- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Zekeria Ebrahimi says getting cast as a lead in the film adaptation of the worldwide best-seller “The Kite Runner” changed his life, but not the way he expected.

Since the film premiered in November 2007, the Afghan boy, now 13, and his family have received a stream of death threats and other harassments that have compelled them to go into hiding abroad. They say the American film company Paramount Pictures is not doing enough to ensure their welfare.

“It’s impossible to ever go back and live [in Afghanistan] because of this movie,” said Waheeda Sultanzada, Zekeria’s aunt and guardian, speaking from a location inside Pakistan that cannot be disclosed because of concerns about the family’s protection. “And here, we live like prisoners at home.”

The controversy stems from a scene in which a member of the Hazara minority is raped by a Pashtun boy. The scene stirred ethnic tensions in Afghanistan and resulted in street protests.

Thousands of Hazaras were killed when the predominantly Pashtun Taliban seized power in the mid-1990s. Though ethnic violence has declined since the Taliban’s ouster, resentments linger. Afghan authorities have banned the film, but pirated copies are found readily at stalls across Kabul.

Based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini, “The Kite Runner” tells of a friendship between two boys that is torn by a violent act.

Early in the movie, Zekeria’s character, Amir, asks his best friend, Hassan - the Hazara son of a house servant - to fetch a kite won in a kite-fighting contest. In a back alley, Hassan is trapped by a group of Pashtun boys and raped. Amir witnesses the assault but does nothing to stop it.

Although the film was shot in western China because of security concerns, director Marc Forster selected the children on a scouting trip to the Afghan capital to enhance its authenticity.

Miss Sultanzada said family members did not learn of the rape scene until midway through filming. Worried that it would offend conservative Afghans, they asked that the scene be cut. The filmmakers insisted that the shoot continue, she said, while making arrangements for Zekeria and his child co-stars to be relocated to the United Arab Emirates ahead of the movie’s release.

In the United Arab Emirates, she said, they were constantly worried that they would be deported for expired visas on which Paramount failed get extensions. Miss Sultanzada said the monthly stipend and job she was given in Dubai were insufficient to support them, so they flew home to Kabul to be with family.

Things only grew worse.

Upon returning, Zekeria was forced to leave school for good after Hazara classmates threatened to kill him. On one occasion, a gang of armed men came to the home looking for Zekeria, who was gone at the time. Copies of the film were distributed to neighbors with a note specifying where the boy lived.

Reaching out to the Afghan police for protection was not an option, Miss Sultanzada said, because of criminality in the ranks.

In October, Miss Sultanzada took Zekeria to live with an uncle in Pakistan, where he has been home-schooled and restricted to playing indoors. She said Paramount has not lived up to its commitments, given their predicament.

Other Afghans have expressed regret at taking part in the film.

Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, the Hazara boy who played Hassan opposite Zekeria, has said he would not have agreed to participate had he known in advance about the rape scene, despite the $10,000 paycheck he received - a huge sum in a country where the average annual income is about $300.

In a statement, Paramount countered that it has provided “full support” to the boys and their guardians and said a full-time Afghan expatriate has been employed in the United Arab Emirates to assist with “daily needs, including translation services, registering the boys for school, finding suitable living accommodations, buying furniture, locating medical assistance, and other daily tasks.”

The other boys and their families are “doing well,” according to Paramount, which said it reminded Miss Sultanzada of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan when she revealed her plans to return to Kabul in March last year.

Zekeria said he misses his friends and family back in Kabul and lamented having been out of school for nearly a year. He said he was disappointed with the filmmakers but stopped just short of wishing he had not acted in the film.

“I wish to make more movies one day, but not in Afghanistan,” he said.

Miss Sultanzada and her family have less than a month left on their Pakistani visas, and she said she fears they will have to return to Afghanistan to reapply.

She said Zekeria’s cousin Malikyar Haidari was abducted in Kabul late last month, presumably to punish the family. The kidnappers later called and asked for the boy’s blood type, a sign that he may be injured.

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