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The Face of Afghanistan's Pain
An Anonymous Portrait Echoes a Nation in Turmoil

Start streaming audio Hear Alex Chadwick's report on the history and people of Afghanistan, and a famed portrait of an Afghan refugee.

Sept. 24, 2001 -- It's feared that American soldiers may soon be fighting Afghanistan's Taliban on the Islamic group's own turf, the harsh, rugged mountains and plains of this central Asian nation.

Photo: Steve McCurry

Portrait of a nation -- an anonymous Afghan refugee.
Photo: Steve McCurry

Scores of invading armies have left their mark on Afghanistan -- the Aryans, the Persians, the Greeks, the Kushans and others who mixed with native tribes. Those tribes solidified into a country in the 1700s, ruled since then by a succession of strongmen and monarchs.

The nation's 1,300-year-old Islamic tradition shifted to a more fundamentalist tone about a dozen years ago, when religious students who make up the Taliban movement helped bring order following the chaotic exit of Soviet invaders.

Carl Inderfuth, assistant secretary of state for the region in the Clinton administration, told NPR's Alex Chadwick that the Taliban believed it was their divine mission to restore law and order. "And indeed, the Afghans, so tired of war, turned to (the Taliban)," Inderfuth said. "And in 1996, they moved cross Afghanistan and took the capital of Kabul."

Even so, the CIA reports there is no functioning government in Afghanistan, just a collection of ethnic groups fighting for power. "The Taliban, however, have been absolutely adamant in their determination to take control of Afghanistan and impose their strict interpretation of Islam on all Afghans," Inderfuth said.

Steve McCurry and famous photo

Steve McCurry poses in front of a reprint of his famed photo.
Photo: Steve McCurry

Photographer Steve McCurry's love of Afghanistan produced perhaps the most well-known anonymous face of our time -- the piercing stare of a young woman peering from a bedraggled cloak. She was an Afghan refugee, and Steve McCurry took her picture for the cover of National Geographic magazine.

"I went into a refugee camp, and I was kind of wandering through... and I saw this one particular girl who had this really kind of haunted look in her eye. So I got permission to photograph her," McCurry said.

"Her look kind of summed up the horror, because her village had been bombed and her relatives had been killed, and she'd had to make this two-week trek through the mountains to the refugee camp." McCurry said he tried to find the girl years later, but the refugee camp had been disbanded.

Other Resources:

• Read about Afghanistan's poor who are threatened by food shortages, Sept. 24, 2001.

• See pictures from Afghanistan, Sept. 24, 2001.

• Visit the National Geographic Web site, which has an online photo gallery of images of Afghanistan.