“It’s heartbreaking”: Steve McCurry on Afghan Girl, a portrait of the past and the present | Global development

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Ön September 1, a young Afghan girl and her family stood in line at a US base in Sicily to board a flight to Philadelphia. She is around nine years old and one of more than 100,000 people evacuated from Kabul by Allied forces after the Taliban took control of the country in August.

Her photo, which Italian photojournalist Alessio Mamo took for the Guardian and can be seen on the front page of the British print edition, resembles the Afghan Girl of American photographer Steve McCurry. McCurry’s portrait of a Pashtun child, Sharbat Gula, which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985, became not only the symbol of Afghanistan, but the symbol of displaced refugees around the world.

An Afghan family waits for a flight to the USA at an American base in Sicily. The resemblance between the young girl (right) and Sharbat Gula in Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, captured more than three decades ago, is reminiscent of the failure of foreign intervention and the devastating impact on children’s lives. Photo: Alessio Mamo / The Guardian

Technically speaking, the photos are very different, but there are striking similarities between the two Afghan girls, both physically and historically: Both have intensely green eyes and wear a red headscarf. Above all, despite the separation of more than 35 years, the two subjects are refugees.

Viewed together, the two images appear to depict the failure of repeated invasions by foreign powers into Afghanistan, making it one of the most unstable areas in the world.

“Yes, there are many similarities between the two situations,” McCurry said in an interview with the Guardian. “Afghans are in the same predicament as they were in the 1980s. They question security, are displaced and seek refuge. “

McCurry first met Gula in the Pakistani refugee camp Nasir Bagh during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when millions of people were displaced by the conflict between mujahideen insurgents and Soviet occupation forces. Gula, who had to flee her village in eastern Nangarhar after a Soviet bombing raid, went with her family, including her three sisters, brother and grandmother, over the mountains to a Pakistani refugee camp.

When McCurry, who followed the conflict from Pakistan and the rebel areas of Afghanistan, saw her for the first time, he had no doubt: “I knew immediately that this was really the only picture I wanted to take,” he later told the press .

But that didn’t stop McCurry’s work on Afghanistan. The American photographer has visited the country throughout his career. In traditional clothing and with a full beard, he traveled with the mujahideen for months and documented the brutality of the Soviet invasion before Russia closed the country to Western journalists. McCurry experienced firsthand the most important events in Afghanistan’s recent history, including September 11th, which would mark the country for 20 years. When the hijacked plane hit the Twin Towers, McCurry was in his New York study. Shortly afterwards, the Americans began bombing the land they had occupied until last month. Afghanistan and the US became inextricably linked. But, according to McCurry, it didn’t start with 9/11; the two countries had long been intertwined when the Americans “began sending billions of dollars during the Soviet invasion in the early 1980s to support the mujahideen against the Afghan government”.

Steve McCurry's Afghan girl.  A portrait of Sharbat Gula taken in Pakistan's Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984 when refugees fled the country during the Afghan-Soviet conflict.
Steve McCurry’s Afghan girl. A portrait of Sharbat Gula taken in Pakistan’s Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984 when refugees fled the country during the Afghan-Soviet conflict. Photo: Steve McCurry / Magnum

“We should probably have left Afghanistan in the first few years,” he adds. “We should have learned from the Russian engagement in the 1980s. However, the manner in which the trigger was carried out was a nightmare and a complete failure of our intelligence. “

The country is now in the hands of the Taliban, who immediately began arresting anyone who supported the previous government. Twenty civilians were killed in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley on Tuesday, with the apparent execution of a man in uniform being videotaped. Women pay the highest price. Since the Taliban captured Kabul, they have installed an all-male interim government and brought back the Ministry of Virtue and Vice to oversee its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

“I was devastated for the people of Afghanistan, especially young Afghans whose dreams have been shattered,” he says. “The tremendous waste of lives and trillions of dollars that could have done so much good in education and healthcare. I think it is important to raise awareness of what is happening in Afghanistan and keep it on people’s radar. I have many Afghan friends and colleagues and it is heartbreaking to see the devastation they are experiencing. It is important to us to do everything we can to help the people in Afghanistan. “

Today, as in the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Afghans are preparing to leave the country. Allied airlifts have evacuated those who worked with the occupiers and their families at risk of Taliban reprisals. Including Ahmed *, who worked for US troops and stood in line with his family around noon on September 1, before he flew to the USA. At one point his daughter turned her gaze to a group of journalists and photographers who had arrived to document their departure for Philadelphia, which happened to be McCurry’s hometown. She has the prospect of a new life that many who have not been fortunate enough to leave the country are still looking for. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, up to half a million Afghans could flee by the end of the year, and thousands are already on their way to Iran and Pakistan, the same area where McCurry met Gula.

Gula’s identity remained a mystery for 18 years, but in January 2002 McCurry and National Geographic organized an expedition to find out if she was still alive. Gula was found after months of searching, and McCurry photographed her again. McCurry learned that the girl who had become the reluctant symbol of her homeland and who had been compared to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa had not had an easy life. After their marriage at the age of 13, Gula followed the vicissitudes of her country and moved in and out of refugee camps.

Since then, McCurry has come under fire for altering some images (but not Gula’s), sparking a debate about authenticity in the photography community and beyond. At that time he replied that the manipulation was a mistake. He described himself as a “visual storyteller” as opposed to a photojournalist. And Afghan Girl is arguably the most famous of these stories.

In 2016, Gula was arrested for living illegally in Pakistan under false papers, a common practice among Afghan refugees living there without legal status. She had five children, but one died shortly after giving birth and suffered from hepatitis C from which her husband died.

The main difference between the two girls, according to McCurry, is their fate. “The girl moving to the United States will most likely have more educational opportunities,” he says.

Before leaving Sicily, Ahmed told the Guardian that he hoped the US would help his daughter achieve her dreams.

On the other side of the world, in Afghanistan, Gula is facing even more insecurity among the Taliban. McCurry prefers not to talk about it: “We cannot talk about Sharbat at all to protect her.”

* Name has been changed


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