National Geographic 'Afghan Girl' arrested in Pakistan living under false papers

Sharbat Gula, depicted on the magazine’s cover in 1984, could face 14 years in prison and a $5,000 fine if convicted

An Afghan woman who once appeared on the cover of National Geographic as a green-eyed 12-year-old girl has been arrested for living illegally in Pakistan under false papers.

Last year Pakistani media published a photo from Sharbat Gula’s computerised national identity card (CNIC), a vital document that she should not have been able to acquire as a foreign national.

But it was only on Wednesday that Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency arrested her, after a lengthy investigation.

Sharbat Gula before her court hearing in Peshawar
Sharbat Gula before her court hearing in Peshawar. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Shahid Ilyas, an official from the National Database Registration Authority, said Gula could face up to 14 years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 if convicted. He said the FIA was also trying to catch the three Nadra officers thought to have been responsible for giving her the ID card in April 2014.

The National Geographic cover photo of Gula was taken by Steve McCurry in 1984 in a refugee camp in Pakistan. It became one of the defining images of a conflict between mujahideen insurgents and Soviet occupying forces.

Millions of people were displaced by the conflict and many chose never to return, establishing businesses and starting families in Pakistan. Today the country has an Afghan refugee population of 2.5 million. But Afghans have become increasingly unwelcome, with politicians often blaming the refugee community for crime and terrorism.

The massacre by Pakistani Taliban gunmen of more than 130 schoolboys in Peshawar in 2014 prompted the government to commit to a “national action plan” to repatriate all refugees, even though no Afghans were found to have been involved in the attack.

Gula is just one of many Afghans to be caught up in the ongoing effort to persuade refugees to go home. Nadra says it has detected 60,675 cards that were fraudulently obtained by foreign nationals.

It emerged in May that the former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor had been travelling around the country on fake Pakistani documents before he was killed in a US drone strike.

This year has seen a surge in the number of Afghans leaving Pakistan, after a government crackdown and an increase in financial assistance from the UN to refugees who return to Afghanistan.

More than 350,000 refugees have returned this year, according to the UN. The inflow is adding to pressure on Afghanistan’s already hard-pressed government. Many of the arrivals are younger Afghans who were born in Pakistan and have never before been to Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, bank and mobile phone accounts of Afghans without the correct documents have been shut down, and there have been widespread complaints about official harassment and the police using the crackdown as an opportunity to extort cash from refugees.

Since 2009, Islamabad has repeatedly pushed back a deadline for refugees to return, but fears are growing that the latest deadline of March 2017 will be final.

Contributor

Jon Boone in Islamabad

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'Afghan Girl' rejects offer to suspend deportation from Pakistan
Sharbat Gula, made famous in 1980s by National Geographic and revered at home, will meet President Ghani on her return

Jon Boone in Islamabad and Sami Yousafzai

08, Nov, 2016 @3:00 PM

Article image
After her arrest, the ‘Afghan Girl’ is once again a symbol of refugees’ plight | Steve McCurry
Three decades ago, my photograph of Sharbat Gula became famous as a signifier of migrants’ dignity and determination. Now Pakistan is using a new image of her to spread fear among refugees

Steve McCurry

03, Nov, 2016 @5:47 PM

Article image
Taliban claim Afghan border crossing with Pakistan in major gain
Militants say they have made what could be their most significant advance in a nationwide offensive

Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi and Shah Meer Baloch in Islamabad

14, Jul, 2021 @4:44 PM

Article image
‘It’s heartbreaking’: Steve McCurry on Afghan Girl, a portrait of past and present
The US photographer’s image of Sharbat Gula captured the story of a country, its people and refugees across the world. Thirty six years on, another picture tells a similar tale – but also one of hope

Lorenzo Tondo and Eric Hilaire

20, Sep, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
Pakistan's Imran Khan pledges citizenship for 1.5m Afghan refugees
PM’s offer reverses decades of hostility in official policy but analysts question motives

Memphis Barker in Islamabad

17, Sep, 2018 @11:06 AM

Article image
Trump's Afghan shift praised in Kabul but leaves Pakistan wary
Afghan authorities welcome promise of increased troop numbers, but Pakistan security officials accuse president of blaming Islamabad for US failures

Sune Engel Rasmussen and Michael Safi

22, Aug, 2017 @9:47 AM

Article image
Afghan backlash over security deal with Pakistan
Many Afghan intelligence officials are unhappy over president’s overtures to neighbour they blame for encouraging the Taliban insurgency

Jon Boone in Islamabad and Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul

19, May, 2015 @7:39 AM

Article image
Critically ill Afghans suffer as Taliban tighten Pakistan border
Shortage of specialised doctors in Afghanistan means patients seek lifesaving care in Pakistan, but conventions have changed

Betsy Joles in Peshawar

13, Oct, 2021 @4:00 AM

Article image
US drone strike kills Pakistan Taliban leader, say officials
Kabul and Islamabad say Mullah Fazlullah killed along with two others in Afghanistan

Memphis Barker in Islamabad

15, Jun, 2018 @1:49 PM

Article image
Pakistan humiliated by south Asian countries' boycott of summit
India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan cite regional interference as they pull out of what was set to be a historic meeting

Jon Boone in Islamabad and Michael Safi in Delhi

28, Sep, 2016 @1:59 PM