Editorial: Plight of “Afghan Girl” Reflected in Current Events

The picture struck an emotional chord throughout the world because it showcases human beauty in the face of conspicuous privation and suffering. Indeed, it is precisely the suffering that highlights the beauty.

According to Steve McCurry, personal fame never interested the “Afghan Girl,” Sharbat Gula. “But she was pleased when we said she had come to be a symbol of the dignity and resilience of her people,” says McCurry, who will visit UT next week.

Without a doubt, Sharbat’s chilling stare conveys the tragedy and struggle of modern Afghanistan, listed last year as the 17th poorest country in the world by the International Monetary Fund in terms of GDP per capita.

And, as iconic and revealing as her determined gaze may be, her real life narrative is even more expressive of the Afghan struggle of the past several decades.

Westerners may have sympathized with that struggle in 1985 when her image first appeared as a refugee from Russian bombing and invasion, yet now some find it more troubling to extend the same sympathies to modern-day Sharbats, doubtlessly driven to exile from the same bombing and invasion, this time of an American stripe.

In between the two invasions, Sharbat’s journey highlights the contradictions and heartbreak of Afghan society. The very Russian invasion that she was forced to flee spawned the internationalization of jihad, where Muslims from all over the Arab world and beyond were recruited into a coalition to expel the foreigners. Among these mujahadeen, or holy warriors, Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters,” was Osama bin Laden, who earned his guerrilla credibility through the anti-Russian struggle.

In fact, the very refugee camp where Sharbat lived, where her image was immortalized by Steve McCurry, was located in Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan. Near Peshawar are the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the origins of the Taliban.

While Sharbat was fleeing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in hopes of a safer life, Taliban warriors were organizing near her refugee camp, waiting to cross the border and join the fighting. As history occurred, they would eventually take power throughout Afghanistan, and ruled for much of the interwar period, until American and NATO forces replaced Russian ones as their antagonists, bombing the homes of people like Sharbat.

This brief historical overview brings to light the greatest tragedy of Afghanistan, the fact that Sharbat’s piercing image could have been captured, with much the same meaning, more than twenty years after Steve McCurry snapped it at Nasir Bagh refugee camp.

After all this time, the image should stand as a reminder to privileged Westerners concerning the horrific realities of wars that we launch in poor nations. While Iraq continues to capture newspaper headlines and leading graphics across the country, it is yet to receive its own “Afghan Girl,” the striking image that defines its calamity.

Yet it is an incontrovertible fact that a Sharbat will surface wherever conflict does, in Somalia as in Iraq, in Afghanistan as in Iran.

Whether the image is captured on film or not, and diffused the world over, is up to people like Steve McCurry; but the palpable suffering, and admirable courage, of people like Sharbat is no less real if it goes unnoticed. It would be well for Western warmongers to remember this fact.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: