Released and safe at last! Italy welcomes Murtaza, the Afghan ‘Little Messi’

Murtaza, the Afghan football-loving boy known as the “Little Messi”, who was forced to live on the run and in hiding for years due to threats from the Taliban and other criminal groups, is finally safe with his family in Italy. As with other households that START InSight strove to help being rescued from Afghanistan, we were seeking a solution for them since the chaotic days of the evacuation which followed regime change in Kabul. It took 18 months, many efforts and a lot of patience before a turning point was reached thanks to Caritas Italia, co-organizer of the humanitarian corridors from Pakistan that were activated last autumn.

by Chiara Sulmoni, Claudio Bertolotti, Andrea Molle
For additional information we are available at:

While, in the days that followed the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the Afghan population, in search of a way out, poured like an overflowing river towards the airport, a long-lasting line of communication opened between us, where concise “how are you? are you safe?” would alternate with long, silent stretches of time, unanswered questions, fears and concerns, a few photographs and heart-shaped emojis.

The first messages we exchanged on Whatsapp with Mahdia, Murtaza’s older sister, who will also be our main contact for the whole time, date back to the third week of August 2021 and clearly convey the precariousness and distress enveloping everyday life: “now we are only at home, but mentally uncomfortable with unknown future. After a period of time, I don’t think we feel safe even at home. As they threaten Murtaza many times before.”

The person who notified us of this situation and then put us in direct communication with Mahdia is Rahmatullah Alizadah, a local photojournalist who has now found shelter in Switzerland. At the age of 5, Murtaza used to play with his soccer ball in his native village, located in a remote, rural Afghan province; a photograph shows him with a shy smile and a white and blue plastic shopping bag worn over his clothes as if it were a jersey, with the number 10 and Messi’s name written in a black marker. Unable to purchase a real shirt of the Argentine champion of whom he is a fan, Murtaza makes do with this ‘improvised’ replica, created for him by his older brother. In the age of social media which does away with physical distance, the picture taken with a mobile phone and posted on FB goes viral and is quickly shared in the international press. This is how, in 2016, the “little Messi” becomes known in the world. Rahmat was the first journalist to meet the child made famous by the Internet, to tell his story and also to attract the attention of the South American footballer who, having learned of Murtaza, with the help of UNICEF, ultimately will meet the boy at a Barcelona match in Qatar.

This sudden notoriety however does not usher in, as hoped, any new opportunities. Upon returning home, all that remains of this adventure in the Gulf, are an autographed soccer ball and uniform. Murtaza and his family will henceforth be forced to hide and move frequently, in order to escape both the risk of kidnappings by criminal gangs convinced that the child has received a stack of money, and threats by religious fundamentalists. All this translates into no schooling and an isolated childhood, while the return of the Taliban regime spells more danger and leads to frequent re-locations – over twelve in the past year and a half alone. “A few days ago, my father went to the bakery, some of the people knew him again and said a few things to him. Our neighbours have told us several times that you were identified in the alley. Some one will inform Taliban? That’s why we changed our place, so that nothing would happen to my family”, Mahdia writes one day. 


While foreign armies, diplomats and international organizations hasten to leave the country with as many of their local employees as possible, calls for help pile up on the cell phones of veterans, journalists, and aid workers who have been working in Afghanistan for twenty years and consequently forged relationships and friendships with the local population. Those with useful contacts, share them in an endless chain. Not only military, humanitarian, and media professionals, administrative employees, judges, lawyers, professors, and activists, but also ordinary citizens in distress, many women, and the Hazaras, the ethnic group poorly tolerated by the Taliban and hated by the Islamic State Khorasan (the notorious Afghan franchise of what was ISIS in Syria and Iraq), to which Murtaza’s family also belongs. Kabul airport is besieged by an endless river of people of all ages trying to overcome walls and barriers and board planes heading west, before Afghanistan will be abandoned to its fate; TV screens send harrowing images of those clinging to broken promises and fallen hopes to the last, who will spend days on end in front of the gates. The pictures coming in on phone chats show worse than that, amid gunfire and bewildered people fleeing the sticks of the Taliban guards or slipping into the gutters. The intention is to bring to safety as many as possible in those chaotic hours, often without proper screening, with consular staff at the airport gates making crucial and difficult choices. This was a giant rescue operation of unprecedented scale.

