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Ticket to freedom

November 2011. Kigali, Rwanda

No one is waiting for the Eritrea national team at Kigali’s Amahoro stadium because no one believes the Eritrea national team will turn up. The stadium is due to host the second leg of a preliminary African 2014 World Cup qualifier between Rwanda and Eritrea. The hosts, still emerging from one of the darker chapters of recent human history; the guests, making a rare outing for an overseas game.

“More than 50 Eritrean athletes have fled in the past five years. This is the national team’s first away match in two years. Or it will be,
if they arrive”

Eritrea is one of the worst countries in the world by almost any metric – freedom of speech, freedom of press, torture, poverty and, of course, football. They are ranked 190th in the world by FIFA. Such is the paranoia of the regime in Asmara that it is extremely difficult for Eritreans to leave the country. One of the only ways out is to represent Eritrea in sport, and once out Eritreans tend not to return. During the regional CECAFA Cup in 2009, the entire national team claimed asylum in Kenya. Eritrea’s flag-carrier at the London Olympics fled mid-tournament and sought refuge in the UK. In total, more than 50 Eritrean athletes have fled in the past five years. This is the national team’s first away match in two years. Or it will be, if they arrive.

The Eritrean national football team in their changing room in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2011

The Amahoro Stadium today is spartan but clean. It didn’t use to be. During the 1994 genocide that saw as many as a million Tutsis massacred by Hutu militias, the stadium was a rare safe haven controlled by the UN. For months it was constantly shelled, its trapped inhabitants becoming riddled with disease. But it was still safer than outside. Tens of thousands of people survived the orgy of bloodletting by living on this pitch, sleeping on these terraces. ‘Amahoro’ means ‘peace’ in the local dialect, but there is no memorial to the stadium’s former role here.

The Eritrea team arrives three hours later than expected, but 18 hours before kick-off. Negash Teklit has been its coach for 11 years and has seen players come and go. However, unlike other national team coaches who have to deal with the orderly succession from one generation of players to the next, Negash has built his team from scratch. He was the coach in 2009 when the entire team absconded. Negash and a handful of officials had to explain to the powers that be how he had managed to lose a football team. His lonesome journey home from Kenya was immortalised in an alleged diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Asmara, published by WikiLeaks. It detailed the defections and how they came to symbolise the utter hopelessness that young people faced in Eritrea. “If [the defections of the national football team are] true, this will be stunning news for the Eritrean population,” the cable read. “Only the coach and an escorting colonel reportedly returned to Eritrea. (One wonders why, given their likely fate.)”

After months in a Kenyan refugee camp, eleven of the players were granted political asylum in Australia.

At the side of the Kigali pitch, Kahsay Embaye, vice-president of the Eritrean football association, is watching training intently. “This team is far better than before because we have started to work on the grassroots level,” he says cheerily, as though the defections were a handy opportunity to try out some new blood. He is short, bald and wears a patch over his right eye, which he lost in 1979. He was a soldier for 17 years, retiring only after independence from Ethiopia was secured in 1993 and President Isaias Afewerki was sworn in. Afewerki is still in power today.

Embaye believes that the defections are a conspiracy, although he won’t say by whom – perhaps Ethiopia, perhaps the CIA. “Something must be mended,” he concedes. “We are trying to know what is the cause. But sometimes it is a conspiracy. Some people who are abroad. These people go directly to the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and they give them asylum. These are the tricks that are working.”

The real reason athletes defect from Eritrea is much darker and more complex than envy, self-improvement, selfishness, poverty or conspiracy. Eritrea’s 30-year civil war with Ethiopia was led by a Marxist insurgent, schooled in discipline, self-sacrifice and extreme loyalty. Isaias Afewerki led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to victory against the Ethiopians in 1991 and his new country was recognised by the UN two years later.

In power Afewerki has been a ruthless tyrant. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on Eritrea makes grim reading. It paints a picture of a country with zero civil society, zero democracy and zero accountability. Anyone who voices any opposition at all is labelled a traitor, thrown into jail and usually never heard of again. The few survivors who escape tell horrific stories of journalists and opposition politicians being locked up for years in underground metal shipping containers buried in the desert in pitch darkness.

