The portrait of a life ravaged by war

For 18 years, her face was an iconic image of innocence. But who was she? Now, at last, Sharbat Gula has been found
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She has been photographed only twice in her life, once in an Afghan refugee camp as an orphaned girl with a haunting stare, and now, 18 years later, as a woman and mother who has survived a lifetime of bloody conflict.

Sharbat Gula was aged about 12 when an American photographer took her portrait in December 1984, an image that was to become a 20th-century icon after it made the June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine.

The second picture was taken this year when the same photographer tracked Sharbat down after years of trying to find the girl whose piercing green eyes epitomised the tragic story of dispossessed children everywhere.

And the story of Sharbat is to be revealed in a television documentary next Monday on the National Geographic Channel, which has established a fund in her name to help other Afghan girls and young women.

When photographer Steve McCurry took Sharbat's picture in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp on the Pakistan-Afghan border he knew little about the frightened girl except that she had lost her parents in a Soviet bombardment of her village.

"I did not know her name," he said yesterday. "All I knew was that she had to cross the mountains with her siblings and grandmother because her home had been bombed. I asked a teacher in the camp if I could take pictures of the children and I saw her, with a look in her eyes that seemed very arresting and striking."

Sharbat, a Pashtun who had no idea that her face had become so famous, crossed the border back into Afghanistan in 1992 to try to rebuild her shattered life. Ironically, under the Taliban, her distinctive features were to be covered in public by the all-enveloping burqa.

Mr McCurry travelled back to the region 10 times in the intervening years, each time carrying the girl's photograph in the hope of finding someone who knew who she was and where she might be found.

There were many false leads, including a strikingly-similar girl called Alam Bibi who insisted she was the face in the 1984 photograph. The only problem was that her eyes were chocolate brown. Finally, Mr McCurry met a man who claimed to recognise the green-eyed girl. The man said he was a neighbour of her family and he promised to bring her over the border and back to Pakistan to meet the photographer.

"We had given him some money for travelling and we knew it was dangerous for him to cross the border," Mr McCurry said. "Frankly we were worried we might never see him again."

But in days the man reappeared and summoned Carrie Regan, a female member of the National Geographic film crew, to a guesthouse. She entered a darkened room where 10 women welcomed her. They gestured towards a seated figure in the far corner of the room draped in a black chador.

"The first thing I noticed were her eyes," Ms Regan said. "They glowed brilliantly from behind the folds of the chador. And for the first time I thought, 'My God, this could be her'."

Slowly Sharbat told the story of a young girl whose life had been destroyed by war. Her earliest memories include sounds of planes overhead and bombs falling, of rising for prayer at dawn and going to bed each night hungry. Sharbat, a devout Muslim, said she regarded the burqa – much maligned in the West – as a beautiful part of her life, and said the Taliban had brought a sense of peace and security after the lawlessness that has plagued her country for years.

She expressed bitterness towards America for the bombing campaign, but also wanted to visit the United States, saying it seemed a beautiful place.

The editors of National Geographic say Sharbat's image became one of the most famous in its 114-year history, yet she had never seen the photograph which brought her miserable plight to Western eyes.

Mr McCurry, a New Yorker who has won many photography awards, was nervous about his second meeting with Sharbat, knowing a request for further pictures had to be made with extreme tact. "As it turned out, she had never been photographed in her life until I had met her in 1984," he said. "She still remembered me because it was the first time she had had her picture taken.

"I would say it wasn't easy to photograph her. It's not really done in that culture. I had to negotiate it all through the menfolk," he said.

Although Sharbat looked similar to the young girl, there was still a nagging doubt that there had been a mistake. National Geographic organised a series of tests to make sure she was the girl in the picture. A scientific analysis of Sharbat's irises – the coloured parts of the eye which are as unique as fingerprints – confirmed she was 99.9 per cent likely to be the girl in the photograph.

The old and new photographs were further analysed by the face-recognition technology used by the FBI in criminal investigations. Based on overall facial characteristics, such as the shape of her jaws, eyebrows, nose, lips and chin, an FBI forensic scientist concluded that Sharbat was indeed the girl in the 1984 photograph.

A final verification was done using the same computer software used to recognise the faces of wanted people at international airports and government buildings in the US. The pictures of the girl in the photograph and Sharbat proved to be an exact match from a database of 350,000 faces.

Mr McCurry had finally found his most famous photographic subject after 18 years of not knowing what had happened to the girl he had met for just 15 minutes in a desolate refugee camp.

Is her life any better now than when they first met? "I don't think you can characterise her as a happy person," Mr McCurry said. "With her parents dying, her life really got off to a very rocky start.

"We talked a lot about how to make her life better. One thing she is keen on is setting up some sort of education programme for her daughters."

The grown woman who was once the hauntingly sad girl in the 1984 portrait now sees her daughters as the future of her country.