The “Afghan Girl” who graced an iconic cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985 has been arrested in Pakistan on charges of being in the country illegally with allegedly false documents.
Sharbat Gula was 12 years old when she was photographed by Steve McCurry in a refugee camp in Pakistan, in December 1984. The haunting image of the green-eyed girl became an international symbol of refugees and of political and social unrest in the region. It has been widely reproduced, making her one of the most recognizable non-celebrity faces of the 20th century.
On Wednesday, Sharbat Gula was arrested by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency. Officials raided her home in Peshawar in northern Pakistan, says Arshad Yusufzai, a journalist based in Peshawar who is close with Sharbat Gula and who has worked as a translator for National Geographic.
"Some experts say maybe she will go unpunished, while others say she could see seven to 12 years imprisonment," he says.
Sharbat Gula is being held and investigated by the police, Yusufzai says.
According to the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, she will face trial Tuesday, November 1. At that time, Zakhilwal "expects her release," according to a statement posted on Facebook. If convicted, she would face seven to 14 years in prison and a fine of $3,000 to $5,000, according to the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA).
"The National Geographic Society expresses its support for Mrs. Sharbat Gula and encourages the Pakistani authorities to release her on humanitarian grounds," Emma Carrasco, chief marketing officer for the National Geographic Society, said in a statement. "She has lived a life beset by many challenges and much tragedy.
Shahid Ilyas, an official with NADRA, told the Guardian that Sharbat Gula had allegedly been using an unauthorized national identity card that she had received without proper permission in 2014.
Ilyas said his agency was also investigating three officials suspected of improperly issuing the card to Sharbat Gula. Normally, foreign nationals are not supposed to receive these cards.
The three Peshawar-based officials have been fired and were arrested on bribery charges, Yusufzai says. They are currently free on bail but are due back in court Friday.
“I object to this action by the authorities in the strongest possible terms,” McCurry posted on his Instagram account, referring to Sharbat Gula's arrest. “She has suffered throughout her entire life, and her arrest is an egregious violation of her human rights.”
'Her Village Is Not Secure'
Millions of people fled Afghanistan during the country's war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Many settled in Pakistan, where today there are an estimated 2.5 million Afghans.
The refugees have not always been welcome in the country, however, and have faced discrimination and animosity from some Pakistani residents and politicians.
In 2014, Pakistan announced plans to send many of its refugees away, noting that more than 60,000 national ID cards had allegedly been obtained fraudulently by foreign refugees. According to the United Nations, more than 350,000 Afghan refugees have since left Pakistan for their home country.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has distanced itself from Sharbat Gula's case. In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper, Dan McNorton, the senior external relations officer for UNHCR Pakistan, said the organization could not assist Sharbat Gula because she is not registered as a refugee.
Thousands of Afghans have been arrested over the past year under suspicion of having improper paperwork, Yusufzai says. "Sharbat has international fame, and that’s why it’s a bigger story when someone of her stature is involved in such a thing."
The National Geographic Society's Carrasco said that "Sharbat Gula has never sought any notoriety, and she is trying to survive and support her family under highly adverse conditions."
Sharbat Gula is accused of having paid the equivalent of about $450 U.S. in bribes to officials in order to receive the ID card, Yusufzai says.
He adds that the cards had become desirable in recent years because they make it easier for people to travel and conduct business.
In his statement, Zakhilwal said it is common—and legal—for the cards to be issued to Afghans.
Sharbat Gula had been living in Peshawar since McCurry reconnected with her in 2002. She had five children, but a daughter died while giving birth a few years ago, around the same time Gula's husband Rahmat died of an illness.
"Her children have been calling, they are also afraid of getting arrested," says Yusufzai. "[Sharbat Gula] did not want to go back to Afghanistan—her village is not secure."
Finding the Afghan Girl
The effort to relocate Sharbat Gula in 2002 was difficult. McCurry showed her picture to many people in the refugee camp in Pakistan, until one man recognized her. She had taken refuge in the mountains of Tora Bora, he said. Three days later, the man brought Sharbat Gula back to the camp.
“She's as striking as the young girl I photographed 17 years ago,” McCurry said in 2002.
She had no idea her image had been seen by millions, and that it had inspired many people to volunteer or donate to assist refugees.
Updated October 29 at 4:00 p.m. ET.