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Arrest of iconic “Afghan girl” highlights the never-ending suffering of Afghans

The owner of a book shop in Pakistan shows a copy of the June 1985 National Geographic magazine with the photograph of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula, from his rare collection in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. 
AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

Life doesn’t always have a happy ending. For the millions of Afghans who have suffered through more than four decades of war in their country, happy endings are rarer still.

The story of Sharbat Gula, the young Afghan refugee whose stunning green eyes and unforgiving gaze glared out at readers from the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic, is a tragic case in point.

On Wednesday, Pakistani authorities arrested Gula, now in her 40s, on charges of fraudulently claiming Pakistani citizenship to obtain national identity cards for herself and two men who claimed to be her sons. She faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

Gula was around 12 years old when photographer Steve McCurry took a picture of her at the refugee camp near the Pakistani city of Peshawar where she and other relatives fled after a Soviet airstrike killed her parents. It became a powerful symbol of the war in Afghanistan and the tremendous suffering and outpouring of refugees it was creating.

McCurry, who snapped the iconic shot in 1984, once told National Geographic that people have even told him that “her face alone inspired them to aid refugees.”

McCurry tracked her down in 2002, when the US-led war in Afghanistan was just getting underway, to find out what had happened to her in the years since he took her photograph. He discovered that she had moved back to her home village in Afghanistan during a brief period of calm in the 1990s. It seemed a happy ending to her sad story.

"Her life has been — since she left the refugee camp in '92, it's been relatively peaceful,” McCurry told NPR back in 2002. “She got married, had these children, living a traditional Pashtun life, in a village. It's been, thankfully, a bit uneventful."

But it seems Gula’s happy ending was short-lived. At some point, she evidently fled back to Pakistan. And her life these days is clearly anything but uneventful. After the news broke on Wednesday of Gula’s arrest, McCurry posted a statement on Facebook:

We are doing everything we can to get the facts by contacting our colleagues and friends in the area.

I am committed to doing anything and everything possible to provide legal and financial support for her and her family.

I object to this action by the authorities in the strongest possible terms. She has suffered throughout her entire life, and her arrest is an egregious violation of her human rights.

Gula is one of more than a million Afghan refugees who have been living in Pakistan since they fled there during the war in the 1980s.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, an estimated 1.6 million Afghan refugees currently live in Pakistan. But over the past decade, the Pakistani government has been working to repatriate many of these refugees, including a large number of the almost 1 million refugees living in the Peshawar district.

The UN has been helping the government with this massive undertaking through its Voluntary Repatriation Center in Peshawar. In addition to working with the governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan to help ensure that the refugees are cared for properly, the UN provides the refugees with $200 for initial travel and housing to help ease the process of resettling in Afghanistan.

But many of these refugees, like Gula, fled to Pakistan as children and have known no other life than the one they’ve lived in Pakistan. (Gula, at least, was able to go home for a time.) The idea of going back to Afghanistan, which is currently roiled with conflict, is a nightmare for many.

The UN reports that conflict has taken place in 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces in recent months. In other words, there are very few places in the country that are safe from the bloodshed. The UN also notes that there have been “a record number of civilian casualties since counting began in 2009, with 5,166 civilians recorded killed or maimed in just the first six months of this year, of whom almost one-third were children.”

This may explain why Gula and her family were allegedly trying to illegally obtain national identity cards. You see, about a decade ago, the Pakistani government began issuing computerized “Proof of Registration” (POR) cards to all Afghan refugees. Although these were similar to the Pakistani National Identity Card, they have "Afghan Citizen" on the front. It is the holders of these POR cards who are being repatriated to Afghanistan by the Pakistani government.

A person holding a National Identity Card, on the other hand, is seen as a Pakistani citizen and thus not subject to repatriation. For someone reluctant to be sent back to a damaged, war-torn country embroiled in constant bloodshed, getting their hands on one of those cards — by whatever means necessary — could be seen as the only hope.

Gula’s plight reflects a bigger problem: Not only do many of the millions of refugees who fled Afghanistan in the 1980s not want to return home to Afghanistan out of fear for their safety or the lack of economic opportunity in the fractured country, but thousands more Afghans are fleeing the country. A report from the UN explains:

2015 witnessed the highest number of civilian casualties [in Afghanistan] since 2009 and saw a dramatic increase in conflict-induced displacement...Increasing insecurity coupled with drastic economic contractions led many Afghans to seek better lives elsewhere, including in Europe. Afghans were the second largest group of asylum-seekers in Europe after Syrians.

The relentless cycles of war and chaos in Afghanistan mean that successive generations of Afghans have been forced to flee their homes. And it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be ending anytime soon: The hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants swamping Europe include Syrians fleeing ISIS, but also sizable numbers of Afghans.

When French authorities dismantled the infamous Jungle refugee camp near Calais this week, they made clear that those whose asylum claims were rejected would be sent home. That will likely be bad news for many of the Afghans who once lived there and would likely be given lower priority than those leaving the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.

That means that we’re likely to see many, many more tragic photos like the one of 12-year-old Gula for a long time to come.

Update: Pajhwok Afghan News reported that Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, announced late Thursday that the Afghan government will help “rescue” Gula from police custody and help her resettle back in her home country.

“It is unfortunate that no one contacted us prior to her arrest. As soon as we were informed, we searched for her and found her,” said Zakhilwal, also President Ashraf Ghani’s special representative for Pakistan.

The ambassador said the Afghan woman would not only be released from detention but also encouraged to return to Afghanistan with her family with dignity.

Zakhilwal also promised he would urge the Afghan president to provide Sharbat Gula a ready-made home as gift in Afghanistan. “I am confident the president will accept it.”

So perhaps there will be a happy ending to Gula’s story after all. No word on the millions of other Afghan refugees, though.