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National Geographic's 'Afghan Girl' Becomes Face Of Plight Of Afghan Refugees In Pakistan

  • Frud Bezhan

Since her arrest by Pakistani authorities last month on document-fraud charges, Sharbat Gula has come to embody the plight of the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Since her arrest by Pakistani authorities last month on document-fraud charges, Sharbat Gula has come to embody the plight of the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Sharbat Gula was immortalized as the green-eyed "Afghan girl" after she appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine 30 years ago.

Her haunting gaze -- captured in a Pakistani refugee camp by American photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 -- became an iconic symbol of the horrors of a Soviet occupation that killed or uprooted millions of Afghans.

Now a widow in her 40s, Gula has become the face of another struggle. Since her arrest by Pakistani authorities last month on document-fraud charges, the mother of four has come to embody the plight of the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Activists warn that Gula and other hapless Afghans trying to escape war and hardship at home face apathy in the international community and mistreatment by authorities in the region.

In July, the government in Islamabad began a crackdown on the estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the second-largest refugee population in the world. The United Nations said more than 350,000 Afghan refugees -- documented and undocumented -- have returned to their homeland claiming to have been beaten by police, detained, and evicted from their homes in Pakistan.

'Poster Child For Desperation'

"She's become the poster child for the desperate situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan," says Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher on Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch. "She is just one of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who are facing abuses by the Pakistani authorities. Basically, [they're] being compelled to return to a very uncertain future in Afghanistan."

Gossman is hopeful the widespread coverage that Gula's arrest has garnered in the media can help bring attention to the plight of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. "It's incredible that it has been allowed to happen on this scale with so little concern around the world," she says.

Her haunting gaze -- captured in a Pakistani refugee camp by American photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 -- became an iconic symbol of the horrors of a Soviet occupation that killed or uprooted millions of Afghans.

Her haunting gaze -- captured in a Pakistani refugee camp by American photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 -- became an iconic symbol of the horrors of a Soviet occupation that killed or uprooted millions of Afghans.

Photographer McCurry has hired a lawyer for Gula, who he says Pakistani authorities may have singled out because she is well-known. He has promised to do "everything and anything" to secure her release.

"Sharbat Gula has been the symbol of refugees for decades," McCurry wrote on Instagram on November 2. "Now she has become the face of unwanted migrants."

Jailed In Pakistan

Gula has been held in jail in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar since her arrest on October 26 for allegedly forging documents to get Pakistani nationality.

A special court for anticorruption and immigration denied her bail on November 2, saying her application for release focused on humanitarian, not legal, arguments.

Afghanistan's ambassador in Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, said Gula, who suffers from hepatitis, was hospitalized for treatment the same day.

"The arrest of Sharbat Gula...had already hurt feelings of all Afghans," Zakhilwal wrote in a post on Facebook on November 2. "Today's ruling was a further disregard to those feelings."

Zakhilwal said Gula's Pakistani identification document was neither "fake or obtained fraudulently." He said Pakistan's National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) issued her an ID "as per its normal process years ago."

Afghan Consul-General Abdul Waheed Poyan (right) talks with Sharbat Gula in a hospital in Peshawar on November 2.

Afghan Consul-General Abdul Waheed Poyan (right) talks with Sharbat Gula in a hospital in Peshawar on November 2.

Gula's brother-in-law, Shahshad Khan, has said she is not a refugee but a legal Pakistani resident because she was married to his brother, Rahmat Khan, who was born in Pakistan and died five years ago.

Gula faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted of fraud, though it is more common for Afghan refugees to be deported than to serve time in prison.

Her arrest came after a two-year investigation. She allegedly applied for an ID card in April 2014, using the name Sharbat Bibi.

It has been illegal for non-Pakistanis to have national IDs since they were first issued in the 1970s, but the law was not enforced until a crackdown began in recent months.

Desperate Measures

Gula is just one of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees taking desperate measures to avoid returning to their homeland, where extreme poverty is rife and security is deteriorating further against a backdrop of decades of war.

The United Nations and the Afghan government have pleaded with Islamabad to extend the March 2017 deadline it has set for the return of all Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan. Kabul says its resources are overstretched and that it cannot accommodate such a large number of returnees so quickly.

Since 2009, Islamabad has repeatedly pushed back a deadline for Afghan refugees to return, but fears are growing that the latest cutoff date will be final.

European Union officials have also reportedly been pressing Afghan authorities to accept returnees from among the many thousands of Afghan nationals seeking refuge in Europe, part of the biggest influx of migrants to the continent since World War II.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org

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