Haunting Photos

As a kid I remember watching the Friday night 10:00 PM TV program on Doordarshan called “The World This Week”. It was a very good program – a weekly news update about events outside India, telecast in a very western manner, significantly more engrossing than the rather staid staple news programs of DD. An enduring picture that remained stuck in my mind for years was that of a girl running naked from a site attacked with Napalm. A few months back I turned to my favourite hunting ground, the internet, for finding out who that person was and what happened to her. It wasn’t difficult – Wikipedia had a story about her and National Public Radio actually had her speaking. Phan Thị Kim Phúc, or Kim Phuc or simply Phuc lives in Toronto with her husband and two children. She runs an organization called Kim Phuc Foundation International, which aids children who are war victims.

Kim Phuc, AP Photo by Nick Ut
Kim Phuc, AP Photo by Nick Ut

From her talk on NPR:

On June 8, 1972, I ran out from Cao Dai temple in my village, Trang Bang, South Vietnam; I saw an airplane getting lower and then four bombs falling down. I saw fire everywhere around me. Then I saw the fire over my body, especially on my left arm. My clothes had been burned off by fire.

I was 9 years old but I still remember my thoughts at that moment: I would be ugly and people would treat me in a different way. My picture was taken in that moment on Road No. 1 from Saigon to Phnom Penh. After a soldier gave me some drink and poured water over my body, I lost my consciousness.

Several days after, I realized that I was in the hospital, where I spent 14 months and had 17 operations.

It was a very difficult time for me when I went home from the hospital. Our house was destroyed; we lost everything and we just survived day by day.

Kim Phuc later recuperated and became the symbol of the war. Richard Nixon once doubted the authenticity of this Pulitzer Prize winning photograph – it was so iconic.

A few years after The World This Week I caught another picture, this time on a rerun of a story from the National Geographic. This picture is now famous as the Afghan Girl and it became the inspiration for people to volunteer and help out at the Afghan refugee camps.

Sharbat Gul, the Afghan Girl - photo by Steve McCurry, National Geographic June 1985
Sharbat Gul, the Afghan Girl - photo by Steve McCurry, National Geographic June 1985

At the time of this photograph the author of the story in National Geographic Debra Denker did not know the name of this girl with arguably the most haunting pair of eyes ever seen. The focus of the article being more on the ravages of the Afghan war of that time, the identity of this person was not paid much attention to. However, the photo was so captivating that many years later, after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a team from National Geographic made an earnest attempt to track her down. Cathy Newman reported the new story in April 2002, with a second photograph, again by Steve McCurry.

Sharbat Gul, 1985 and 2002, Photo by Steve McCurry, National Geographic
Sharbat Gul, 1985 and 2002, Photo by Steve McCurry, National Geographic

The name of the girl is Sharbat Gula or Sharbat Gul, depending on whether you read the story or listen to the narrative about how they tracked her down. Though Sharbat Gula means rose sharbat (sharbat being a drink of water with some sweet things added), I am tempted to believe that the name was actually Sharbat Gul, because not only is Gul a more authentic surname, but her husband’s name is Rahmat Gul too.

Sharbat, when National Geographic photographed her a second time was living with her husband and 3 daughters. Though the face had aged over the 17 years, the eyes still had that same piercing look. This time National Geographic ensured that Sharbat and her family received the aid.

5 Responses to “Haunting Photos”

  1. Wow! when I saw the picture of the Afghan girl for the first time I was 14 y/o. Those eyes and that face were stuck in my mind for a long time…I always wondered what had happened to this exotic beauty. It was amazing to see her once again. Seventeen years or so later and still beautiful, but this time with obvious sadness that opaque “the most haunting pair of eyes ever seen.”

    • Carmen,
      Thanks for stopping by.
      The first picture truly has an eerie impact – I get goosebumps even thinking about it.


      • The image somewhat carries the plight of suffering afghans during russian invasion and by the Taliban.

        Great shot, treasured in the minds of people feeling the suffering of the afghanistan people.

        Cheers !

  2. ‘Most Haunting pair of eyes ever seen’
    ‘Sharbat Gul’s piercing eyes’
    wow !

  3. awesome post……I saw the girl’s pic quiet a back…n here I am from CSos…..Your post is very attractive…..Keep it up.Thanks

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