Pakistan deports National Geographic’s ‘Afghan Girl’
Peshawar, Pakistan — Afghanistan’s president on Wednesday welcomed home Sharbat Gulla, National Geographic’s famed green-eyed “Afghan Girl,” just hours after she was deported from Pakistan, the latest in the odyssey of the globally recognized refugee.
Gulla’s deportation came after a regional court in the Pakistani city of Peshawar convicted her on charges of carrying a forged Pakistani ID card and staying in the country illegally.
The case has drawn international attention and criticism of Pakistani authorities over their perceived harsh treatment of Gulla — and other Afghans who Islamabad says will be expelled as illegal immigrants.
Gulla gained international fame as an Afghan refugee girl in 1984, when war photographer Steve McCurry’s photograph of her, with piercing green eyes, was published on National Geographic’s cover. McCurry found her again in 2002.
In 2014, she went into hiding after authorities accused her of buying fake Pakistani documents. She was arrested in late October and the Peshawar court earlier this month ordered her deported.
Earlier Wednesday, Gulla and her four children were handed over to Afghan authorities at the Torkham border crossing, about 37 miles northwest Peshawar.
From there she was flown to Kabul where President Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula hosted a reception for Gulla at the presidential palace. Ghani also handed her keys to a fully-furnished apartment.
“As a child, she captured the hearts of millions because she was the symbol of displacement,” Ghani said of Gulla. “The enormous beauty, the enormous energy that she projected from her face captured hearts and became one of the most famous photographs of the 1980s and up until the 1990s.”
“It is a privilege for me to welcome her. We are proud to see that she lives with dignity and with security in her homeland,” Ghani said.
Peshawar official Fayaz Khan said Gulla, a widow, and her children were taken by convoy to the border with Afghanistan before dawn Wednesday.
She looked visibly unhappy and before crossing, turned once to look back at Pakistan, her home of many years, and murmured good wishes for the Pakistani people, according to two customs officials at the scene. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
After the Peshawar court sentenced Gulla to 15 days in jail and a fine of $1,000, she fell ill and was admitted to the city’s Lady Reading hospital.
The hospital staff gave Gulla a bouquet of red roses as she was taken away Wednesday, said Dr Mukhtiar Zaman, who described her as still being weak from her illness.
Around 3 million Afghans live in Pakistan, most of them as refugees who fled over the almost 40 years of continuous conflict. Pakistan recently stepped up their expulsions, forcing tens of thousands across the border into Afghanistan, where many find themselves rootless after so many years of exile.