Eritrea is on a constant war footing, ready for conflict against its former occupier, Ethiopia. National conscription is meant to last for 18 months but, in reality, conscripts remain in the army for life, used as cheap labour for the government’s many business interests, especially gold mining. “Prolonged service,
harsh treatment, and starvation wages are principal reasons for the hundreds of monthly desertions,” the report concluded.

“A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on Eritrea makes grim reading. It paints a picture of a country with zero civil society, zero democracy and zero accountability”

In the dressing room on match day, coach Negash is nowhere to be seen, but Embaye is prowling around, wearing a brown suit and reflective aviator sunglasses, slapping his players on the back in encouragement. But within four minutes of the game, Eritrea are 1-0 down, and the game ends in a 3-1 defeat. Eritrea will have to wait another four years for a chance to qualify for the World Cup finals.

The next day an empty bus with an Eritrean flag glued to the window is waiting outside the hotel. Eritrean officials are standing by it, nervously looking from their watches to the hotel entrance. One by one, the players begin to emerge. All eighteen players are present and accounted for. No one will be absconding today.

Migrant Eritreans demonstrate against the dictatorial regime of President Isaias Afewerki, in power since the ’90s

December 2011. Adelaide, Australia

Ermias Haile lives a few blocks from the Hindmarsh Stadium, the home of A-League side Adelaide United FC. His house is an unremarkable bungalow. It has a small, unkempt yard in the front and a larger patch of grass in the back, and sits in a suburban cul-de-sac opposite a large supermarket. His shift at the factory only finished an hour ago, but he has already changed into his football kit. Five young men live in this house, cooking together, praying together, going out together and playing football together.

“We work at a switchboard manufacturing company,” Ermias says proudly. “First we were told what to do,” he adds. “Now we have started to paint boards and we get to put together the boxes.” He is constantly looking at his housemates as he talks. “We go everywhere together,” he explains. “We are like brothers. We take care of each other.”

The Eritrean football team discuss tactics at half time during a match in Gorinchem (above) and relax after the game (top)

In 2009 Ermias left Asmara to travel to Kenya for the CECAFA Cup. “I think everyone had the idea to defect independently,” Ermias recalls. After losing the quarter-final against Tanzania 4-0, Ermias and eleven teammates left their hotel, went to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and claimed political asylum. They were taken, processed and then sent to a camp for six months. “I don’t know what to say about it,” he says, still wary of talking about his escape. None of the players wants to criticise the old regime because they all still have family in Eritrea. The four players he lives with don’t want to talk at all, or even give their names. “They kept us in a compound. It was just us. We were like prisoners staying all together,” Ermias says of his time at the UN camp. “Then, after six months, we came to Australia. It was hard. They don’t give you anything.”

But they could play football again, and they could work. They began playing semi-pro. Ermias was picked up by a team called Western Strikers who found him his job at the switchboard factory. He still dreams of playing pro. “That is everyone’s aim,” he says.

Ermias was surprised the Eritrean footballers playing in Kigali in 2011 returned to Asmara. Not one of the housemates believes that they, the team of 2009, will be the last to flee Eritrea. They will soon be proved correct.

Dutch Party of Freedom leader Geert Wilders spoke out against the arrival of Eritrean football refugees in the Netherlands

May 2014, Gorinchem, the Netherlands

Anton Barske is not used to the harsh glare of the media spotlight. He is the mayor of Gorinchem, a small, quiet, blue collar Dutch town of 35,000 people a few miles east of Rotterdam. By his own admission, not a lot happens here. “It is an old town, with fortifications. It used to be a garrison town,” he explains, as we talk in the newly built town hall. Its proximity to Rotterdam, which for the last four decades of the twentieth century was the busiest sea port in the world, means that business has been good. Bridges are built here and then transported to Rotterdam and then, from there, all over the world. “We are only ever heard on the news for one thing: traffic jams,” Barske says. There’s a pinch point on the highway near the town, he explains, meaning that, subliminally, most Dutch people associate it with snarl-ups and delays.

