After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, those in the West, in the Americas and Europe, seem to have wanted to migrate the international relations school of thought and behavior away from zero-sum issues of territory claiming and military might to issues of global governance, like human rights, free markets, and planetary care. This was the new school of geopolitical objectives, where much more of the planet was part of a broadly connected global economy that was rooted in western ideology and western form of function.
But globalization didn’t affect everyone the same, and twice now have images of Sharbat Gula, otherwise known as ‘Afghan girl’ highlighted this fact. From her international and unintentional debut on the cover of National Geographic in 1984 at age 12, to her ’resurrection’ in 2002, and now again, in a mug shot in 2016, the pictures of Sharbat are a masterclass in geopolitics.
Sharbat is Afghani, and that means she’s from a place that’s been a primary trade and travel corridor since before the birth of Christ, to those like Alexander The Great. It also means, because of her age, she was born into an Afghanistan that was akin to the Gaza Strip, parallel the Shining Path, and up Tamil’s Tiger. She’s known no peace.
When we saw her at age 12 there was this striking beauty, innocence, but no naiveté. How could there be? She was orphaned at 6 when Russian bombing had killed her parents, but her youth and piercing eyes hid that. Then some 17 years later after an exhaustive search revealed she was alive in a refugee camp, McCurry’s new images were hardly recognizable were it not for her gaze. “Time and hardship have erased her youth,” said Cathy Newman who wrote the follow-up piece, ”Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened. “She’s had a hard life,” said McCurry.” And then she vanished. Again.
But if you’ve been unable to escape the news of late, not for lack of trying, you may have seen a familiar (or unfamiliar) face crop up in your newsfeed again, as another photo of Sharbat has surfaced, but this time not at the hands of McCurry, but perhaps an arresting officer. Sharbat was arrested in Peshawar this week for falsifying documents and living illegally in Pakistan, the place her husband worked in, and where she fled to escape an Afghanistan still in the grips of conflict, as did many other Afghans with refugee status who are now being repatriated.
We are happy to announce that the Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan has taken an interest in Sharbat Gula’s case, and has issued a statement available here: https://www.facebook.com/Dr.Zakhilwal/ We anticipate that her release will occur early next week. THANK YOU to all of you who have raised your voices in support of this wonderful woman, Sharbat Gula, who has been through so much including the bombings which killed her parents, life in a refugee camp, the loss of her beloved husband, and the death of her wonderful daughter.
That she should resurface just two years after Russia had force-seized Crimea is almost tragically ironic given it was Russian invasion which caused displacement in her early life, a displacement that never resolved and is inextricably linked to her current arrest and state of affairs.
Sharbat’s images have, for decades, popped up onto the radar of the West as somewhat of a cautionary tale and put a face to ‘distant’ wars. But perhaps what she is now, inadvertently, is a reminder that old-school geopolitics never went away; that the power-plays between massive geopolitical rivals have returned, and that in the punishing process there are people we ‘know’ whose lives are hanging by a very thin thread. She and her images humanize conflicts and personalize the pain of many. I’d say there’s some strange nobility in that. We should all be so fortunate.
The power of a photograph, I tell ya…