Mona Lisa of Afghan War: A chess pawn in Sub-continental Great Game

Dhaka,  Tue,  26 September 2017
Published : 22 Nov 2016, 20:46:12

Mona Lisa of Afghan War: A chess pawn in Sub-continental Great Game

Zeenat Khan from Maryland, USA
Back in 2010, in an opinion article I described a picture of a group of displaced people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In the photograph, there were about thirteen of them walking in a single file, along a narrow winding road which seemed rugged and endless. The group was led by a girl who was no more than 12. That single image was so powerful that I compared it with another picture of 12-year-old Sharbat Gula, an Afghan refugee girl. I wrote: "The picture also reminded me of a 1985 photograph of a Pashtun refugee girl wearing a red scarf in Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. Her sea green piercing eyes had a haunting look in a picture taken by award-winning photojournalist Steve McCurry. The picture was selected as the cover of National Geographic's 100 best pictures. Her face became an icon here in the West. Through her direct gaze, the horror and agony of displacement was captured and that photo is still in display in many places here. She became known as the Afghan Girl."

The beauty of the eyes was so entrancing and secretive that Sharbat Gula came to be known as the Afghan Mona Lisa. The comparison is astounding as legendary Da Vinci's Mona Lisa was a portrait that was done in between 1503-1514 and McCurry clicked his camera in 1985. In both pictures one can notice the uncommon eyes to be "captivating, deep, profound and mysterious."

Sharbat Gula's story is particularly a fascinating one as she came to symbolise the Afghan struggle. Sharbat didn't ask to be famous and yet she became one of the world's most iconic faces. As an illiterate, she was totally oblivious of her fame. Her image "appeared on the front of magazines and books, posters, lapel pins and even rugs, but she didn't know it."

She remained anonymous for years until National Geographic team started to search for her for a reunion. The quest took 17 years and after following many false leads, in 2002, the team found her in a border town of Pakistan. At the time, Sharbat Gula in her 30s was married with three daughters completely unaware of her fame until she was shown the original photograph that McCurry took in 1985. McCurry's second photograph of Shrabat was put side by side with the first one on another cover. The feature story described: "Time and hardship had erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened."

The National Geographic documented everything and it came to provide "a unique insight into everyday life in Afghanistan today, as well as telling the story of one woman and her family." The documentary titled Search for the Afghan Girl was released in 2003. In 2015, a Finish band called Nightwish released an instrumental song named The eyes of Sharbat Gula.

Sharbat Gula captivated the world's attention to the plight of millions of Afghans who became refugees by fleeing a brutal conflict between the Soviet troops and Afghan militias during the Soviet invasion in 1979. In the following years the Afghans escaped in thousands to a sanctuary provided by Pakistan as the war exposed civilians to danger during the conflict. Pakistan became their safe haven.

Since October, Sharbat Gula who was living in Peshawar has resurfaced and "has ended up in the middle of a political and bureaucratic fight between two neighbouring Muslim countries over what to do with a large refugee population neither can afford to sustain." More than 2.0 million Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan. About a million more that are unregistered are facing deportation.

On November 09, in a surprising turn of events, Sharbat Gula, 45, a widow with four children, has been deported from Pakistan for possession of a fraudulent National ID card. Two Pakistani policemen escorted her across the border in the middle of the night and handed her over to Afghan authorities. In an attempt to catch those who are illegally living in Pakistan by carrying fraudulent ID cards, Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has started a crackdown. The deportation of Sharbat Gula seems to be a short-sighted move by the Pakistani authorities. On October 26, she was picked up by FIA from her house after more than a year of investigation for not having a proper National Identity Card (NIC), but surely she wasn't the only one (without an NIC). She didn't have the Computerised ID card like 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan who have received those as "proof of registration." Sharbat Gula was convicted and jailed and spent 15 days in Peshawar's central prison. She was also slapped with a fine of $1,000 that she was unable to pay. She was then deport to Afghanistan - a step that was downright cruel. A grave injustice was done to Sharbat Gula who is unskilled and illiterate, has four children to raise and suffers from Hepatitis C. 