That changed on 8th May, 2014 when 18 young men arrived in town. They were black, East African and they all knew each other. Their journey to Gorinchem began almost 18 months earlier, during a tournament in Uganda. It was December 2012 and the Eritrea national team was competing in a rare competition abroad. During their trip, 17 players and the team’s doctor absconded. They resurfaced a few hours later at the compound of the UNHCR in Uganda’s capital Kampala, where they claimed political asylum. After six months in a refugee compound they were moved to the Emergency Transit Camp, a clearing house for high risk refugees, in the northern Romanian city of Timisoara.

Their eventual arrival in Gorinchem caused controversy. Immigrants are not unusual in The Netherlands, a diverse and liberal country, and neither are political refugees. More than 500 arrive in the Netherlands every year, distributed amongst the country’s municipalities, towns and cities. They are usually sent out in groups of two or three relative to the population of the receiving town or city. But a team of 18 footballers arriving at once was unheard of. “It was a romantic story, a group of young people defecting for all the best reasons,” Barske explains. He had known since December 2013 that the players would be coming. “They are a national soccer team and we are a very hospitable country and city here. So we never hesitated in welcoming them.”

“If you stand up for your life you would be jailed, humiliated, killed. What can you do?”

For Barske, accepting the team into his town was an obvious act of humanity. He is from the GroenLinks political party, the Green Left. But not everyone was happy. Some people were angry, including the high profile Geert Wilders, parliamentary leader of the Party of Freedom (PVV), a populist, far right, anti-immigration party. Shortly after the team’s arrival Wilders lodged a question with the Dutch parliament asking why the Eritrea players had been let in and given housing and cash ahead of Dutch citizens. European parliamentary elections were just around the corner and parties like the PVV were expected to make gains across Europe on an anti-immigration ticket. “Of course people are angered by this,” Wilders said in an email interview. “This is a perversion of the asylum right because these Eritreans had already received asylum elsewhere and were living in safety in Romania. It is a scandal that our people are taxed dry.” Their arrival in the Netherlands, he said, was irresponsible and sent the wrong message to people in Africa. “It is no wonder that thousands of Eritreans now seem to think that they are welcome in the Netherlands and that welfare benefits are waiting here for them.”

Sightings of the players have been fleeting. Residents tell stories of seeing the Eritreans playing football in the park, or walking in pairs by the canal. But they would not talk to anyone. After their detention and long journey to Gorinchem, they still feared for their families back home and refused to talk to the press. Berketeab Tesfai knows more than anyone else about the fear for those left behind. The 47-year-old high school maths teacher and human rights activist fled Eritrea two decades ago. He is now helping the players to settle, learn Dutch and get on with their lives.

“The human rights situation in Eritrea is horrible,” he tells me in a cafe in nearby Rotterdam. “If you stand up for your life you would be jailed, humiliated, killed. What can you do? This opportunity was too good for the national soccer team to turn down. At this moment, Eritrea is not safe for its own people.” But it is the people left behind that bear the brunt of their escape. “They punish the families by pushing them to pay around 5,000 euros,” Tesfai added, “and for those that have 65-year-old mothers with no money, the mothers are jailed for three or four months.”

The furore over the new arrivals in Gorinchem eventually died down, and the players are getting on with their lives. Geert Wilders’ party finished third in the elections, taking 13.3 per cent of the vote. The GroenLinks party got half as many votes and lost a seat. But Anton Barske is not repentant. “We welcome people who are on the run from all over the world because there are conflicts creating huge number of refugees,” he says. “You can’t shut your eyes to that.”

Gorinchem’s Eritreans are unlikely to be the last to defect. Only last year, another 11 players defected during the 2013 CECAFA Cup. The Eritrean coach in 2013 was not Negash Teklit, the man who had survived several teams absconding on his watch. It appears he has been removed from his post. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

Associate editor James Montague is the author of Thirty One Nil: On the Road With Football’s Outsiders, a World Cup Odyssey, published by Bloomsbury

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