In 1985, Steve McCurry captured an image that would be the symbol of the Afghan conflict and the refugee situation internationally. The “Afghan Girl,” whose name was later revealed as Sharbat Gula, or “flower-juice” in our native Pashto, became “the most recognizable photo in the world”, when it made the cover of National Geographic. Her piercing green eyes and torn red scarf became an iconic representation of what Afghans endured.
And unfortunately, what Sharbat is still enduring. This February, it was revealed by Pakistani media that Sharbat and two men posing as her sons were found to have fraudulent documents, known in Pakistan as Computerized National Identity Cards, (CNIC). This document is needed if you want a quality life in Pakistan; from opening bank accounts, to purchasing cars, the card is absolutely mandatory for almost all substantial monetary transactions.
Obtaining one is an arduous process that can take months and even years.
So, sadly, Sharbat was made famous again, this time, in this photo released by Pakistani media from her CNIC documents.
Pakistan has long been extremely hostile to the Afghan refugee population, described as the “largest protracted refugee situation globally” according to the UNHCR. Mind you, Sharbat has been living in a refugee camp in Peshawar since the time the image was taken.
The following has been taken from The Guardian:
Afghans can only buy property, open a bank account and be confident they will be able to remain indefinitely in a country that wants rid of its refugee population by having a CNIC, usually acquired with fake documents and bribes.
Afghans first began moving to Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979, and generations have grown up without ever having visited their ancestral homeland.
The refugee population continued to grow after the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1989 as Afghanistan descended into civil war.
Millions of Afghans have returned to their homeland since the international community uprooted the Taliban regime in 2001, but more than 2.5 million are thought to remain – the second largest refugee population in the world.
“We need them to leave Pakistan because we are badly suffering,” said Hamid-ul-Haq, an MP who represents Peshawar, the north-western city where many Afghans are settled. “All our streets, mosques, schools are overloaded because of them. It is time for them to leave Pakistan honourably.”
There have been several half-hearted attempts to force more of them to quit the country, including a threat to cancel their refugee status, but official deadlines have repeatedly been ignored or allowed to slip.
The government has also attempted to clear slums in Islamabad that are populated by Afghans.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) this week called on Pakistan to stop trying to coerce refugees to return.
“Pakistan’s government is tarnishing the country’s well-deserved reputation for hospitality toward refugees by tolerating the punitive and potentially unlawful coercive repatriation of Afghan refugees,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director, Phelim Kine.
Gulzar Khan, a politician and former commissioner for Afghan refugees, said Pakistan could not expect such a large number of people to leave overnight.
“The current Afghan government is in a very vulnerable situation both economically and politically. If roughly two millions refugees are pushed back the Afghan government will have a major crisis on its hands,” he said.
And so, Sharbat Gula will most likely be repatriated, back to the land she loved but could not stay, even though Peshawar for the past 6,000 years has been home to Pashtuns and Afghans alike. And this is the plight of refugees in Pakistan, the 68 year-old nation, that remains hostile to the people who have loved that same land since the beginning of time.