Sharbat Gula, a living symbol of the human costs of the wars in Afghanistan, was evacuated to Rome, Italy, after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Gula achieved world renown in 1985 when a photo of her (believed to be 12 years old at the time) appeared on the cover of National Geographic, a magazine that dates back to the 19th century.

The government of Italy announced on Thursday, “The prime minister’s office has brought about and organized [Gula’s] transfer to Italy.” The statement did not disclose the date of her arrival in Italy.  

In August 2021, the United States evacuated its troops and certain allies from Afghanistan, as the Taliban took over the capital city of Kabul.

Since then, nonprofit organizations have worked to evacuate Gula, eventually finding her a safe haven in Italy. The office of prime minister Mario Draghi is also committed to helping Gula become integrated into Italian society. 

The Story of the Photo

Steve McCurry encountered Sharbat Gula in a refugee camp in Pakistan in the midst of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1984.

It was then that he took the photo, which (in the words of Draghi’s office), came to “symbolize the vicissitudes and conflict of the chapter in history that Afghanistan and its people were going through at the time.” Sharbat Gula’s piercing green eyes and her melancholy expression made the 1985 cover unforgettable.

McCurry did not learn her name until 2002, when he was able to verify her identity. The National Geographic — which in the 21st century, is a presence in all media, ran a story updating its readers on her life at that time.

That 2002 article said, “Time and hardship had erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. the geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened.”

Sharbat Gula is now in her late 40s and the mother of several children.

Gula was deported from Pakistan in 2016 on charges that she had obtained false identity documents. Human rights groups objected that to this deportation at the time. The president of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, gave her a warm welcome and he offered her a government-funded apartment.

But in August of this year, Ghani himself had to evacuate quickly from Kabul. His exile brought him to the United Arab Emirates.

The Taliban takeover once again displaced many Afghans. Neighboring Pakistan once again braced for refugees, this time expecting as many as 700,000.

Italy says that it has now offered safe haven to 5,000. The United States had resettled 22,500 Afghan refugees as of Nov. 19.

The Risks of Visibility

Gula’s personal fate is bound up with the fate of Afghanistan’s women and girls. Their rights had been expanding until the Taliban takeover. Afghan girls were going to school, they could receive college degrees, they were participating openly in the civic life of the country.

But in the first months of the Taliban rule, there has been movement in the other direction. Afghan girls are no longer allowed to play sports, and there have been new restrictions on their education. Heather Barr, the associate director for women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told The New York Times that this was a dangerous time to be a high-profile woman in the country. Women who were prominent under the regime that has now fallen are those most likely to be threatened.

As the Taliban took over, they made some efforts to present a diplomatic front as a new entity, one that accepted societal changes. But that has proven a tough sell.

“The Taliban don’t want women to be visible,” Barr said. And Sharbat Gula “is an extremely visible Afghan woman.”