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From dream to nightmare: Afghan ‘Little Messi’ forced to flee

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Afghan boy, whose home-made 'jersey' caught the attention of Barcelona and Argentina star, has been forced to flee home

KABUL : Murtaza Ahmadi moved the world when his love for footballer Lionel Messi came to light 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 south-eastern Ghazni province in November, along with hundreds of others, fleeing intense fighting after the Taleban 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 Taleban 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 friendly.

Messi, a Unicef goodwill ambassador, also gave his little fan an autographed jersey and a football.

But the moment of happiness has quickly dissipated.

AFP met the family recently in the cramped room in Kabul they are renting from another impoverished family, where Murtaza's mother Shafiqa spoke of 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 Shi'ite-denominated Hazara ethnic group, who were targeted by the Sunni Taleban 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 Taleban were searching for Murtaza by name. "(They) said if they capture him, they will cut him into pieces," Ms Shafiqa said, her eyes showing her horror.

Sports were rarely tolerated under the 1996-2001 Taleban regime, and the Kabul football stadium was a well-known venue for stonings and executions.

Ms 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.

Although Afghan security forces have beaten back the Taleban in Jaghori, the family says it no longer feels safe.

"Local strongmen were calling and saying, 'You have become rich, pay the money you have received from Messi or we will take your son'," Ms Shafiqa said.- AFP