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Refugees + Immigration

‘Afghan Girl’ in 1985 National Geographic Photo Is Arrested in Pakistan

By Christine Hauser and Ismail Khanoct. 26, 2016


An Afghan woman whose photograph as a young refugee with piercing green eyes was published on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, becoming a symbol of the turmoil of war in Afghanistan, was arrested on Wednesday in Pakistan on charges of fraudulently obtaining national identity cards.

The woman, Sharbat Gula, was arrested at her residence in the northwestern city of Peshawar after more than a year of investigation, said Shahid Ilyas, the assistant director of the Federal Investigation Authority.

“We raided the house and picked her up,” he said. “It took us a while to collect all the evidence against her, and the officials involved in helping her and her two sons get Pakistani national identity cards.”

He added, “We have the evidence now, and we are going to go for prosecution.”

The arrest came as the Pakistani authorities were cracking down on Afghans with illegal national identity cards. The authorities said Ms. Gula had illegally obtained a Pakistani identity card in 1988 and a computerized identity card in 2014, while retaining her Afghan passport, which she used in 2014 to travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj.

She faces up to 14 years in prison and a fine of $3,000 to $5,000 if she is convicted, according to the Dawn news agency.

Her arrest goes to the heart of an ordeal confronting many Afghan refugees who fled across the border into Pakistan because of decades of war. The Pakistani crackdown on Afghans appears to have intensified since May, when the former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was killed in a drone strike in Baluchistan Province.

He had been traveling with forged Pakistani documents, officials said.

Gerry Simpson, a senior researcher and advocate for the Refugee Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, wrote online that 1.5 million Afghans in Pakistan have received “proof of registration” cards, which protected them from deportation. About one million more who did not get the paperwork resorted to using false identity cards. Mr. Simpson wrote that Pakistan was now on a mission to repatriate all Afghans.

The Pakistani authorities have revoked or blocked thousands of national identity cards illegally obtained by foreigners. Ms. Gula, who is believed to be in her 40s, was caught up in that dragnet when she was arrested. A court said on Wednesday that she could be kept in custody for two days while the authorities investigated.

Ms. Gula was known as “the Afghan girl” when Steve McCurry’s photograph of her wearing a red scarf and staring directly at the camera became world famous in the ’80s. After the United States invaded Afghanistan, the photographer searched in 2002 for the schoolgirl he had photographed in a Pakistani refugee camp.

He found her in the mountains of Afghanistan and put a name to the face.

Mr. McCurry said in a statement on Wednesday that he had been informed of the arrest through a friend and was trying to find out more. “I am committed to doing anything and everything possible to provide legal and financial support for her and her family,” he said.

“We object to this action by the authorities in the strongest possible terms,” he said. “She has suffered throughout her entire life, and we believe that her arrest is an egregious violation of her human rights.”

According to the 2002 National Geographic article about Mr. McCurry’s journey to find Ms. Gula, her exact age in the refugee camp had been unknown at the time because there were no records, but she was believed to have been 12.

When he went back to look for her, she had returned to the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. He discovered that she belonged to the Pashtun ethnic group, and that she had returned to her village in Afghanistan during a lull in the fighting.

She agreed to be photographed again because her husband told her it would be proper, he said.

The magazine article described the adult Ms. Gula: “Time and hardship had erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened.”


Christine Hauser reported from New York and Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan. Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

See article from source: NY Times: Afghan Woman in Famed National Geographic Photo is Arrested in Pakistan


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