On the cover of the July 1985 edition of National Geographic Magazine there was a picture of a hauntingly beautiful Afghan girl with striking green eyes. The picture was taken by award-winning photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 as he was passing through a refugee camp near Peshawar in Pakistan, and saw her in a school for girls there. She had an expression of inner strength in spite of enduring great hardship, and her image had become an enduring symbol of the suffering of the people of Afghanistan through all those years of war. Her face inspired many to come to Afghanistan and Pakistan to give their aid to the refugees of a suffering nation.
After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the world's eyes turned to Afghanistan, as the lair of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, which were widely believed to be behind the attacks. McCurry was no exception, but his thoughts turned to the young girl whose picture he took 17 years ago, not for the first time. He made several trips back to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the years since to find her again, but had been unsuccessful. Soon after the attacks, the National Geographic Society sponsored one last concerted effort to find her. Learning that the refugee camp where her picture was taken was about to be destroyed added to the sense of urgency in their mission.
After a few false leads, including a woman who looked so remarkably like the Afghan Girl but subsequent tests showed wasn't her, against all odds they found a man who had the same kind of striking green eyes who claimed to be her brother, Kashar Khan, who led the team to her.
The name of the "girl" (who is now a woman of some 30 years of age) turned out to be Sharbat Gula. The team interviewed her and learned her story after receiving permission from her husband, as she lived a traditional Muslim life with her daughters. Iris examination and other tests eventually validated her claim to being the girl whose portrait touched the hearts of millions all over the world.
She is a member of the Pashtun tribe, and once lived in a small village in the southern part of Afghanistan when the Soviet Union invaded the country in the late 1970's. A bombing raid on her village killed both of her parents, and she was forced to flee the country with her brother and a few surviving relatives. After a harrowing two-week journey through the mountains in the middle of winter they found their way to the refugee camp in Pakistan where McCurry took her picture. She had been married since then, and had four daughters from her husband, a baker, but one of them died in infancy. She returned to her home village in the mid-1990's during a lull in the fighting, and that was where they saw her again. As a Pashtun, she fared somewhat better under Taliban rule, which provided relative stability compared to the chaos and terror of the Soviet invasion.
She remembered Steve McCurry well, as it was the only time she had ever been photographed before they met again, and recalled that her shawl was full of holes because it had been scorched accidentally by a cooking fire that day. McCurry told Sharbat that her face had become famous all over the world as a symbol of her people. "I don't think she was particularly interested in her personal fame," commented McCurry, "but she was pleased when we said she had come to be a symbol of the dignity and resilience of her people."
Boyd Matson, another member of the team that set out to find Sharbat, says that she wished to return to anonymity. "She will not give another media interview and she wishes not to be contacted," Matson stated. She and her family have relocated to another village in a remote part of Afghanistan whose location is being kept secret.
The original picture of Sharbat Gula as a child and as she looks today is at:
Another picture of her, holding her famous portrait: