Murtaza Ahmadi moved the world with his love for soccer player Lionel Messi in 2016. His dream of meeting the Argentine came true, but now the seven-year-old boy is living a nightmare as one of thousands of Afghans displaced by war.
Murtaza Ahmadi and his family abandoned their home in southeastern Ghazni Province last month, along with hundreds of others fleeing intense fighting after the Taliban launched an offensive in the previously safe area.
Now they are among the thousands of similarly uprooted people struggling to get by in Kabul and also living with the fear that the Taliban are hunting for their famous son.
The image of Murtaza Ahmadi sporting a makeshift Messi jersey — made of a blue and white striped plastic bag and with Messi’s name and famous No. 10 written carefully on the back in felt-tip pen — flooded media and social networks in 2016.
The media hype drew the soccer superstar’s attention and that year Murtaza Ahmadi met his idol in Qatar, where he walked out onto the pitch clutching Messi’s hand as a mascot for a Barcelona friendly.
Messi, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, also gave his tiny fan an autographed jersey and a ball, but the moment of happiness has quickly dissipated.
Agence France-Presse met the family in the cramped room in Kabul they are renting from another impoverished family, where Murtaza Ahmadi’s mother, Shafiqa Ahmadi, told how they had fled their home district of Jaghori in the night after hearing gunshots.
“We couldn’t take any of our belongings, we left only with our lives,” she said, her face half hidden by a scarf.
The family belongs to the Shiite-denominated Hazara ethnic group, who were targeted by the Sunni Taliban in last month’s operation in Ghazni.
The UN says that up to 4,000 families fled, with witnesses describing “absolute terror.”
Hundreds of civilians, soldiers, and insurgents were killed in the fighting.
The fear felt by the Ahmadi family was ratcheted up when they learned that the Taliban were searching for their son by name.
“[They] said if they capture him, they will cut him into pieces,” Shafiqa Ahmadi said, her eyes horrified.
Sports were rarely tolerated under the 1996 to 2001 Taliban regime and the soccer stadium in Kabul was a well-known venue for stonings and executions.
Shafiqa Ahmadi said she hid her famous son’s face with a scarf to prevent him from being recognized as the family fled.
They took refuge first in a mosque in Bamiyan, before arriving in Kabul six days later.
Among their belongings left behind were the ball and jersey signed by Messi.
Although Afghan security forces have beaten back the Taliban in Jaghori, the family says it no longer feels safe.
“The danger of the Taliban coming back is high, going back is not an option,” Shafiqa Ahmadi said.
The attention they received as a result of Murtaza Ahmadi’s fame has added to their fears, she continued.
“Local strongmen were calling and saying: ‘You have become rich, pay the money you have received from Messi or we will take your son,’” she said. “At night we would sometimes see unknown men, watching and checking our house, and then the calls. During the days, we wouldn’t dare let him outside home to play with other children.”
The family has already fled once before, to Pakistan in 2016, where they sought asylum in “any safe country.”
They returned reluctantly to Jaghori after their money ran out, Shafiqa Ahmadi said.
Murtaza Ahmadi’s father, Arif Ahmadi, remains in Jaghori working as a farmer while his family lives in Kabul under precarious conditions, with inadequate shelter, food, water or sanitation available to refugees.
They are among the more than 300,000 Afghans — 58 percent of whom are under the age of 18 — who have fled their homes due to violence since the beginning of this year alone, according to a tally by the UN’s agency for humanitarian affairs.
Homayoun Ahmadi, Murtaza Ahmadi’s eldest brother, who made him his plastic jersey, says that even in Kabul he is afraid.
“We are worried something bad will happen if they know who Murtaza is,” he said.
Meanwhile, little Murtaza Ahmadi says he misses his ball and jersey from Messi.
“I want them back so I can play,” he said. “I miss Messi. When I meet him, I will say: ‘Salaam’ and ‘How are you?’ Then he will reply saying thank you and be safe, and I will go with him to the pitch where he will play and I will watch him.”
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