The subject of one of the world’s most famous photographs, a green-eyed young woman first known as the “Afghan Girl,” has returned home to Afghanistan after years of living as an illegal refugee in Pakistan.
Sharbat Gula became a symbol of Afghanistan’s troubles as a young teen, when a National Geographic cover put her haunted green eyes on coffee tables across the country. She was deported overnight from Pakistan, after being arrested last month for illegal residence in Pakistan, where she had lived with her children for years.
Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani welcomed Gula home on Wednesday during a ceremony at the palace in Kabul.
"The woman who stands next to me became an iconic figure representing Afghan deprivation, Afghan hope and Afghan aspirations," President Ghani said, according to Reuters. "All of us are inspired by her courage and determination.”
Gula became famous in 1985, when she was about 12, after photographer Steve McCurry captured her troubled visage during a trip to document Afghani refugees, many of whom fled the country due to the turbulence created by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
“We left Afghanistan because of the fighting,” her brother, Kashar Khan, told National Geographic in 2002. “The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice.”
Gula and her siblings left the country after their parents were killed by Soviet bombs, walking many freezing miles through Afghanistan’s snowy mountains in order to get to Pakistan.
They were just a handful of the many Afghani refugees who migrated to Pakistan due to turbulence at home. Now, Pakistan is taking steps to return those refugees to Afghanistan, despite Afghanistan’s own ongoing problems. Mr. Ghani is currently in the midst of trying to broker a peace deal between the government and the Taliban, after signing a draft of a peace deal in September.
Although Afghanistan will likely have a difficult time caring for the potential influx of approximately 2.5 million refugees, Afghanistan’s president says that he welcomes their return.
"I've said repeatedly, and I like to repeat it again, that our country is incomplete until we absorb all of our refugees," Ghani said.
Gula is accompanied by her children; her husband passed away several years ago. In 2002, she told National Geographic that she hopes that her daughters have the chance to become educated, an opportunity that she never had.
“I want my daughters to have skills,” she said. “I wanted to finish school but could not. I was sorry when I had to leave.”
Ghani says that he will provide Gula with an apartment so that she can live with “dignity and security” in Afghanistan, after her arrest and deportation in Pakistan for illegal residence and falsifying legal documents. Since the arrest, she had been receiving care in a hospital.
The “Afghan girl” told press that she was happy to come home, and that she wanted to return to her hometown, underscoring the challenges of refugees not only in Afghanistan, but worldwide.
"I want to go back to Afghanistan, to my hometown," Gula told CNN. " I don't want to go anywhere but Afghanistan."