In Search of the Afghan Girl National Geographic

Author: Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

In 1985, American photographer Steve McCurry photographed a young Afghan girl in a refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan. His photograph featuring that anonymous school-girl’s innocent face then made it to the cover of the famous National Geographic magazine and became the haunting symbol of the plight of thousands of Afghan refugees, fleeing from their war-ravaged country and seeking shelter in neighbouring Pakistan. Through that photo, the girl’s bright see-green eyes told the world more about the senseless Afghan war than thousands of words put together. Those fiery eyes so eloquently spoke of Afghan refugees’ pain, fear, vulnerability and defiance.

Some 17 years later the photographer and the National Geographic undertook a mission of finding out that anonymous girl’s whereabouts. Not knowing any personal details about her, it was an exercise more difficult than finding a needle in the haystack. But McCurry took up that challenge. He arrived in Peshawar and with the help of a senior Pakistani journalist, he tracked down the refugee camp, which was soon to be demolished. They managed to find the girl’s teacher who was present on the day of that photograph. During this frantic trail, there were a number of false leads and disappointments but in the end, the team’s patience and perseverance did pay off.

McCurry’s Afghan informers managed to find out the girl- Sharbat Gul, now a woman- a mother of 4 children settled in Afghanistan. She never even knew that her image had become an international icon. It was a magical moment when Sharbat- married to a baker, removed her veil with her husband’s permission and let the veteran photographer capture her now darkened, aged beyond her years face! The sophisticated iris-match technology was then used to confirm that she was the same girl in the picture!

Sharbat’s story was heart-breaking. Having lost both her parents in a Soviet bombing, she had come to the Pakistani refugee camp. At the age of 13, she was married but lost her first daughter to illness. Now she stays with her children in Afghanistan’s remote corner, while her husband works in a bakery in Peshawar, Pakistan. While appealing for the world’s help to rebuild her war-destructed country, she philosophically accepted the danger still lurking around her and her family’s lives- “It’s God’s will whether He wishes to take us back or keep us alive!”

It is a remarkable documentary highlighting the endurance, resilience and


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