National Geographic : 2002 Apr
He knew the girl in the picture. They had lived at the camp together as children. She had returned to Afghanistan years ago, he said, and now lived in the mountains near Tora Bora. He would go get her. It took three days for her to arrive. Her village is a six-hour drive and three-hour hike across a border that swallows lives. When McCurry saw her walk into the room, he thought to himself: This is her. Afamily portrait shows, from left to right, three year-old daughter Zahida, husband Rahmat Gul, Sharbat Gula, Alia, and Sharbat's older brother, Kashar Khan. To help McCurry and the TV crew locate her, elders from the Nasir Bagh refugee camp (right) circulated McCurry's photograph. 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." Con sider 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.