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

Murtaza Ahmadi, a supporter of Argentine footballer Lionel Messi, outside his home in Kabul on Dec. 3, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 06 December 2018

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

KABUL: 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. (AFP/File)




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. (AFP/File)


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 name.




“(They) said if they capture him, they will cut him into pieces,” Shafiqa said, her eyes horrified. (AFP/File)


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 recognized 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 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, Shafiqa said.
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 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 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.”


Sanders attacked for past praise of communist regimes

Updated 26 February 2020

Sanders attacked for past praise of communist regimes

  • Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg all seized on visits Sanders made to the USSR, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1980s
  • Joe Biden: He (Sanders) seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America

WASHINGTON: Bernie Sanders’ past praise of communist regimes like Cuba and the Soviet Union has come back to haunt him, his rivals for the Democratic White House nomination seeking to paint the frontrunner as a friend of left-wing dictators.
Fellow Democratic hopefuls Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg all seized on visits Sanders made to the USSR, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1980s as evidence he is a threat to the US democratic and capitalist system.
Sanders, who describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” was pressed on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program on Sunday about positive comments he made three decades ago about communist states, particularly his statement that Castro had vastly improved education and health care in Cuba.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” the 78-year-old politician said.
“When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?“
Biden, who Sanders has edged out as the 2020 Democratic frontrunner, fired back:
“Make no mistake: Bernie Sanders’ comments on Fidel Castro are a part of a larger pattern throughout his life to embrace autocratic leaders and governments across the globe,” the centrist former vice president said in a statement.
“He seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America.”
Buttigieg compared Sanders to President Donald Trump who he said has “cozied up to dictators,” adding the country needs a leader “who will be extremely clear in standing against regimes that violate human rights abroad.”
With Sanders in pole position heading into South Carolina’s primary this weekend, the controversy offers his rivals a precious chance to halt his momentum when they clash on the debate stage later on Tuesday.
Sanders’ alignment with the far left in US politics has always left him vulnerable to attack; Trump and other Republicans have branded him a “communist.”
But his Cuba comments have come to the forefront in the fight for voter support in Florida, home to a large Cuban-American population strongly opposed to Castro’s regime and holding substantial political sway in the southern state.
Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, targeted that electorate as he tweeted that Castro “left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people.”
“But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program,” Bloomberg said.
Sanders’ denies any support for dictators. Critics say his record suggests otherwise.
As mayor of the small city of Burlington, Vermont, he visited Nicaragua in 1985 and afterward hailed Daniel Ortega’s revolution against the Central American country’s landowner elite.
That was a view commonly held among the American left, especially as the administration of Ronald Reagan supported the right-wing Nicaraguan Contra fighters accused of numerous terror-like atrocities.
In 1988 Sanders visited Russia seeking to establish a sister-city pact with Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow.
It was hardly unique: there were several dozen US-USSR sister city relationships at the time, according to Sister Cities International.
Upon his return, Sanders applauded Russian gains in health care, while adding they were 10 years behind the United States.
He said his hosts were friendly and spoke honestly about problems, especially in housing and struggling industries.
He offered no praise of the government and communist system, and noted Russians very much liked Reagan, who had just days earlier held a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which Sanders called “a major step forward for humanity.”
Likewise after visiting Cuba in 1989, Sanders praised its achievements in education and health care, calling Castro’s revolution “profound,” but also noting the lack of political freedoms.
“The question is how you bring both economic and political freedom together in one society,” he said at the time, according to the Rutland Daily Herald.
Sanders’ position echoes that of president Barack Obama, who reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, with Biden as his vice president.
Obama said on a landmark 2016 Havana visit that the government “should be congratulated” for its achievements in education and health care — while criticizing its human rights violations and communist-rooted economy which he said was “not working.”
Sanders told “60 Minutes” that his support for certain achievements in communist countries did not make him a friend of repressive leaders.
“I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator,” he said, referring to Trump’s friendship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Whether that carries with Cuban voters in Florida remains an open question.