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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thirty years after her green eye catapulted her to fame ~ the Afghan refugee in news

The oft repeated  adage "A picture is worth a thousand words" refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image. This phrase is widely attributed to Frederick R. Barnard, who published a piece commending the effectiveness of graphics in advertising with the title "One look is worth a thousand words", in Printer's Ink, December 1921.

National Geographic  is the official magazine of the National Geographic Society being published since 1888.  The magazine is known for its thick square-bound glossy format with a yellow rectangular border and its extensive use of dramatic photographs.  This famed magazine has published almost 1,500 covers;  the first colour cover appeared in  1959. The cover of National Geographic magazine opens the door to adventure and broadens horizons.  Every cover has a story behind the story. It may be a tale of creative initiative, or of working in dicey circumstances, or of the kind of luck that goes hand in hand with years of experience and wisdom.

Three decades ago, a woman became an icon through such a photo – it was  Sharbat Gula, a symbol of Pakistani hostility towards refugees from Afghanistan.  The current Afghan government is in a very vulnerable situation both economically and politically. If roughly two millions refugees are pushed back the Afghan government will have a major crisis on its hands – things were not far different.  Years later, she was to reveal that she was very angry when the photo was taken.   The man was a stranger. She had never been photographed before. Until they met again 17 years later, she had not been photographed since. The photographer remembers the moment too. The light was soft. The refugee camp in Pakistan was a sea of tents. Inside the school tent he noticed her first. Sensing her shyness, he approached her last. She told him he could take her picture. “I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day,” he recalls of that morning in 1984 spent documenting the ordeal of Afghanistan’s refugees.

The portrait by Steve McCurry turned out to be one of those images that sears the heart, and in June 1985 it ran on the cover of this magazine. Her eyes were sea green. They are haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war. She became known around National Geographic as the “Afghan girl,” and for 17 years no one knew her name.  In 2002,  a  team from National Geographic Television & Film’s EXPLORER brought McCurry to Pakistan to search for the girl with green eyes. He was shown some but did not agree to be her.   Then came the news that the woman had returned to Afghanistan years ago, and now lived in the mountains near Tora Bora with her children.  He met her again – and it was revealed that her name was  Sharbat Gula, a Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity.  Time and hardship had erased her youth.  Between the two meetings - 23 years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees:  that was stated to be the story of Afghanistan in the last quarter century.

She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day the sky bled terror. At night the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, stabbing her with dread. As with many families, their family too left Afghanistan, moving through mountains covered in snow, begging for blankets to keep warm.  In the mid-1990s, during a lull in the fighting, Sharbat Gula went home to her village in the foothills of mountains veiled by snow.

Now 30 years  after her green eyes made that  photograph one of the world's most famous portraits, Afghan refugee's face is seen again… at the centre of Pakistani corruption row !  ~ a recent picture of Gula, looking less striking, is washing around in a row about corruption in Pakistan. She’s  being investigated because Pakistani officials discovered she was living in the country on fraudulent identity papers. This week the picture from her computerised national identity card surfaced in national media. It's an ID card that as an Afghan national, she's not allowed to have.  Pakistani officials say that Gula applied for a Pakistani identity card in the northwestern city of Peshawar in April 2014, using the name Sharbat Bibi. She possesses computerised national identity card (CNIC), a vital document that she should not have been able to acquire as a foreign national.  That underlies the corruption that riddles much of Government.

The officials state that many Afghan refugees try to get Pakistani ID cards every day using fake documents.  They claim that around 23,000 cards of Afghan refugees were detected and blocked' in the 12 years since NADRA was launched.  In her official registration with NADRA, Gula said she was born in January 1969 and gave Peshawar as her place of birth. The photo attached to the application has the same piercing green eyes and the same sculpted face seen in McCurry's famous image only older, lined by age and surrounded by a black hijab covering her hair completely.

Afghans can  buy property, open a bank account and be confident they will be able to remain indefinitely in a country that wants rid of its refugee population by having a CNIC, usually acquired with fake documents and bribes. The problem of illegal immigrants haunts our neighbour too, just as it bewilders us.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
27th Feb 2015.


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