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Humans

Afghan Mona Lisa behind bars in Pakistan

November 30th, 2016
in:Humans
by:Shadi Khan Saif
located in:Pakistan
tags:Afghan Mona Lisa, Human Rights Watch, Pakistan, refugee

For decades, the grim face and piercing green eyes of young Sharbat Gula - also known as the ‘Afghan Mona Lisa’ - has drawn global attention towards the ordeal of Afghan refugees. Now her persecution in Pakistan is drawing renewed interest.

Sharbat Gula was a teenage girl when Steve McCurry, world acclaimed photographer for the National Geographic, took her photograph in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Her picture, titled Afghan Girl, appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. The image of her face, with a red scarf draped loosely over her head and her eyes staring directly into the camera was named "the most recognized photograph" in the history of the magazine, and the cover itself is one of the most famous of the National Geographic. Gula has since become as the face of the war-weary nation that has been suffering the rages of war for some four decades now.

Despite all that fame she received when McCurry re-discovered her in 2002 decades after the publication of the picture, the Afghan girl, who is now a married woman with three daughters, lived a quiet and simple life in a small house in Pakistan.

Frightened by growing persecution in the host country where she came as a young girl with her parents, Gula had packed-up her belongings and was set to leave for war-torn Afghanistan when a team of the Federal Intelligence Agency (FIA) came to arrest her. She was charged with allegedly obtaining the country’s identity card with illegal means.

It is vital to note that over 2 million Afghan refugees are believed to have been living in Pakistan for more than three decades. But, legally they are not granted the right to obtain citizenship despite all the time that has passed.

Islamabad recently extended the stay of Afghan refugees till March 2017 and directed those Afghan refugees possessing the country’s ‘fake’ identity cards to return them before the deadline. Since then, some 500,000 refugees have moved back to Afghanistan. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) these large numbers of repatriated families and hundreds of thousands of other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan are in dire need of help.

Other rights organisations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have also spoken against the forceful return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan.

Mohsin Dawar, Gula’s lawyer, told Fair Planet that in her case the Pakistani government seems to have had ‘political intentions’. “We have come across thousands of such cases during which the Afghan refugees are simply deprived of the [Pakistani identity card] and are deported to Afghanistan, but Sharbat Gula was persecuted and put in prison for more than two weeks and made to pay a fine of Rs 110,000 [approximately $1000]”, he said.

A court in Pakistan first rejected the bail plea of the iconic Afghan woman and later worked to deport her to Afghanistan after serving a 15-day jail sentence. To escape more hardship, Gula, who is now suffering from Hepatitis-C, pleaded guilty and said she obtained the card simply to live a safe life in Pakistan. She belongs to the Pacher Aw Gaam district in eastern Afghanistan, which is under the influence of the pro-Daesh rebels. Hundreds of families from this district have fled their homes recently.

Mohsin said that the persecution of Gula would further dent the harmony between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are already going through a rough patch in ties due to allegations of promoting cross-border terrorism. “The corrupt officials at the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) added two men in the family tree of Sharbat Gula for the sake of issuing those men fake identity cards in return for bribery, but the authorities have not taken any action against those officials”, he added.

The news of the Afghan Mona Lisa’s arrest spread like fire in the jungle. Dr. Hazrat Omar, Afghanistan's Ambassador to Pakistan pronounced the move as a setback. “The arrest of Sharbat Gula, one of the world’s most recognized and Afghanistan’s most beloved image, had already hurt the feelings of all Afghans, and the court ruling was a further disregard to those feelings and the bilateral people to people relations and the [notion of] “winning hearts and minds” that we claim to be important and therefore our aim”, he said in a message.

Social media users in Afghanistan were outraged by this move by the authorities in Pakistan. On the other side, a number of citizens in Pakistan also expressed sympathy towards the Sharbat Gula and some others insisted all Afghans should be deported.

Shafeeq Gigyani, Convener of Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society (PCS) in Peshawa, Pakistan, said in this regard that arresting Sharbat Gulla was not a good gesture by the Pakistani government. “The refugee issues must be solved on the mutual understanding that wrong decision of both countries are not good for the future. I must say that there should be a social cohesion between citizens of both countries, beside the governments”, he told Fair Planet.

Gigyani added that citizens in Peshawar are really missing those Afghans who lived among their own people but have now gone back to Afghanistan. The iconic Sharbat Gula is also set to depart in November.

Article written by:
Shadi Khan Saif
Author, Contributing Editor
Current Map: Our coverage
Sharbat Gula was a teenage girl when Steve McCurry, world acclaimed photographer for the National Geographic, took her photograph in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Gula had packed-up her belongings and was set to leave for war-torn Afghanistan when a team of the Federal Intelligence Agency (FIA) came to arrest her. She was charged with allegedly obtaining the country’s identity card with illegal means.
Rights organisations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have also spoken against the forceful return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan.

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