After getting in touch with other associations committed to saving as many lives as possible, we receive a green light from the Italian Defense: the family made it on the boarding list of the last flight. In the meantime, thousands of people crowd the “Abbey gate”, the area where the Italians operate, and where Murtaza’s family must report shortly. This is seemingly impossible, but we try to make it happen and coordinate with Colonel T., who awaits them at the entrance. But difficulties increase with time, as well as warnings of possible attacks by the “Islamic State” terrorist group against the airport infrastructure, which is now jointly controlled by U.S. forces and the Taliban, who will take responsibility after a few days. One alert, in particular, comes through on the evening of 25th August: very detailed, too precise and different from the usual ones. A decision must quickly be made. We make it: “stop, don’t go to the airport, stay home tomorrow”. We know that such decision would prevent them from getting on that plane. Under these conditions, it is unthinkable for Murtaza’s family, eight people in all with children and an infant in tow, to risk everything to reach the exit where they could be helped by the Italian army. But that choice was a right and fortunate one, the best among those made in the urgency of the moment. The suicide attack which took place on 26th August right by the “Abbey gate” of Kabul airport, killed over 180 people.

We have kept other options open, our many “Plan Bs.” Several attempts at finding seats on the few buses organized by whoever knows who, and which are said to be crossing Taliban checkpoints, fail.

Another option raised by U.S. veterans seems to open up. We have been in contact with them since the beginning and we discuss the possibility of a “humanitarian operation” run by former military personnel, consisting in “exfiltration” from Kabul and transfer to the North, where a plane could be ready for take off. Murtaza and his family, along with hundreds of other former staffers who worked for the U.S. military in the longest war, could be recovered in this way. It feels like an endless movie with a fast and relentless plot. Every decision must rationally be made on the spot, risks notwithstanding. A US charitable organization could cover part of the (very high) costs, we somewhat find the rest with great difficulty, but the exceptionality of the moment, in this case, comes handy. A U.S. senator follows this issue with us. Some Italian members of Parliament and soldiers are also very active and personally committed to finding a solution. The enthusiasm for such participation is overwhelming, only saddened by Mahdia’s fears and desperate messages. Everything seems fine, minus the risks for those who will have to complete the operation. Then, a cold shower: the operation is canceled.

Leaving the country in other ways involves unsustainable costs and risks. Among papers and documents, phone calls, e-mails and signals thrown in every direction, for those who are striving on the front lines or behind the scenes, the hours go by frantically without continuity between day and night. Getting all endangered Afghans to safety seems a monumental and unthinkable task, a good-hearted aspiration that clashes with reality.


With the departure of the last flight on 30th August, Afghanistan reverts to a previous state as an Emirate without embassies. Those who weren’t able to leave, can still apply for humanitarian visas in a third State, but for ordinary Afghans who have not directly worked with NGOs, the media or foreign militaries, difficulties are enormous. Passports are issued or renewed at a slow pace, identity documents and visas are too expensive for the citizens of a country whose economy over the past two decades was sustained mainly by donations and injections of money from outside. Most people live below the poverty line and a critical situation is quickly turning into a far-reaching social tragedy.

We don’t get discouraged. We continue to support Murtaza’s family and to think of an escape route, like travelling by land to the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. It would be risky, but we test the water nevertheless. We discover, however, that borders have been sealed on both sides, by the Taliban and the authorities of neighboring countries. A visa, a pass from a third country are mandatory. After many phone calls to embassies, ministries and other institutions in Italy, Switzerland or elsewhere, and an endless wait, nothing happens. The paradoxes of bureaucracy paint a picture whose tones are dramatic and almost unbelievable: “We can issue them a visa,” we are told, “but they have to report to our embassy in person in Qatar, Pakistan, for example, or another country.” Yet, in order to get to the embassy, they would need to cross the border with a regular visa that they cannot get beforehand and in a digital form.

The doors keep closing, one by one.


“Today Murtaza told me that I can’t stand sitting at home. All my friends and other children go to school and learn an education but I always stand at home. He really cries and apologized to me that he wants to go to school and wants to be like other children. I really can’t control myself I am sorry for him. I just promise him to help him to be safe and everything will change”.  This is one of many messages from Mahdia, whom we speak to regularly, urging us to keep going, to press on. It will take a lot of patience, but we won’t leave them alone. Meanwhile, our triangulations continue, followed by weeks-long silence.

Then, on 4th November, 2021 there’s some good news: a Memorandum of Understanding for the activation of humanitarian corridors is being signed in Rome.

