Afghanistan’s president on Wednesday (November 9) welcomed back Sharbat Gula, the green-eyed woman immortalised on a National Geographic cover, after she was deported from Pakistan to the war-torn homeland she first fled decades ago.
Pakistani officials handed over Gula, whose haunting eyes were captured in a cover photo taken in a refugee camp in the 1980s, to Afghan border authorities after escorting her from a Peshawar hospital where she was being treated for Hepatitis C.
Gula, arguably Afghanistan’s most famous refugee, was arrested last month for living in Pakistan on fraudulent identity papers.
“Pleased to have welcomed Sharbat Gula & her family back to (Afghanistan),” president Ashraf Ghani said on Twitter. “Her life inspires us all. She represents all the brave women of this land.”
The president and first lady Rula Ghani honoured Gula and her children at a ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul.
Ghani has promised to provide Gula, 45, with a furnished apartment to ensure she “lives with dignity and security” in Afghanistan.
Gula, wearing a blue burqa that was pulled back to show her face, did not comment during the ceremony, which her children also attended.
Speaking to reporters last week in Pakistan, Gula said she was “heartbroken” at the prospect of returning.
“Afghanistan is only my birthplace, but Pakistan was my homeland and I always considered it as my own country,” she said.
“I had decided to live and die in Pakistan, but they did the worst thing with me. It’s not my fault that I born there (in Afghanistan). I am dejected. I have no other option but to leave.”
Gula was, for years an unnamed celebrity, after an image of her as a teenage Afghan refugee was featured on National Geographic magazine’s cover in 1985, her striking green eyes peering out from a headscarf with a mixture of ferocity and pain.
After the Taliban regime fell to the US-backed military action in 2001, National Geographic sent photographer Steve McCurry to find the girl in the photograph, eventually identified as Gula.
Gula said she first arrived in Pakistan an orphan, some four or five years after the Soviet invasion of 1979, one of millions of Afghans who have sought refuge over the border since.
Since July hundreds of thousands have returned to Afghanistan in a desperate exodus amid fears of a crackdown, ahead of a March 2017 deadline for the final return of all Afghan refugees.
Last month UNHCR said more than 350,000 Afghan refugees – documented and undocumented – had returned from Pakistan so far in 2016, adding it expects a further 450,000 to do so by the year’s end. (AFP, Reuters)