Murtaza Ahmadi moved the world with his love for footballer
Lionel Messi in 2016. His dream of meeting the Argentinian came
true, but now the seven-year-old boy is living a nightmare as one
of thousands of Afghans displaced by war.
Murtaza and his family abandoned their home in southeastern
Ghazni province in November, 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 sporting a makeshift Messi jersey -- made of
a blue and white striped plastic bag and with Messi's name and
famous number 10 written carefully on the back in felt-tip pen --
flooded media and social networks in 2016.
The media hype drew the football superstar's attention, and that
year Murtaza met his idol in Qatar, where he walked out onto the
pitch clutching Messi's hand as a mascot for a Barcelona
Messi, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, also gave his tiny fan an
autographed jersey and a football.
But the moment of happiness has quickly dissipated.
AFP met with the family recently in the cramped room in Kabul
they are renting from another impoverished family, where
Murtaza's mother Shafiqa 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 their November
operation in Ghazni.
The UN says up to 4,000 families fled, with witnesses describing
"absolute terror" to AFP. 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 the small Murtaza by
"(They) said if they capture him, they will cut him into pieces,"
Shafiqa said, her eyes horrified.
Sports were rarely tolerated under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime,
and the Kabul football stadium was a well-known venue for
stonings and executions.
Shafiqa said she hid her famous son's face with a scarf to
prevent him from being recognised as they fled.
They took refuge first in a mosque in Bamiyan, before arriving in
Kabul six days later. Among their belongings left behind are the
football and jersey signed by Messi.
- 'I miss 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 said.
The attention they received as a result of Murtaza'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 have 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,
Murtaza's father Arif 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 the
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 the
most recent tally by the UN's agency for humanitarian affairs.
Homayoun, Murtaza'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.
Little Murtaza, meanwhile, says he misses his football and his
jersey from Messi.
"I want them back so I can play," he told AFP.
"I miss Messi," he added.
"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."