January 1 and September 30, 2016, at least 2,562 civilians have been killed and 5,835 more have injured.

For many Afghans, Pakistan is mainly responsible for the war and destruction of the past decades. Since the 1970s, Islamabad has been active in arming and training various Afghan insurgent groups. In 2001, Pakistan was one of the main partners of the United States' so-called war on terror. However, Washington's main target and its underlying reason for the war—Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden—was found hiding in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, just a few miles away from Islamabad. The city was known as highly secured by the military. For obvious reasons, Bin Laden’s discovery right under the nose of Pakistan’s military-intelligence apparatus presented the country with a massive public relations crisis.

Until 2002, Sharbat Gula's identity was unknown. When her picture became famous over the world, even her photographer, McCurry, knew little about the green-eyed "Afghan Girl." This changed when McCurry traveled to Afghanistan and found her near Kabul.

McCurry, for his part, had not only become famous but rich, thanks to his photograph of Gula. Though he is widely renowned for drawing attention to the situation of Afghan refugees, recent events cast the episode in a troubling light. Gula still belongs to the ranks of the doomed. Her momentary fame failed to lift her from her status among the displaced millions. McCurry was the one who earned the spotlight, basking in fame, while Gula disappeared.

When McCurry returned to the scene of his photo 17 years later, the country faced one of the worst military interventions of the 21st century. Again, Afghans were struggling with deprivation and were forced to flee from bombs. Unlike McCurry, they couldn’t leave the hell that had been once again imposed on them from the outside.

This October, the European Union signed a deal with the Afghan government that allows the deportation of an unlimited number of Afghan refugees. Seven months prior, a leaked document revealed that the EU was planning to deport at least 80,000 Afghans whose asylum requests have been rejected. The most powerful European states, especially Germany and the United Kingdom, are mainly responsible for the ongoing misery in Afghanistan, and by extension, the generation of tens of thousands of refugees—a fact that is usually left out of debates on Europe’s refugee crisis.

Gula's case has become a perfect symbol of the West’s understanding of Afghanistan. Afghans are considered an exotic variety of the subaltern, a perfect subject for journalistic profiles, conflict photography and “on the ground” documentaries. But in the end, the people melt away into a faceless mass while the focus of the story turns to some Western expat who became an "Afghanistan expert" after living in Kabul or elsewhere for some time.

Three decades after the National Geographic cover with Gula became famous, nothing has changed. The "Afghan Girl" is still a refugee and her country is still a war-torn dystopia. And like many other Afghans, her life has not changed because a Western stranger took a picture of her, wrote about her or mentioned her in a documentary. The complexity of Afghan lives, the richness of their stories and the painful reality of their destinies, are at best footnotes to the cover of a magazine.

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