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Sharbat Gula: 20 years without even one day of happiness

A brown, threadbare headscarf over her hair, her copper-coloured skin and those strikingly green, frightened and inquisitive eyes made her the face of Afghan refugees.


Photo: Pixabay

Yanet Medina Navarro *



In 1985, her photo became one of National Geographic’s historic covers and that 12-year-old rural girl became the Mona Lisa of contemporary visual arts because of her haunting gaze.

The American photographer, Steve McCurry, captured the snapshot in 1984 at a refugee camp in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

Gula fled the war and left the country after losing her parents in a bombing. At that time, large parts of Afghanistan were being torn apart by clan rivalries, united by their ethnic group, sect or political ideology.

A year later, McCurry’s image became popular as one of the icons of the twentieth century and what’s more, put a face to the story of Afghans emigrating to neighbours Pakistan and Iran.

Two decades later, McCurry found Gula in Peshawar through the Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. She was already at that time the wife of a baker and mother of five, although one of her children did not survive infancy.

The second snapshot, published in 2002, showed a sorrowful face, marked by the harshness of the climate and the continuous pregnancies.

This time, her hair remained hidden under a blue burka. The colour of her eyes was all that remained of her rustic beauty.

When McCurry met Gula again, the Afghan’s family told National Geographic that, in the almost 20 years that had passed, she had not been happy, not even for one day.

Many refugees put down roots in Pakistan and some even ventured back to their country, but the civil war, and then the American invasion, ruined their plans and they returned to exile.

At present, Afghans, with eyes full of pain, witness the unstoppable climate of violence and the consequences, including the situation of refugees.

Gula’s third public appearance was only a month ago. This time, the essential photo was taken at the police station where she and her children were detained for 15 days for possession of false documents.

After the Islamabad ultimatum to deport all Afghans settled there, many refugees bribe local officials to obtain Pakistani documents.

In the police file, Gula, 42, peers out of her widow’s clothes and wears a brown burka folded back to show her face. Suffering from Hepatitis C, and with the scars of exile on her skin, ‘the Afghan Girl’ returns to her no-man’s land after almost four decades, where even the accent is barely familiar to her.

The message is very clear: Afghan refugees are no longer welcome and the border crossing is only the beginning of their ordeal.

The deportees will go to the penniless refugee camps, where canvas tents defy the bare earth. There, in the heart of Central Asia, at the foot of the Hindu Kush worry grows with the arrival of winter.

Since 1979, after the conflict between communist-led government and orthodox Islamic-based militias, Pakistan has opened its doors to 1.4 million refugees while about 900 thousand have remained in a semi-illegal situation.

More than half a million of them have returned to Afghanistan so far this year, forced to leave the host country for allegedly harbouring cells of the Taliban movement within the community.

The ‘Mona Lisa’ was welcomed by the President, Ashraf Ghani, and the First Lady, Rula, in a small palace in Kabul. They promised her a house, a foundation in her name and everyone applauded.

To avoid disturbing the ouroboro (the eternal cycle of things), however, the serpent bit its tail once again. Within two weeks, headlines circulated that 20 children had died of hypothermia in a refugee camp.

The myth of Sisyphus is fulfilled once again, and just as Prometheus pushed a boulder up the mountain every day, the Afghans will put down roots until another war displaces them. (PL)

*Journalist of the Asia and Oceania Editorial Department

(Translated by Rachel Hatt – Email:

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