Pakistan, not a home for the children of war?

Published: February 26, 2015

A then and now image of Sharbat BIbi published in National Geographic in 2002

A then and now image of Sharbat BIbi published in National Geographic in 2002 An image of Sharbat Bibi holding the cover she was featured in June 1985. PHOTO: STEVE MCCURRY

Having worked in newsrooms for nearly three years, I find it increasingly difficult to ignore a certain self-congratulatory attitude among Pakistani journalists. Every now and then, a chief justice takes notice of a rape story and our inboxes are flooded with emails of colleagues congratulating the hard working reporter who broke the story.

Once, we even did a feature on how our story helped a rape victim get justice. It was so smug, it set off a round of emails critiquing such editorial decisions and such a feature thankfully never appeared again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s crucial that good journalism be recognised, for it connects us to a broader issue. Each news story on rape points to a pervasive culture and the comments underneath offer us a glimpse into societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. If by merely reporting it, someone helps a victim get justice, he/she should be appreciated.

But then there are stories like that of Sharbat Bibi’s, McCurry’s Afghan girl. Bibi became a recognised face world-over when National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry captured her portrait at the Nasir Bagh Refugee Camp in 1984. When he found her again 17-years-later, he offered us a look into the life she had lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan during a tumultuous phase in both nations’ history. She is not a rape victim. But when she hit the headlines recently – with TV and newspaper reporters all clamouring to claim credit for breaking the news that she was living on a CNIC issued to her “in violation of rules” – very few remembered that she is a victim of war.

By gleefully pointing at her “illegal” status in Pakistan and bunching her name with statistics of thousands of people who use the same illegal method to obtain CNICs, Pakistani journalists turned her ID card photo into a portrait of our anti-immigrant attitude.

Indeed, she is no different from the millions who were uprooted from their homes back in 1980s. Their experiences form a narrative that should have, by now, been embedded into the discourse of the war – a war shared by people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In National Geographic’s Afghan GirlA Life Revealedit was told,

“[Her husband] lives in Peshawar… and works in a bakery. Her asthma, which cannot tolerate the heat and pollution of Peshawar in summer, limits her time in the city and with her husband to the winter. The rest of the year she lives in the mountains.”

When she applied for a Pakistani identity card, her form stated that she was a resident of Nothia Qadeem in Peshawar.

Bibi is among the many children who grew up to know two homes. War made it so. Her story is not that uncommon for a refugee. So what purpose did the news story on Bibi’s CNIC “issued in violation of rules” serve – besides a fight between media houses about who broke it first?

It uncovered NADRA’s negligence (wait, that still merits as news these days?), it got four officials suspended (surprise, surprise) and the ID cards issued to her and some men who probably are not her sons were cancelled. It told us that the famed Afghan Girl is no different from a petty Pashtun immigrant – you know, the one who is always up to something illegal.

It also hinted at the alarming attitude towards Afghan refugees after the attack on APS in Peshawar on December 16. The UNHCR and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees say 19,000 Afghans returned home in 2013 and 4,800 refugees were repatriated in 2014. UNHCR further says that nine times as many Afghan refugees repatriated from Pakistan in January 2015 than in December 2014.

I remember struggling to keep count of reports of Afghan refugees being detained and sent off to “undisclosed locations” in days following the announcement of the National Action Plan. I, therefore, stand with the Human Rights Watch when it speaks against forceful return of refugees from Pakistan. The government must remember its obligation to protect all Afghans, including those not registered as refugees.

A leading media organisation says it believes that,

“Repatriation should be voluntary — keeping in mind that without peace in war-torn Afghanistan, the refugees may not want to return.”

Further, it says better border management is needed because,

“People have been known to take money offered by the UN, leave for Afghanistan and soon find their way back to Pakistan. Additionally, there has been no coherent refugee policy at the national level, which is hampering efforts to effectively address the problem.”

The first place for policymakers to start, in my humble opinion, would be to understand that the “problem” runs deeper than border management and illegal ID cards. It is of a shared history, language and struggle. Together, they form an identity that transcends borders.

It is not hard to guess why they come back. The Afghan economy is in tatters, unemployment is rampant and security has not improved. Meanwhile in Pakistan, refugees now have families, professions and a life rebuilt from scratch.


Aima Khosa

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @aimamk

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.