The Afghan girl


Now that Sharbat Gula has returned to her original homeland from her adopted home, one is appalled to hear certain provocative comments about this simple Afghan woman who wasn’t aware that making Pakistan’s computerised national identity card is such a serious crime carrying imprisonment and fine.
One particularly strange comment was made by a known Pakistani anchor during a television show. He alleged that Sharbat Gula has some hidden agenda that may be exposed in the coming days. Claiming she was part of a conspiracy to malign and harm Pakistan, he argued that the Afghan embassy and certain agents were in touch with her and she shouldn’t be allowed to leave for Afghanistan until she is properly investigated. Others went further and made outrageous claims that she was linked to the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, and India’s RAW. It was alleged that she and other Afghan refugees acquired fake Pakistani identity cards to carry out acts of sabotage in Pakistan.
None of this is true. Sharbat Gula is illiterate and speaks only Pashto. She cannot even put her signature on any document and instead uses her thumb impression. She is a housewife unaware of the world of politics and the work of intelligence agencies. After the death of her husband Rahmat Gul and eldest daughter Robina, her world revolved around her four children and her brothers-in-law and their families living in Pakistan and her only brother Kashar Khan and their three other sisters who live in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.
Having met Sharbat Gula, her husband and brother in 2002 while working in Peshawar on the National Geographic documentary alongside celebrated American photographer Steve McCurry, one is clearly able to remember the shy Afghan woman who was reluctant to remove her veil while being photographed. Her family members said she couldn’t eat properly for days once her husband and brother persuaded her to allow the National Geographic TV crew and Steve McCurry to take her photographs and interview to complete their search for her as part of a documentary.
The documentary recorded the search and traced her life since 1984 when she was first photographed as a 12-year old girl living at the Nasir Bagh camp for Afghan refugees in Peshawar. That picture with her fiery green eyes immortalised Sharbat Gula, though it also thrust her into the limelight and at times made her suffer or brought financial reward.
This is the Sharbat Gula that one has known since 2002. In no way is this simple housewife, forced by circumstances to singlehandedly raise four young children after the death of their father, capable of spying or thinking of harming Pakistan. In fact, she wanted to stay in Pakistan and this is the reason for her desperate effort to illegally acquire the Pakistani identity card. Like thousands of other Afghan refugees, she believed this card would legalise her stay in Pakistan and enable her to avoid arrest and deportation.
In the end though, the Afghan government belatedly decided to take up her cause, invite her to resettle in Afghanistan and promise her the gift of an apartment on ownership basis and treatment for the Hepatitis C disease from which she is suffering for the last several years and which also took the life of her husband.
A similar conspiracy theory was hatched way back in 2002 when the search for the ‘Afghan Girl’ was underway in the camps and the markets and villages near Peshawar where Afghan refugees were concentrated. However, it weren’t Pakistanis as the usual suspects behind this conspiracy theory, but a distinguished British journalist who believed the sources who fed him this false story. He wrote an article in which he made the bizarre claim that the National Geographic television team alongside American photographer Steve McCurry and the search for the then unidentified Afghan girl had something to do with the manhunt for the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
He argued that the plan was to locate Sharbat Gula and through her track down Bin Laden as she had been the home teacher of his wives and daughters. A premier intelligence agency from the US was blamed for being behind this plot, though the writer gave no evidence to justify his claim.
All this was untrue because Sharbat Gula couldn’t even write her name what to speak of becoming a tutor to Bin Laden’s Arabic-speaking wives and daughters. It was far-fetched and the outcome of someone’s fertile imagination. The writer in question, sitting in faraway London, obviously depended on local sources in Pakistan and he wrote the article without checking and cross-checking the facts. We journalists make such mistakes and the better way to avoid continued embarrassment is to admit this and move on. The more one tries to justify the untrue report the more likely it is to tell lies.
One also remembers a local journalist who once claimed in a story that the last Afghan communist President Dr Najibullah had resigned and shifted secretly to Peshawar. It was obviously not true, but he continued to report on almost daily basis that Dr Najibullah was in Peshawar and meeting Pakistani officials to plan for the future. The farce went on for some time before the journalist in question reluctantly decided to give up the effort. In due course of time and in most cases, such mistakes are forgotten and forgiven because to err is human.
Pakistan lost the opportunity to earn some goodwill by offering solace to the world famous Sharbat Gula instead of arresting her, and letting her stay rather than deporting her. Islamabad expelled her while Kabul welcomed her with open arms. The unfounded allegations against her ought to stop as she embarks on a new life in her homeland.


Thirteen air crashes occur