From the camp, the trail wound through several villages and into at least one dead end, until someone recognized the girl on the cover of National Geographic and said he knew her brother.
"The second I saw the color of her brother's eyes, I knew we had the right family," said Matson.
Because Sharbat Gula lives a traditional Muslim life behind the veil, she was not allowed to meet men outside her family. But the Geographic team was given permission to send a female associate producer to meet Sharbat and photograph her face.
Matson said that when he compared the photograph of the woman with that of the girl, he was certain it was the same person. "The irises of the eyes, the moles and scar on the faceall indicated this was the person we were looking for," he said.
Still, to make sure Sharbat Gula was the girl who had been photographed 17 years earlier, the EXPLORER team obtained verification through iris-scanning technology and face-recognition techniques used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
After Sharbat's family granted permission for her to meet with the man who photographed her 17 years ago, McCurry knew immediately, even after so many years, that he had found her again. "Her eyes are as haunting now as they were then," he said.
"She remembered me, primarily because she had never been photographed before I made the image of her in 1984, or since then," he said.
Sharbat Gula recalled the experience of being photographed as a child, she told McCurry, because she remembered how her head covering was full of holes after being scorched by a cooking fire.
When they met again, McCurry told Sharbat her image had become famous as a symbol of the Afghan people. "I don't think she was particularly interested in her personal fame," McCurry said. "But she was pleased when we said she had come to be a symbol of the dignity and resilience of her people."
The award-winning photographer said his original image of Sharbat had seized the imagination of so many people around the world because her face, particularly her eyes, expressed pain and resilience as well as strength and beauty.
Sharbat Tells Her Story
When Sharbat agreed to have her picture taken for the second time in her life, she came out from the secrecy of her veil to tell her story. She wanted the people around the world who knew her face to know that she survived the refugee camp in Pakistan.
She married and had four daughters, one of whom died in infancy. She lives in obscurity, according to the customs and traditions of her culture and religion.
A member of the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan, Sharbat said she fared relatively well under Taliban rule, which, she feels, provided a measure of stability after the chaos and terror of the Soviet war.
According to Matson and McCurry, Sharbat Gula has returned to anonymity; the latest publicity about her name and face is unlikely to draw attention to her in Afghanistan. "She will not give another media interview and she wishes not to be contacted," Matson said. Her family has relocated to a different village in a remote part of Afghanistan, where she will continue to live her life in purdah, he added.
Asked if Sharbat would benefit financially from her famous image, Matson said she was "being looked after."
"Clearly she has become a symbol that National Geographic has used to illustrate the circumstances of refugees like her, and many people have inquired about her," he said. "She stood for an entire group of refugees, not just Afghan refugees. She has helped us with our mission of educating people about other cultures and regionsand she's helping us again by drawing attention to the lives of Afghan women and girls in general."
Related Feature: Change Slow for Afghan Women
Because Sharbat Gula has come to symbolize the suffering of an entire generation of Afghan women and their children, the National Geographic Society is creating a special fund to assist in the development and delivery of educational opportunities for young Afghan women and girls. The Society will work with select nonprofit organizations and local authorities in the region to create the program.
Contributions can be made online to the National Geographic Afghan Girls Fund or by sending a check directly to the National Geographic Afghan Girls Fund, Development Office, National Geographic Society, 1145 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036.
Sharbat Gula's life is the subject of the cover story in the April issue of National Geographic, and the process of finding her and verifying her identity is detailed in a television documentary from National Geographic EXPLORER, broadcast in the United States on MSNBC and internationally on the National Geographic Channel.
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