An Afghan boy who shot to international fame for his devotion to the footballer Lionel Messi has been forced to flee his home for a second time amid the threat of militant attack – leaving behind his prized signed jersey and football.
Murtaza Ahmadi, seven, and his family are now living in Kabul after they and hundreds more sought the safety of the capital amid intense fighting in southeastern Ghazni province last month.
They say they are struggling to make ends meet and must contend with the constant fear that the Taliban is looking for them.
There is little prospect of returning any time soon leaving Murtaza without his beloved football and jersey.
“I want them back so I can play,” he told AFP.
An image of Murtaza wearing a plastic bag fashioned into a Messi shirt went viral in 2016.
The media attention turned a dream into reality when Messi sent the boy a signed jersey and a ball. They later met in Qatar where the superstar was playing a friendly.
However, the attention brought threats.
“Local strongmen were calling and saying, ‘You have become rich, pay the money you have received from Messi or we will take your son’,” said his mother Shafiqa.
The family feared the worst when a Taliban offensive brought fighting towards their home. They left when they heard gunshots.
“We couldn’t take any of our belongings, we left only with our lives,” added Shafiqa.
The family belongs to the Shia Hazara ethnic group, who were singled out by the Sunni Taliban during their November operation in Ghazni.
The UN said up to 4,000 families fled, with witnesses describing scenes of “absolute terror” to AFP.
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 the 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 said.
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, she said.
Murtaza’s father Arif remains in Jaghori working as a farmer while his family lives in Kabul.