It has been 30 years since a young Afghan woman draped in a pomegranate red shawl stared back at the world from a glossy National Geographic cover.
Recently, as she languished in a Peshawar prison days before her unceremonious deportation, another photo emerged — this one starkly different. It was a hazy photograph before her court hearing in Peshawar. The sparkle of those beautiful eyes was gone and her jaundiced skin betrayed fatigue and pain — hallmarks of her years spent as an outsider in Pakistan.
Her crime: An attempt to illegally obtain an ID card that would allow her to be a citizen of Pakistan — the country that has been her home longer than Afghanistan.
Sharbat Gula is one in millions of Afghans living in Pakistan after escaping a homeland obliterated by violence. “Afghanistan is only my birthplace, but Pakistan was my homeland,” she said in one interview. Yet, Pakistan never accepted Gula as its own.
And so, dressed in a distinct cobalt blue burka, she left for Torkham border — for home — on Nov 9; her eyes hidden behind a lattice veil that made her indistinguishable from the thousands of Afghans being ‘repatriated’ from Pakistan.
Much like the life of this woman, arrests, forced payment of bribes, violence, harassment and intimidation are everyday features in the life of Afghans living in Pakistan.
Back in Afghanistan too things have changed over the years. Abdur Jabbar, another Afghan-origin man who until recently lived in Pakistan, is back living in Jalalabad. Aged 70, he had to leave Pakistan after spending 40 years in the country. Many like him came back to Afghanistan only to find that their houses were either destroyed by war or were occupied by someone else. Abdul is also concerned for his children. “They used to make good living selling vegetables and fruits in Peshawar, but they are yet to find anything here,” he says.
Each day in the life of these Afghans is a struggle. These are their stories.