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Sharbat Gula

By Cathy NewmanPhotographs by Steve McCurry

Her eyes have captivated the world since she appeared on our cover in 1985.  Now we can tell her story.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Names have power, so let us speak of hers. Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she is Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity. She is 28, perhaps 29, or even 30. No one, not even she, knows for sure. Stories shift like sand in a place where no records exist. Time and hardship have erased her youth. 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. “So many here share her story.” Consider the numbers. Twenty-three years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees: This is the story of Afghanistan in the past quarter century.

Now, consider this photograph of a young girl with sea green eyes. Her eyes challenge ours. Most of all, they disturb. We cannot turn away.

“There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war,” a young Afghan merchant said in the 1985 National Geographic story that appeared with Sharbat’s photograph on the cover. She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day the sky bled terror. At night the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, stabbing her with dread.

“We left Afghanistan because of the fighting,” said her brother, Kashar Khan, filling in the narrative of her life. He is a straight line of a man with a raptor face and piercing eyes. “The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice.”

Shepherded by their grandmother, he and his four sisters walked to Pakistan. For a week they moved through mountains covered in snow, begging for blankets to keep warm.

“You never knew when the planes would come,” he recalled. “We hid in caves.”

The journey that began with the loss of their parents and a trek across mountains by foot ended in a refugee camp tent living with strangers.

“Rural people like Sharbat find it difficult to live in the cramped surroundings of a refugee camp,” explained Rahimullah Yusufzai, a respected Pakistani journalist who acted as interpreter for McCurry and the television crew. “There is no privacy. You live at the mercy of other people.” More than that, you live at the mercy of the politics of other countries. “The Russian invasion destroyed our lives,” her brother said.

It is the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan. Invasion. Resistance. Invasion. Will it ever end? “Each change of government brings hope,” said Yusufzai. “Each time, the Afghan people have found themselves betrayed by their leaders and by outsiders professing to be their friends and saviors.”

In the mid-1990s, during a lull in the fighting, Sharbat Gula went home to her village in the foothills of mountains veiled by snow.  To live in this earthen-colored village at the end of a thread of path means to scratch out an existence, nothing more.  There are terraces planted with corn, wheat, and rice, some walnut trees, a stream that spills down the mountain (except in times of drought), but no school, clinic, roads or running water.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Sights & Sounds
Follow the search for the woman who, 17 years ago, cast an adolescent gaze from our cover onto the world.

How has the childhood photo of Sharbat Gula and her real-life story affected you? Share your thoughts.

TV Special
EXPLORER takes you into the life of Sharbat Gula. Watch video clips from the show. Then check out airdates.

The 1985 Story
Read the June 1985 cover story, “Along Afghanistan’s War-torn Frontier,” and listen to a video interview with photographer Steve McCurry.

NG News
Check out our ongoing coverage of the story.

Afghan Girl Fund
You can make a difference: Contribute to the education of Afghan women and children.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

For 17 years we did not know the name of the young girl who stared so hauntingly from the cover of the June 1985 National Geographic. Now we do: It is Sharbat Gula. Her name, in the Pashto language of the Pashtun people, means sweetwater flower girl. Many women share the name Gula; it shows the love of the people for flowers.

Millions around the world have wondered who the mysterious girl was. Now she is a grown woman with girls of her own, and we can give Sharbat Gula the dignity of her name.

—Barbara McConnell

Afghanistan on the World Wide Web Virtual Library
Links to material on Afghanistan’s history, culture, government and politics, current events, and even a couple of travel guides.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency
Keep up with efforts to aid refugees in Afghanistan and around the world.

Center for Afghanistan Studies
This University of Nebraska site gives general information and offers opportunities to study Afghanistan.

Iris Recognition
Biometric techniques such as iris recognition were used to help confirm the identity of Sharbat Gula. John Daugman of the University of Cambridge invented this technique. This website includes an introduction to iris recognition and the scientific explanation behind it.

Iridian Technologies
This U.S. company develops iris-recognition security systems, the main use of iris recognition.


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Newby, Eric. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Hodder and Stoughton, 1958.

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Huntington, Ellsworth. “The Afghan Borderland. Part II: The Persian Frontier,” National Geographic (October 1909), 866-876.


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