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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)

A lifeline diminished

“She’s as striking as the young girl I photographed 17 years ago,” McCurry said then. But it’s equally true that her face in 2002 told stories of even deepened sorrow and heartbreaking loss.

She is Pashtun, the most warlike of Afghan tribes, and there is a ferocity in those eyes that cannot be diminished. But it’s equally true that her face had been coarsened by the harsh mountainous winds, and that her chiseled features are now rounder, softer; she was a middle-aged woman at 28 or 30, her lifeline diminished by tragedy and her impossible struggle to survive.

With such dramatic changes to a recognizable young face, many might doubt Gula’s identity, but the experts were certain.

“I’m 100 percent sure this is the same person,” said Thomas Musheno, a forensic examiner for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who was commissioned to verify Gula’s identity through detailed facial comparison. John Daugman, a professor of computer science at Cambridge, compared irises from both photographs, which are even more singular than fingerprints, and he was convinced, too.

“She’s had a hard life,” said McCurry, not long after meeting her again. “So many here share her story.”

Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries. Wars continued after the Soviet invasion, and more than 1.5 million Afghans were killed, and 3.5 million displaced, in just one generation.  

“The photo in 1984 showed her dignity, innocence, heart, fortitude and perseverance,” says McCurry. “She humanized the true struggle for war refugees globally with no words spoken, simply her face.”

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – NOVEMBER 09: Afghan president Ashraf Ghani welcomes Sharbat Gula and her children at presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on November 9, 2016.. (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Gula was perhaps six or seven when her parents were killed; the daytime skies of her homeland rained destruction, while the nights were filled with keening as the honoured dead were buried. She escaped on foot during a cold winter with her grandmother, her brother and three sisters, hiding in caves whenever the bombs fell. Eventually, they crossed into Pakistan, living there in refugee camps, only returning to Afghanistan in the year before the film crew arrived.

As is common in Afghani culture, Gula married Rahmat Gul when she was a teenager. It was, her brother says, perhaps the only truly happy day in her life. She gave birth to four daughters by 2002 — Robina, Zahida, Alia, and a child who died in infancy, and she wanted them to have the education she had been denied.

McCurry was allowed to photograph her again for National Geographic after her husband offered his blessing. She remains a devout Muslim who had no idea that her countenance had been seen around the world, and that it had inspired thousand to donate to help refugees. She is the only person to grace the cover of this august magazine on two occasions.

A second superpower, another war

But soon after the serendipitous reunion with McCurdy, America and its allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, and Gula was once again forced from her home.

Once again, the Afghan Mona Lisa, as she has been called in her homeland, was lost to the west. Gula emerged again last year after she’d been arrested in Pakistan for using a fake passport, something refugees often resort to in a region where they have no legal status.

She was detained for two weeks, facing up to 14 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The Pakistani government, at odds with its Afghani counterparts, had made her a pawn in an effort to shame a foreign government.

“This woman is a symbol to Afghans and also a symbol to Pakistan,” says Heather Barr, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) who knows Afghani culture intimately. “The way she was paraded in front of the media by Pakistan felt like humiliation of the Afghan government: Here is this woman who had to flee your country for ours. The Afghanistan government responded by ostentatiously welcoming her back. The message was: We can take care of our own people.”

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