It has been called the most famous photograph in the world. In her home country, the portrait is known as the Afghan Mona Lisa.
The haunted, piercing eyes that gaze at the camera display wariness and apprehension. She is young, but strikingly beautiful. Beneath the red shawl of her cloak, you can glimpse her coal-black hair.
Her image seizes your attention. It is a face that is not easily forgotten. Most of all, you are startled by those brilliant, lustrous green eyes.
Photojournalist Steven McCurry took the picture of the 12-year-old orphan in December of 1984. He found her in an Afghan refugee camp. She had just spent two weeks walking through the mountains to the camp after her village had been bombed by Soviet aircraft, and her family killed.
The camera captures the trauma of that harrowing journey.
It was also the first time she had ever been photographed.
When ‘the Afghan Girl” first appeared on the June, 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine, the issue drew global attention to the plight of refugees. Thousands of letters poured into the magazine –many offering donations to help the refugee cause. The photograph actually motivated people to volunteer to work in the refugee camps, and was responsible for National Geographic creating the Afghan Children’s Fund.
People wanted to know the identity of the Afghan Girl, and how they could help her.
Years passed. The image of the Afghan Girl appeared around the world on brochures and in campaign fundraisers for refugee relief.
Following 9/11 and Afghanistan’s reappearance in the news, interest in the Afghan Girl was reawakened. McCurry, captivated by her memory, decided to return to Afghanistan to see if he could find her.
Her name was unknown. National Geographic Television and Film, which sponsored McCurry’s quest, knew only the basic facts behind the photo. McCurry had found her, quite accidentally, in a school tent among the sprawling ocean of tents that was the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
But no one knew where she was currently living or, in fact, whether she had even survived the ensuing 17-years of endless conflict that has tormented the country and created millions more refugees.
Finding the Afghan Girl seemed an impossible task. Nobody knew her tribe, and the Nat Geo crew was armed only with a 17-year-old photograph.
They began their search at Nasir Bagh – the refugee camp still standing. Hundreds of images of the young girl were distributed throughout the camp. Several women, perhaps seeking fame and fortune, claimed to be the girl in the portrait.
A forensic team that included an iris-scanning technician proved they were not.
Weeks passed. Eventually, someone told the team that they thought they might know her brother. When he eventually arrived at the camp, the search team noted the same piercing, sea-green eyes. When the mission was explained to him, he agreed to go to her village and bring her to the Nat Geo crew. Three days later, McCurry was reunited with his Afghan Girl.
Her name is Sharbat Gula. She arrived from the mountain region of Tora Bora – the land that had once hidden Osama bin Laden. Seventeen years of a “hand to mouth,” hardscrabble existence had hardened her and robbed her of her youthful beauty. Her skin was described as looking like leather.
But those amazing eyes were undeniably those for which the team had been searching.
I was reminded of the story of the Afghan Girl by a recent update in Travel Industry Today, the online daily newsletter of Canada’s travel industry. Late last year, the devout Muslim woman was arrested in Pakistan for carrying a false Pakistani passport – a common practice among the millions of Afghan refugees living there. She faced 14 years in prison. She was raising four children at the time.
Her arrest seemed a targeted attack by the Pakistani government intended to strike fear into the hearts of millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.
Her arrest and the fame of McCurry’s portrait combined to elevate her to the attention of the Afghan nation, which rallied to her support. Once again, the Afghan Girl became a symbol of the homeless plight of her nation’s refugees.
But there was a happy ending. Last year, Sharbat Gula, now 45, was welcomed back to her native land in a ceremony at Afghanistan’s presidential palace. Her welcome was accompanied by the gift of a 3,000 square foot home and a monthly stipend for expenses.
The Afghan Girl is no longer homeless. Some photos, it appears, are worth far more than the proverbial thousand words.