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Afghan Girl From Famed Photo 3 Decades Ago Is Jailed In Pakistan

Oct 27, 2016
Originally published on October 27, 2016 5:25 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is easily the most famous image to come out of the wars in Afghanistan, a young girl gazing out under a dark red veil at the camera of a National Geographic photographer. It was 1984. That girl is now a woman in her 40s, and she's in trouble in Pakistan. In fact, she's in jail as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: No one who sees the "Afghan Girl" photograph ever forgets it. It's not just those extraordinary green eyes. It's her hostile stare. It's that of a child who knows much hardship lies ahead. She was right. Sharbat Gula was about 12 when her picture was taken. She had fled Afghanistan after the Soviets invaded, killing her parents in an airstrike. Photographer Steve McCurry stumbled across her in a refugee camp in northwest Pakistan. He spoke with NPR last year.

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STEVE MCCURRY: I noticed this one little girl with these incredible eyes, and I instantly knew that this was really the only picture I wanted to take.

REEVES: McCurry says Gula at first covered her face. But a teacher intervened.

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MCCURRY: And the teacher said no, no, you should let him photograph you because it's important for the world to know our story.

REEVES: That story is still going on. Gula is one of several million Afghans in Pakistan who've sought refuge from war back home. Most are registered refugees, but many are undocumented. Gula is accused of having forged ID papers. That's why she was arrested. Pakistan's government has previously set deadlines for the Afghans' repatriation and then postponed these. Now there's a new deadline, next spring. This time, it seems more serious.

The United Nations says there's already a big surge in Afghans returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan. Fifty thousand crossed in one week alone. A rise in the small grant paid to returning refugees may be a factor, but Afghans say they're constantly harassed by the Pakistani police. They say the mood towards them changed when militants massacred around 130 Pakistani schoolkids in 2014. Afghans were suspected of harboring terrorists. Reports began to circulate of Afghans being hounded out of jobs and homes and refused ID papers.

In fact, many of these Afghans were born in Pakistan or haven't lived in their homeland since the Soviets were there. U.N. officials worry about what will happen to them in Afghanistan. They warn of a humanitarian disaster after winter begins. The Afghan girl is now in jail in the city of Peshawar. She could be imprisoned for up to seven years if convicted. Many people, including Pakistanis, want the authorities to drop her case. But it's just one part of a much bigger tragedy.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.