That’s our chance.

We get in touch with Daniele, from Caritas Italia, whom we have known for some time and whose help will prove crucial.

It is our turning point, so we get to work once more in the hope of being able to bring the family to Italy, but the timing and other difficulties still seem insurmountable, due to objective and bureaucratic impediments. Some members of the family do not yet have passports, while others have in the meantime expired. It’s a race against time, but not against corruption, which, indeed, is the only way to obtain those documents. That’s how it is and there’s no alternative.

Weeks and then months go by. In the meantime, Murtaza’s father is captured, imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban, who will release him some weeks later, sick, upon the payment of a ransom. While he is still weak, he leaves his family behind in Afghanistan to hide, illegally, in Iran.

Meanwhile, in October 2022, more positive news come our way: Murtaza’s family can travel to Islamabad for an interview with the volunteers of Caritas Italia. They get their visas, albeit at a very high cost, and they cross the border. They are in Pakistan, safe and ready to leave for Italy, we think at this point.

However, the youngest sister’s passport is missing, which requires to make a decision. As she can’t be left behind, the family splits. Murtaza and his father will remain in Pakistan while Mahdia, along with the others, will return to Afghanistan in an attempt at somehow obtaining the last passport. Again, months will go by, until the ID gets released, at the start of 2022.

In February, Daniele informs us that everything is ready for their flight to Italy. The family, at last, leaves a country where perhaps they will never set foot again, or at least for many years to come, with just a handful of things, packed in small suitcases and bags. They will bring along the bare necessities, some memories and the will to start from scratch elsewhere, hoping for a better future thanks to the people who, by committing to bringing the humanitarian corridors to life, have achieved a true miracle.

Today, the family is in Italy. We hope that real opportunities will come along, for them and for the many Afghans the country has taken in and will support. And especially for Murtaza, who will finally be able to study and play football without fear.

This is a drop in the ocean, which does not close a chapter but rather keeps so many others open.
This is a story of patience and persistence.


… the many who have taken Murtaza’s story to heart and made themselves available, at different times and in various ways, by means of concrete actions, suggestions or words of support: NGOs, politicians, the military, other institutions and ordinary citizens in Italy, Switzerland and the United States. In particular, we are grateful to Daniele Albanese, Pierluigi Dovis, Mauro D’Ubaldi, His Excellency the Bishop of Turin, Mons. Roberto Repole, Alberto Pagani, Lorenzo Guerini, Piero Fassino, Don Diego, Don Marco Di Matteo, Don Domenico Catti, NOVE Onlus, Gruppo Ticino di Amnesty International, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Rav. Arnold Rachlis, Luciano Portolano, Roberto Trubiani, Mauro Berruto, Isabella Rauti, Alessandro Sicchiero, Raffaella Virelli, Nicola Guerini, Luca Tenzi, Rahmatullah Alizadah, Farmanullah Turab, Ahmadullah Turab, Associazione Zenzero…. and others we could not reach out to before the publication of this article, including those who wished to remain anonymous.

General David Petraeus, US Army (Ret.) and former Director of the CIA, interviewed by Claudio Bertolotti

by Claudio Bertolotti

The Italian version of this interview was published in the Italian Army military magazine Rivista Militare‘ N.°3/2020.

US Army General (Ret.) David Petraeus headed the Multinational Forces in Iraq -where he supervised the ‘surge’ campaign in 2007-8-; served as Commander in Chief of the US Central Command CENTCOM (2008-10) and led Coalition Forces in Afghanistan (2010-11). He is a former Director of the CIA. He is now a Partner with the global investment firm KKR and Chairman of the KKR Global Institute.

Rather than setting the stage for a difficult intra-Afghan compromise, then, the deal implicitly appears to anticipate the endgame the insurgents themselves have consistently articulated since 2001: a Taliban reconquest of the country.

General Petraeus, how do you feel about the WHAM strategy (‘Winning Hearts and Minds‘), which particularly characterized your leadership in the Afghan (and Iraqi) wars, considering the situation the two countries are facing today?
As we stressed in the counterinsurgency field manual, “the decisive terrain” in such an endeavor is the “human terrain.” A counterinsurgency campaign necessarily focuses on the people, on providing them security and then on solidifying the security foundation by helping to restore basic services, repair damaged infrastructure, re-establish local governance, revive local economies, and so on –; to show the people that their lives will be better if they support the government and the coalition forces supporting the government, rather than if they actively or tacitly support the insurgents. And over time, as security and the situation improve for the people, they understand the logic of rejecting the insurgents and supporting the counterinsurgents.

