PESHAWAR, Pakistan – After several days locked up in a Pakistani jail, Sharbat Gula was depressed and confused.
“I am ill and quite worried about my children, how they will survive,” the 44-year-old Afghan widow and mother of four said during an interview in Pakistani detention last week.
Gula’s face is well-known around the world. American photographer Steve McCurry’s 1984 portrait of Gula, then a 12-year-old orphan in a Pakistani refugee camp, became one of National Geographic magazine’s most famous cover images.
Less well-known is the precarious situation that Gula and some 2.4 million other Afghan refugees currently face in Pakistan.
Gula was arrested in the Pakistani city of Peshawar last week for obtaining a fake Pakistani ID. She was later transferred to hospital, suffering from Hepatitis C. On Friday, Gula pleaded guilty and is expected to be deported to Afghanistan within days.
Her case has made headlines in Pakistan, and around the world. In the hospital, she was visited by diplomats and brought flowers by activists. Afghan officials are claiming her as a “national icon,” and say President Ashraf Ghani will personally welcome her home.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans face a less salubrious homecoming.
Afghans are flooding over the border from Pakistan amid growing police harassment and a government warning that all Afghan refugees must leave by next March.
The U.N. says 370,000 people have left since July, and expects 800,000 Afghans to return by the end of the year. “If that sounds like a lot, it is,” the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement.
They are now returning to a home still wracked by conflict. Gula’s hometown in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province is now under the control of militants aligned to the so-called Islamic State, so the family is planning to move the city of Jalalabad, says Pakistani journalist Rahim ullah Yousafzai, who helped McCurry find Gula in 2002.
As part of the crackdown on Afghans, Pakistanis officials recently pledged to re-verify every national ID for fraud. Officials said they were responding to the discovery that Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, after he was killed in a U.S. drone strike, had a fake Pakistani ID, yet the move predominantly affected unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
So far, Pakistan’s National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) have found 60,675 fraudulent cards out of 91 million that have been checked. Thousands of Afghans have been arrested for having no documents or fake IDs over the past year. Many, like Gula, end up being deported home.
Gula came to Pakistan as a child after her parents were killed during war in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979. Millions of Afghans fled that war and the waves of conflicts that followed. Some 1.4 million registered as refugees in Pakistan; an estimated 1 million others are unregistered, leaving them at constant risk of arrest or deportation. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says Gula is among those who do not appear to have registered as a refugee.
“UNHCR never had the capacity to register large numbers of people … Their system was never able to kick in and replace Pakistan’s refugee registration system that in effect ended in 2007,” Human Rights Watch researcher Gerry Simpson explains.
“My guess is that most, if not all, of the people getting false Pakistani ID cards did so because they were unable to register for proof of registration cards after 2007, and they felt it was the only way to protect themselves from getting rounded up and deported for undocumented presence.”
Gula says two men pretended to be her sons and gave officials $100 to get a fake ID. They are now on the run. She says the men hoped to use her fame to protect them from arrest.
Fame has never been of much use to Gula. While her image became a symbol of refugees around the world in the 1980s, she had no idea and hadn’t even seen the photo until McCurry tracked her down in Afghanistan in 2002.
In detention last week, Gula remained oblivious to the political firestorm building outside. Gula’s arrest had “hurt the feelings of all Afghans,” the Afghan envoy to Pakistan Omer Zakhilwal said, and urged the Pakistani prime minister to intervene.
“I am unaware of my popularity,” she said in response to a question about the prominence of her case during last Friday’s interview, sitting in her brown ‘shuttlecock’ burqa while a security official looked on.
It’s unclear if all the attention has helped or harmed her case.
Yousafzai thinks Gula’s fame spared her prolonged imprisonment, or the maximum penalty of 14 years in jail. “The officials were unaware of her popularity” when she was arrested, he said. “After greater media attention they released her because of her popularity.”
McCurry, the photographer who made Gula famous, believes that Pakistan is exploiting Gula’s fame to send a message to other Afghans and to fan anti-Afghan sentiment in Pakistan.
“As her face once symbolized the hopes of countless refugees, the image of her post-arrest mugshot circulated last week was meant to instill fear into other refugees – and to turn the minds of others against the migrant population,” he wrote in the Guardian.