The agony of Sharbat Gulla
Way back in 1985, a 12-year old Afghan girl with piercing green eyes became an instant global icon, having caught the attention of a photographer at Nasir Bagh camp at the height of fratricidal Afghan Jehad; Sharbat Gulla’s luminous, haunting eyes symbolized the innocence and horror of a war victim.
Steve McCurry, an expert in "disaster photography" for National Geographic magazine won acclaim for his master piece and the magazine’s ratings went up. However, like most Afghans she survived on the fringes of destitution and disease having lived in various camps and slums of Pakistan. There is nothing pleasant about the celebrated photo as it rekindles the memories of demons that descended on a blighted nation, resulting in genocide and displacement of its population for three generations. Yet peace is nowhere in sight.
40 years on, approximately three million Afghans have perished, 6 million displaced around the world, a majority opting for Pakistan as their home. Countless innocent lives have been lost in the constant struggle between life and death.
The Mujahidin leaders conducted clandestine guerilla war across the Afghan soil. Billions of petrodollars poured into coffers of mujahidin, Pakistani and Western politicians, bureaucrats and generals alike, however, the refugees were relegated to cramped camps; becoming perfect photo-op material for world celebrities Margaret Thatcher, Zbignew Brzezinski, and assortment of decadent Arab Shiekhs – shades of neo-imperialists waged an epic war in the rugged and peaceful terrain; wherein zealous Afghans and their Pukhtun cohorts became unwitting war fodder.
Thanks to Western Crusade against the Evil Red (communist) Empire; Peshawar transformed from a peaceful, redolent city of flowers into a center of global intrigues and spymasters; gun runners and narcotics trade. Afghanistan got decimated as a reward for its services to the “free world”.
Finally, having lived for 4 decades in Pakistan over 3 million refugees are now being forced to repatriate to Afghanistan, a country most have never seen in their lives as they were either toddlers or were born in Pakistani refugee camps.
Ever since dollar inflows and Pakistan’s strategic depth policy have ebbed; these victims of imperial hubris in Afghanistan, the miserable refugees like their Palestinian predecessors, rotting in camps across the Arab world are also destined to be forgotten. The world attention is now focused to newer imperial battlefronts (read conquests) ranging from Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria. After all Syrians are now the largest refugee and migrant population of the world.
As tensions spiked on the contested Durand line with the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani, a clampdown policy against Afghan refugees by Pakistan’s establishment was enforced. Demonized for varied troubles afflicting Pakistan, ranging from violence, terrorist attacks, and abductions, Afghans became aliens and outsiders in a country they once considered their adopted home owing to cultural, religious and geographical proximity and intermingling.
Pak Afghan border turned into a veritable Iron Curtain dividing families and communities. Afghans seeking medical treatment across the border were barred causing financial collapse of leading health institutions renowned for “health tourism” in Peshawar.
The media and politicians joined a strident anti-Afghan chorus, reinforcing the forcible exodus of Afghans to their war weary home. Many young and old Afghans found themselves trapped in cross hairs of Pak Afghan geopolitics of the past centuries.
Under unrelenting police and law enforcing agencies, long queues of thirsty and hungry refugees repatriating across Torkhum border during intense hot season was a painful denouement to 40 years of Pakistan’s hospitality.
Sharbat Gulla represents chaos, confusion and mayhem that ravaged her homeland since she was a little girl in the Kacha Garhi camp. Memories of stateless existence haunt refugees across the globe. She was fortunate not be abducted or sold by human traffickers to the Arab or Gulf states. Many Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian children are vulnerable to this tragedy in ongoing conflict zones.
Her personal life is no less tragic; her husband and a daughter died of Hepatitis C, besides her painful battle with the debilitating disease. Her haggard face represents vulnerable existence in a patriarchal society, brutalized by imposed wars.
The reality of constant struggle against disease and death ravage lives of Afghans and the Pukhtuns alike, being denied universal health and education. Terrorism destroyed limited opportunities in terms of education and health that had existed previously. The much touted FATA reforms so essential to bring a neglected tribal population into mainstream in terms of human rights, health and education remains a dream.
Sentence of deportation for forging Pakistan’s identity card was frivolous not because she was a onetime celebrity, but got humiliated on this count alone. Suffering from multiple diseases, the court order for her arrest flouted human rights and diplomatic norms.
Though her poignant image helped her catapult to global recognition; there are perhaps many less fortunate young women like Shabat Gulla; at the mercy of human traffickers, law enforcement officials, police and hostile public that many choose to ignore. The displacement of Afghans and Pukhtuns owing to violent terrorism and opposing state violence is not being addressed adequately. The world could not care less.
For Afghan refugees, the fairy tale ending of Sharbat Gulla, a presidential reception and a government apartment is no less than a miracle – as many shall end up homeless; scavenging for food and shelter in a cold and war weary Afghan homeland.
Adil Zareef is a reasearcher and writer based in Peshawar, Pakistan and could be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
View expressed in this article are of the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pajhwok’s editorial policy.