Looking at negotiations with the Taliban and military disengagement from Afghanistan: are you disappointed in how it ended or was it the only deal that could be reached today?
The agreement holds out the tantalizing prospect of transforming Afghanistan from a problem that will require the perpetual military management of the United States into one that can be solved politically, once and for all. But the risks presented by this gamble are huge, and the signs from the deal’s early aftermath – continued Taliban attacks and an Afghan government in disarray – are not encouraging.
The Taliban’s vehement insistence that all U.S. troops leave Afghanistan strongly suggests that its purpose in peace talks isn’t to transform its relationship with the United States but to evict its forces so that they can then overthrow the Afghan government. The deal would seem to give the Taliban little incentive to bargain seriously with the internationally recognized government in Kabul, since its opponent’s position will grow progressively weaker as the deadline for international withdrawal approaches. Rather than setting the stage for a difficult intra-Afghan compromise, then, the deal implicitly appears to anticipate the endgame the insurgents themselves have consistently articulated since 2001: a Taliban reconquest of the country.

A personal consideration on the Afghan war.
We went to Afghanistan for a reason – to eliminate the Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, in which the 9/11 attacks were planned and where the initial training of the attackers was conducted.  And we have stayed for a reason – to ensure that al-Qaeda did not succeed in re-establishing that sanctuary, something they have repeatedly sought to do since the Taliban and other insurgents returned to Afghanistan and repeatedly carried out violent attacks on the Afghan people, their forces, and their coalition partners.

General, the author of this interview had the honor of serving his country in Afghanistan alongside US troops, partly during Operation Enduring Freedom, partly during the subsequent ISAF mission. What is your opinion about the Italian commitment in Afghanistan?
It was a privilege to have superb Italian contingents in Afghanistan and to have an Italian commander and headquarters as Regional Command West in Herat. During my time as Commander of US Central Command (2008-2010) and then as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (2010-2011), the Italian forces in RC-West conducted textbook counterinsurgency operations. All Italians should be very proud of the men and women who wore their country’s uniform in Afghanistan.


General David H. Petraeus (U.S. Army, Ret.)

General David H. Petraeus (U.S. Army, Ret.) is one of the most prominent U.S. military figures of the post-9/11 era. During his 37-year career in the United States Army, General Petraeus was widely recognized for his leadership of the organization that produced the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual and overhauled all aspects of preparing U.S. Army leaders and units for deployment to combat; for his subsequent command of the Surge in Iraq that retrieved a desperate situation and dramatically reduced violence in the country; and for his command of coalition forces in Afghanistan as they reversed the momentum of the Taliban and enabled initial transition of tasks to Afghan forces and institutions. He culminated his military career with six consecutive commands as a general officer, five of which were in combat, a record unmatched in the post-World War II era. General Petraeus has been awarded numerous U.S. military, State Department, NATO, and United Nations medals.


Insurgent bureaucracy: how the Taleban make policy. An interview with Ashley Jackson.

For over a decade now, the Afghan Taleban have steadily expanded their territorial gains. As a consequence, they’ve started experimenting (parallel) governance in new ways. During this time, the movement developed into a more complex, centralised organisation with a media branch and the ability to negotiate and adapt locally, within the bounds of their doctrine. At a critical time when, through so-called peace talks, they are striving to carve a leading role for themselves within the political future of Afghanistan, understanding their policy and decision making processes should be of the utmost importance.     

Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri embarked on an extensive field-research on this issue; they interviewed hundreds of people inside and outside the movement, from local Taleban officials to representatives of the senior leadership, from local mullahs advocating for policy changes to elders negotiating for schools to be re-opened, to the civilian population. They so unearthed the Taleban decision-making mechanisms, returning a coherent picture of the insurgecy’s policy and politics as it takes shape on the ground.

Jackson’s and Amiri’s Report, published by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) can be read in full here.  

On 9th December Insurgent bureaucracy: how the Taleban make policy was discussed at London’s King’s College in an event organised by the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group.

START InSight sat down with Ashley Jackson with a few questions.

Ashley, how eager were people to talk about such a delicate issue as this?

We were especially surprised at how people in the Taleban organisation responded to us trying to look at the way they make decisions, and then found it fascinating when we presented them our theory of how they had developed.

