Finally, there’s some good news from war-torn Afghanistan. On Thursday the Daily Mail reported that the iconic National Geographic Afghan “girl with the green eyes” is safe. Sharbat Gula, who was featured in a stunning photo on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic, has been given safe haven in Italy after a lifetime of fleeing the Taliban.
Twelve-year-old Gula became instantly recognizable in the West when her photograph was taken in a refugee camp on the Pakistan-Afghan border by National Geographic war photographer Steve McCurry. The striking cover photo became the most well-known photo in the magazine’s history, but unaware of the photo’s existence, Gula’s international fame didn’t impact the illiterate and poverty-stricken young refugee. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that she even saw the photo: “after a 17-year search, McCurry found Gula living in a remote Afghan village in 2002.” The young refugee and student was then a baker’s wife and the mother of three daughters. After several false identifications with other Afghan men claiming their wives were the girl in the photo, it took an FBI analyst using iris recognition technology to positively verify her identity at that time.
Even after McCurry found her, nothing much changed. She remained in her native Afghanistan until war once again drove her to the relative safety of Pakistan.
Many years later in 2016, Gula was arrested in Pakistan for living there illegally with forged identification papers. It’s common practice among Afghan refugees who live in Pakistan without legal status to buy identification papers. However, Gula and her three children were deported back to Afghanistan, where the never-ending war was still raging.
Once in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula hosted a reception for Gula at the presidential palace. She was even given the keys to a new apartment. “As a child, she captured the hearts of millions because she was the symbol of displacement,” Ghani said of Gula at the time. “The enormous beauty, the enormous energy that she projected from her face captured hearts and became one of the most famous photographs of the 1980s and up until the 1990s.”
Somehow Gula managed to survive the intervening years. Now in her late 40s, Gula is a widowed mother of four living children. Her husband died from hepatitis C several years ago, and Gula also suffers from the disease. But now Gula has finally found safety “after arriving in Italy as part of the West’s evacuation of Afghans following the Taliban takeover of the country, the Italian government said on Thursday.”
Italy was one of several Western countries that airlifted hundreds of Afghans out of the country following the departure of U.S. forces and the Taliban takeover in August of this year. As President Biden haphazardly pulled out of Afghanistan, he left behind not only hundreds of Americans and American allies but also countless vulnerable Afghan women and children like Gulan and her family.
Since seizing power once again in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s leaders have said they would respect women’s rights but only “in accordance with sharia, or Islamic law,” so that means women can’t work outside the home and girls are banned from getting an education. Women must also cover their faces and are forbidden from leaving home without a male relative. Those are some rights.
Thankfully, unlike Biden, Italy’s Premier Mario Draghi has organized the evacuations of many Afghan refugees. Gula asked for help in leaving the country, and Draghi and the Italian government will now “help to get her integrated into life in Italy.”
If only our own president and the government would do the same for the hundreds of Americans still left in that war-torn and godforsaken country.