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Sharbat Gula: National Geographic’s ‘Afghan Girl’ Is Back in Afghanistan, Called ‘Afghan Mona Lisa’

After 30 years in refugee camps, National Geographic’s famed Afghan girl now has a home.
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U.S. photographer Steve McCurry poses next to his photos of the "Afghan Girl" named Sharbat Gula at the opening of the "Overwhelmed by Life" exhibition of his work at the Museum for Art and Trade in Hamburg, northern Germany on June 27, 2013. (ULRICH PERREY/AFP/Getty Images)

The light in her eyes hasn’t dimmed, despite a life of unspeakable hardship. But Sharbat Gula, perhaps the world’s most famous refugee, now has a home in Afghanistan.

The place where her story began.

For most people in the developed world, Gula may not be a household name, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t stared deeply into her emerald eyes — perfectly framed by a deep crimson headscarf — and become lost in her pain and suffering.

That’s because as a young girl, Gula became the face of the Afghan refugee crisis during the 10 year Soviet invasion of this isolated, rugged, mountainous country.

She was the young girl who inspired the most iconic National Geographic cover ever published. As the “Afghan Girl,” her beautiful, tragic face, burnished and brushed by cares, already infused with fear, inspired a generation of photographers. Even people born years after the famous June 1985 issue graced newsstands will have no difficulty conjuring her indelible visage.

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Afghan Girl/Steve McCurry (via cea +/Flickr)

The irony, of course, in this age of social media and viral messaging, is that her original fame was matched only by her anonymity.

The first 15 photographs

In the tumult of any refugee crisis, pandemonium is the way of things. Soon after capturing the image of a lifetime, photographer Steve McCurry lost track of the Afghan girl. She was just one of hundreds of thousands fleeing a war-ravaged, bombed-out countryside and, as one of the magazine’s most celebrated photographers, he had planes to catch, other assignments to chronicle.

And so an unforgettable face passed out of western knowledge, all but forgotten. The miracle of the photograph — the first ever taken of Gula — became legendary in photography circles. It had been captured at the end of a long day in an overlooked corner of the world, yet Gula and McCurry remember exactly what they felt at the time as if it were yesterday.

McCurry went into a large tent doubling as a classroom and noticed Gula immediately. But sensing shyness or wariness, he photographed other children first. Then, mesmerized by her eyes, he asked for permission to take a few photos.

Gula acquiesced and, as the camera clicked and the film advanced, McCurry thought that this image would be no different from hundreds of others shot that day — dramatic, but hardly National Geographic quality. Gula felt a flash of anger when she realized this white man’s boldness. In such a traditional country, framing her face on film felt intimate, and she wanted to stop his intrusion into her life filled with pain and sorrow.

After 15 shots, he stopped to change film. When he turned, the Afghan girl had vanished.

The search for the Afghan Mona Lisa

Had the photograph been ordinary, that would have been the end of it. She would have disappeared into the rising sea of people displaced by war, unaware that her face was even more famous than Helen of Troy’s, which was deemed capable of launching a thousand ships.

But the good editors at National Geographic couldn’t let that be the final word. In 2002, McCurry and a television crew were dispatched to the Nasir Bagh refugee camps still standing near Peshawar, Pakistan where he first found Gula. No one was sure if she even still lived. Armed with several of his photographs of the adolescent girl, age unknown, they pulled on many threads, and spoke to people far and wide, without success. Finally, they found a man living in the camp who had grown up with Gula, and he said that he knew where to find her.

This man headed off into a dangerous mountainous region known as Tora Bora, returning in three days with the woman the world knew — older and careworn, but unmistakable.

Sharbat Gula had been found.

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