By Akram Walizada
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan’s president on Wednesday welcomed back Sharbat Gula, the green-eyed “Afghan Girl” whose 1985 photo in National Geographic became a symbol of her country’s wars, offering her a furnished apartment after she was deported by Pakistan.
Pakistan security officials escorted Gula overnight from a Peshawar hospital, where she had been staying since her arrest last month for living illegally in Pakistan, and handed her over to Afghan authorities at the Torkham border.
Gula’s deportation comes amid Pakistani pressure to send 2.5 million Afghan refugees back home even though Afghanistan is facing a bloody Taliban insurgency and would struggle to look after so many returnees.
“I welcome her back to the bosom of her motherland,” President Ashraf Ghani said with an expressionless Gula standing beside him during a small welcome-back ceremony at the palace in Kabul.
“I’ve said repeatedly, and I like to repeat it again, that our country is incomplete until we absorb all of our refugees.”
Ghani promised to provide Gula with a furnished apartment to ensure she “lives with dignity and security in her homeland”.
Gula, wearing a blue burqa that was pulled back to show her face, did not comment during the ceremony, which her children also attended.
Gula was for years an unnamed celebrity after an image of her as a teenage Afghan refugee was featured on National Geographic magazine’s cover in 1985, her striking green eyes peering out from a headscarf with a mixture of ferocity and pain.
The image became a symbol of Afghanistan’s suffering during the 1980s Soviet occupation and U.S.-backed mujahadeen insurgency against it.
The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 led to the collapse of the Kabul government and years of civil war until the Islamist Taliban movement seized power in the mid-1990s.
After the Taliban regime fell to the U.S.-backed military action in 2001, National Geographic sent photographer Steve McCurry to find the girl in the photo, eventually identified as Gula.
“The woman who stands next to me became an iconic figure representing Afghan deprivation, Afghan hope and Afghan aspirations,” Ghani said. “All of us are inspired by her courage and determination.”
Gula had been living in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar for years with her children and husband, who died five years ago.
(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan; Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Nick Macfie)