Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan first lady Rula Ghani, left, receive Sharbat Gula, in blue burqa, and her children in Kabul after she arrived from Pakistan on Nov. 9. (Hedayatullah Amid/European Pressphoto Agency)

Thirty-one years ago, the face of an unnamed Afghan girl, her piercing green eyes staring from the cover of National Geographic magazine, captivated the world and drew attention to the plight of millions of refugees who had fled a brutal conflict between Soviet troops and Islamic Afghan militias. 

This week, Sharbat Gula, now 45 and a sickly widow with four children, finally came home to a formal welcome by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Having endured years of poverty and illness in a Pakistani refugee camp, she was jailed this month for carrying a false national ID card and deported across the border in the middle of the night.

“I welcome you back to the bosom of your motherland,” the beaming president told Gula, who sat silent and expressionless in a palace armchair, a peacock-blue burqa pulled back from her face. Ghani held her young son in his lap, then presented her with the key to a furnished family apartment. “I have said repeatedly . . . our country will be incomplete until we absorb all our refugees.”

The warm ceremony, recorded by a dozen Afghan TV cameras, was an unspoken rebuke to Pakistani officials, who have been cracking down on identity fraud among more than 2 million long-term Afghan refugees as part of a tough new policy to pressure them to return to Afghanistan. 

A photo taken Oct. 26 shows Inam Khan, owner of a bookshop in Islamabad, Pakistan, showing a copy of the iconic National Geographic cover photo of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula. (B.K. Bangash/Associated Press)

It was also part of a government publicity campaign to entice refugees to come back from Pakistan, although the gift of a new home contrasted with the struggles facing tens of thousands of families who have been pouring into their impoverished, war-torn homeland for the past year. With no jobs or homes, many have crammed into Afghanistan’s urban slums, though some are being offered small plots of vacant land.

But in many ways, Gula’s high-profile homecoming was an awkward and muddled ending to the sad saga of a briefly famous girl who had vanished into the hardscrabble life of an illiterate refugee, married in her mid-teens and grown ill after the death of her husband, finally ending up in the middle of a political and bureaucratic fight between two neighboring Muslim countries over what to do with a large refugee population neither can afford to sustain.

Gula resurfaced once before, when Steve McCurry, the photographer who had taken the 1985 picture for National Geographic, tracked her down in Pakistan in 2002 and discovered the harsh life she was leading. A follow-up portrait on the magazine cover showed her as a glum figure, posing with the original photo and almost unrecognizable except for the same sharp green eyes.

Then, last month, after Pakistani officials discovered that she was using a fake government ID card, Gula was thrust into an even more unwelcome spotlight, charged with fraud and sentenced to two weeks in jail — complete with a police mug shot. Pakistani officials defended her treatment as strictly by the book, but critics in both countries denounced it as a cruel and absurd abuse of a woman known to the world as the Afghan Mona Lisa.

“The Pakistani state seems to have sprung into action a little too late, since bigger security threats than a widowed Afghan woman, like Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and [recent Taliban leader] Mullah Mansoor, all seemed to have been found living in Pakistan,” blogger Mona Naseer wrote in the Pakistani newspaper the Nation. “Arresting those insurgency leaders would have benefitted Pakistan, but [it] instead chose to crack down on the helpless, poor and ill Sharbat Gula.”

“The arrest of the renowned Afghan woman Sharbat Gula has opened the lid on the inhumane policies of Pakistan towards Afghan refugees,” charged the lead editorial in the Afghanistan Times daily newspaper. “It is time to bring her back home with dignity.”

The matter quickly developed into a full-fledged diplomatic incident. The Afghan ambassador in Pakistan sprang to her defense, and delegations were sent from Kabul to investigate. Gula suffers from hepatitis C, which killed her husband and one of her children, and she was hospitalized in Pakistan while awaiting a court hearing and deportation. In an aside to the drama, one of Pakistan’s most respected journalists, Rahimullah Yousufzai, was accused of misusing funds McCurry and others had raised to assist Gula and her family; he has denied the claim.

At first, according to news reports in Pakistan, Gula was reluctant to return to Afghanistan after living virtually her whole life in Pakistan, but later changed her mind. The provincial government stepped up and provided medical treatment and child care. Pakistani officials changed their plans repeatedly but finally drove her to the border from the hospital in Peshawar late Tuesday night and handed her over to Afghan officials.

By Wednesday, Gula, who had lived much of her life in a dusty Pakistani refugee camp, was seated stiffly in a brocade armchair in Afghanistan’s presidential palace, her face downcast as a phalanx of cameramen tried to zoom in for a shot of her iconic green eyes.   

Ghani, hugging her and her four children as they were ushered into the room, promised her a “life of dignity and security” in Afghanistan and praised her for becoming a national hero. “The woman who stands next to me became an iconic figure representing Afghan deprivation, hope and aspirations,” he said. “All of us are inspired by her courage and determination.’

Gula mumbled something unintelligible and kept staring at the floor.