So you reported back to them?

Yes, once we had our initial findings, we went back to some of the individuals we had interviewed to check whether this was something that made sense to them, that they lived through, that was consistent with their own experiences. It’s interesting to see how much they want to be taken seriously and want to understand their own processes, which for a long time have been very clandestine, hidden and fragmented. They were more eager to talk than I thought they would be.

Does it apply to people outside the movement as well?

Yes. We have a section on civilian casualties in our report, where we underline how many people took the Taleban’s efforts at increased accountability at face value, and were punished for complaining about local Taleban. I though these people would be reticent to speak but they were equally eager to say: “look, this group has to be more accountable, if they are going to be in government they can not do these things any more”. So even people who had a lot to lose or could potentially face retaliation, were still eager to talk about this.

The Taleban are mostly perceived as an insurgent group interlocked in a war with the Afghan government. Nevertheless, in large swathes of the country there’s a shadow Taleban government in place where the movement shares control and where the two in fact cooperate. How easy -or uneasy- is this situation for everybody involved, namely the government, the Taleban and the civilian population?

People have struck survival bargains. Local officials within the Ministry of Health want to keep services running for civilians and so do the Taleban. There’s a shared interest in things like central services, healthcare, education, NGO activities. Of course the Taleban are trying to take advantage of the situation but the people who have been through decades of war find ways to survive and strike deals and cooperate and continue with their lives. How long this lasts, is anyones’ guess, but for now both sides are invested in making sure people can go to clinics, children go to schools and so on…

How ready are the Taleban to compromise on what they consider minor and key issues? To what extent can they be influenced and asked to compromise?

Based on my research, they are surely not going to compromise on issues like justice. They have their own justice system based on sharia, which is very different from the State justice system. On some issues like the curricula or the way schools are run they have shown the ability to adapt to what the Afghans want and need.

The big issue here is that they have taken over rural areas which are predominantly conservative; what happens in the city is very different, mores are much more liberal, women participate in public life in many more ways than they would in typical rural villages.

Their ability to compromise will also depend on how much the international community engages and tries to bargain with them on these issues, and the degree to which the Afghan government is able to engage in productive dialogue. Which we have not seen yet.

The Taleban itself do not seem to be wanting to talk to the government…

But the reality on the ground tells us that in fact they talk to the government everyday, they talk to civilian officials, to MPs. We know they do have the capacity to do that.

The country heavily depends on international donors’ support. Are the Taleban interested in developing and encouraging the country to develop its own infrastructure, a sound economic system, which would also require opening up to the outside world?

I think they are interested in opening up and they do want this investment but I don’t think they know how significantly aid-dependent Afghanistan is, which amounts to 75% of the government budget and almost 95% of the Afghan security forces budget. In order to keep going, they will have to find ways to compromise with the international community and secure that aid but they do not speak the language of the international community and viceversa, so that is a problem and a challenge that needs to be overcome with dialogue.

Is the West engaging the Taleban in a meaningful way?

Yes and no. One of the examples in our report, looks at the UN Human Rights’ Unit in Afghanistan and how productive their dialogue has been. They’ve had a couple of successes but it has taken a long time, from more or less 2013. The UN is very strategic in their advocacy priorities and they did recognize positively where the Taleban has made changes, but that is rare. The international community and donors are still afraid and reticent to engage on key issues they claim to care about, like girls’ education. It’s long overdue. I think the international community isn’t ready and no one including the US and the UN is showing sufficient leadership on these issues, which is incredibly confusing as millions of Afghan lives depend on their ability to negotiate with the Taleban.



ZAN TV- An Afghan channel made by and for women

In a conservative country like Afghanistan, women journalists face many hurdles. But the vibrant media sector which has flourished over the past decade, affords them hard-won professional opportunities and visibility. That is precisely what ZAN TV is doing. Filmed and produced by Filippo Rossi and Chiara Sulmoni. Editing: Lef Dakalakis for Polis Productions. English with Italian subtitles.

Afghan media – A story of success

…and many risks!

A series of interviews filmed in Kabul in November 2017. They tell the story of a vibrant media sector, of hard-won freedom of expression and the many risks and problems encountered by a brave category, that of Afghan journalists. A tribute to those who lost (and will lose) their lives on the field. Filmed and produced by Filippo Rossi and Chiara Sulmoni. Editing: Lef Dakalakis for Polis Productions. English with Italian subtitles.