On November 14, I read an opinion piece titled Deporting Sharbat Gula in the Dawn newspaper of Pakistan. I shared that piece with a writer/editor friend of mine in New York. She got back to me last (Sunday) night in an email with the following remarks: "I guess what stands out to me is the lack of self-examination, similar to what is happening in the States after the election. If Pakistan is critical of other states for their deportation policies, they should be upholding the standard they would want their own nationals to be treated. If they cannot acknowledge the racism or nationalism/xenophobia they enforce or enact within their borders, they cannot call for their own refugees to be treated well. A conversation has to be about why Afghan and Bengali exiles, escaping violence and persecution, do not deserve care and dignity, and what they really believe: that only Pakistanis should be treated well. The protection of her shouldn't just be 'symbolic' so they can look better. The bad treatment is what needs to be investigated: why did it happen?"

The article in the Dawn described in further detail about Pakistan's double standard regarding its deportation policy: "Many Pakistanis criticise European states for their discriminatory immigration policies towards ethnic groups originally belonging to Muslim nations or coming from global south. Germany has been particularly condemned for its biased treatment of German Turks in comparison to the better treatment meted out to minorities of European descent, such as the Swiss."

With so many Afghan refugees in Pakistan, in the recent years, Pakistan has been putting pressure on for the two million refugees to return home to Afghanistan despite continued violence. 

Why was Sharbat Gula really singled out when she has known only Pakistan to be home? Conspiracy theories are swirling around about why she was deported. In an article published in the, RahimullahYusufzai mentions several conspiracy theories and attempts to debunk these. There is scant evidence, Yusufzai concludes, to link Ms. Gula to the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), or the Afghan Intelligence Agency, NDS. Not only is Sharbat unaware of the deeper worlds of politics, intelligence and intrigue, she is more preoccupied with survival from Hep-C, and raising her four children on her own. There is no evidence to the contrary, and some of the journalists may have made up a few of these tall tales. 

The Afghan president Asharf Ghani has offered, albeit after some delay, to repatriate Ms. Gula to Afghanistan, and offered to put her up in her own furnished apartment on an ownership basis. This will alleviate her problems of finding a shelter for now. Afghan President and first lady Rula Ghani received a peacock-blue burqa clad Sharbat Gula and her children in Kabul. By returning home after 31 years, Sharbat Gula has now become a symbol of Afghanistan's new tension with Pakistan. 

India, not to miss a beat, has offered to treat her in Bengaluru Hospital to provide relief from Hep-C free of cost. She is expected to travel to India soon. The treatment is expensive, and easily runs into thousands of dollars in the USA. Some of the US drug companies have offered to export this expensive drug to India, and other developing countries on a reduced price basis. McCurry was disheartened to hear about the recent developments in the Sharbat Gula story and remains committed to do anything possible to provide financial support to her. Presumably, Ms. Gula will be able to take advantage of this while in India. 

The question remains: Is this a purely humanitarian gesture, or has the ongoing showdown between India and Pakistan come to this that they are using a sick woman to gain a propaganda advantage? Let's not forget that India and Pakistan even battle over insignificant things such as who has more public toilets in their cities. Thus it is entirely possible that this humanitarian move is motivated by something different from showing a gesture of goodwill. At least that is what the cynics would say. 

The implications of the recent Kashmir conflict cannot be ignored either. After the killing of 17 Indian soldiers, India has been hell-bent on taking revenge, including conducting 'surgical strikes' inside Pakistan, or Pakistani side of Kashmir. Two days ago (Saturday), Pakistan's military shot down an Indian drone for alleged trespassing into Pakistan part of Kashmir. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Sharbat Gula is being used as a chess pawn in this Sub-continental Great Game where both India and Afghanistan will use her as a propaganda against Pakistan. Any move that embarrasses Pakistan is considered a bonanza by the Indian hard-line BJP Government of Narendra Modi. 

In the midst of political showdown, Sharbat Gula's life has indeed become an incredible epic story! No one knows how it will end. But the image of young Sharbat on the cover of the National Geographic, McCurry photographing a reluctant Sharbat two decades later, Sharbat in a Pakistani police photo, the haggard-looking Sharbat waiting in the hallway of a Peshawar courtroom, two macho Pakistani policemen escorting a fully veiled Sharbat across the border, the Afghan President giving Sharbat keys to her apartment in the presidential palace - will remain as unforgettable images from a range of ages that tells the multiplicity of stories of her life. Sometimes a story is best told through an image and without all the information. All these images tell the stories of eternal struggle endured by Sharbat Gula, the Mona Lisa of the Afghan War.
Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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