By Manzoor Ahmed
Pakistan has courted a public relations disaster by deporting Sharbat Gula, the Afghan woman who became famous as the “Afghan Girl” then a teenager with evocative green eyes, after her photo on National Geographic magazine cover in 1985 made her the symbol of the turmoil in Afghanistan.
Her deportation after she refused to stay on in Pakistan and her welcome home by President Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula at the presidential palace in Kabul has had the effect of nullifying what Pakistan has been doing for Afghan refugees for so long and at heavy cost.
According to Pakistani media reports, the ‘Afghan Girl’ had pleaded guilty to six charges against her, including her illegal stay in Pakistan, forgery, cheating, tampering with documents and violation of the Nadra (National Database and Registration Authority) Act.
Ghani welcomed Gula her back home and presented her keys to a furnished home where she can live with her children in decent conditions. The sight of Ghani, bending to pat Gula’s children conveys Afghanistan’s growing confidence, despite problems, to take care of its people. It also underscores the tensions that prevail between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Gula was deported after she had been a refugee for over three decades when Pakistani authorities found that she was living ‘illegally’ in an Afghans’ refugee camp in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan’s province bodering Afghanistan. She was sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment and slapped a fine of Rs 110,000 by a Pakistani court. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office distanced itself saying she was not a registered inmate of the refugee camp.
Gula’s miserable condition was alleviated when the Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan sought clemency for her. Sensing that her departure, under whatever the reasons and conditions, could be bad for Pakistan’s image, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government also tried to intercede and secure clemency for her. But this failed and Gula herself refused to stay on after the humiliation heaped on her.
Gula is a widow and has children to look after. She is under treatment for Hepatitis C and her imprisonment would have been bad for the family.
It is only after she met the Afghan President that people, and perhaps the authorities, in Pakistan realized that they are getting bad press abroad. Gula with green, evocative eyes, is a haunting image in the West and any ill-treatment gives Pakistan a bad name.
Now public reaction in Pakistan is one of indignation. Pakistan has been hosting millions of Afghan refugees since the 1980s. It has also sought to talk and act tough, showing impatience at having to host refugees indefinitely. Some three million Afghans still live in camps in Pakistan for which, the UNHCR and other bodies pay.
However, rather than being a caring good host, Pakistan has largely earned the image of a bully and one that funds and shelters Taliban who have continued to stir the Afghan pot and prevented any reconciliation between the rebels and Kabul. And it is this that perpetuates the presence of large number of refugees on Pakistani soil.
The decision of stopping her deportation was taken on Saturday by the provincial government on humanitarian grounds and as “a goodwill gesture towards Afghanistan.”
But the “goodwill gesture” has had a negative effect for Pakistan that let go Gula without taking and receiving credit for having sheltered her for over three decades.
The impact of Ghani’s gesture is tremendous. It can be gauged from his Tweet and the response, which is as follows:
“Ashraf Ghani ✔ @ashrafghani
Pleased to have welcomed Sharbat Gula & her family back to AFG. Her life inspires us all. She represents all the brave women of this land.
7:59 PM – 9 Nov 2016”
The post has had 646 646 Retweets and 1,435 1,435 likes.
Many Pakistanis are livid with this.
“Wish Afghan President also embraces other three million refugees,” says one commentator,tongue in cheek and with indignation, at the reception accorded to Gula in Kabul.
Another comment made sarcastically, “wish all Afghan refugees had green eyes.”
Ghani, who held an olive branch to Pakistan on becoming the Afghan President, has realized that the latter can only heap humiliation and export terrorists. After two years of futile efforts at reconciliation, he has begun to hit out at Islamabad.
There is talk of Gula being sent to India for medical treatment, which would be another disaster for Pakistan’s image. In any case, India has thousands of Afghan refugees who live their modest lives without being harassed or used as pawns in hostile game like Pakistan does.