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In Ethiopia, Bitter Social Conflict Plays Out On The Soccer Field

The stands shake as fans break into song. Hundreds jump up and down, setting a much faster tempo than the play on the field. This soccer stadium is in the heart of political opposition territory in

The stands shake as fans break into song. Hundreds jump up and down, setting a much faster tempo than the play on the field.

This soccer stadium is in the heart of political opposition territory in Ethiopia. On a recent Sunday, thousands of supporters are sitting shoulder to shoulder. And surrounding the pitch, dozens of paramilitary police look out at the crowd, some with their guns in hand, others at the ready with tear gas canisters.

“I came here to see the play,” says one spectator, Solomon, an older man who asked only to use his first name because talking to a journalist in Ethiopia can land you in trouble. “Most of the people came to see the play. But some people are here to see the disruption.”

For the past three years, this region of Ethiopia has been engulfed by protests. What began as demonstrations against the expansion of the capital Addis Ababa have widened to include protests about ethnic equality, corruption and democracy. Thousands have been arrested and hundreds have been killed. In February, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation and the government placed the country under a state of emergency. The unrelenting protests have presented the most serious threat to the country’s ruling coalition since it came to power in 1991.

The popular uprising has affected seemingly all aspects of life — including soccer, the country’s favorite sport. Soccer stadiums have become battlefields and teams have become a proxy for the political divisions in the country. The 16 premier-league teams represent provinces largely drawn along ethnic lines.

In this match the home team, Adama City, is from an opposition stronghold and Welwalo Adigrat University comes from an area dominated by Tigrayans, an ethnic minority group that controls much of the government.

Solomon shakes his head at the prospect of a confrontation here, especially if Adama loses. Across the country, soccer games have been disrupted by fans fighting each other and clashing with police. The country’s soccer federation has had to relocate matches from restive areas because of the potential for violence.

“It’s the low-minded people who bring protests to stadiums,” Solomon says. “It’s the young guys who don’t know that soccer is about peace.”

And just as he says that, Adama scores a goal and the crowd erupts into a joyous roar.

For a moment, at least, the country’s politics seem really far away.

‘Ethiopians love football beyond our life’

Ethiopia has a long and tortured history with soccer, which like many nations it calls football. The country was one of the founding members of the Confederation of African Football and, in 1962, the national team became the continental champion. Since then, Ethiopians have barely made it past the first round and have never qualified for the World Cup.

Still, Ethiopians love the game. Fans travel hundreds of miles to see their teams. Sometimes you’ll see caravans of cars stopped on the side of a highway — the fans jumping by the side of the of the road or on top of the cars waving their team flags.

“We Ethiopians love football beyond our life,” says Mokaninet Berhe, the host of Sport Zone Ethiopia, a TV program featuring sports documentaries. “They support their clubs beyond their life. They are mad. They are ultras.”

In Ethiopia, the beautiful game has routinely been an arena where politics are played out. It began in the 1930s, when Italy was trying to colonize the country. At the time, Ethiopians were not allowed to play alongside Europeans. So in 1935, the St. George Sports Club emerged as the first all-Ethiopian pro soccer team.

In the early 1940s, Ethiopia defeated Italy to end the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Almost immediately afterward, the two countries faced off on the soccer field. The Ethiopians won and St. George became a symbol of the country’s struggle for freedom.

“St. George football club is the only one [that allowed] Ethiopians to express their feelings,” Berhe says.

And that relationship continued through Ethiopia’s modern history. In the ’80s, during the red-terror days of the Derg regime, soccer again provided an outlet in a country where freedom of speech was, and still remains, deeply curtailed.

As the historian Solomon Addis Getahun describes it, during that period certain teams were linked with the military and police and others, like St. George, were associated with the people. So, it was not uncommon for games to end with clashes between security forces and soccer supporters.

Ethiopia is seeing some of the same things happening today: Spectators are shouting anti-government chants and there have been violent clashes between fans and with police.

“So now in Ethiopia, the supporters are now bigger than the game,” says Berhe.

It’s obviously political but it’s also about sports, he adds. On the streets, Ethiopians are demanding a better life. They want better education and jobs. They want their voice to be heard. On the pitch, they want coaching; they want commitment.

And right now, all they’re getting on the field is frustration — a moribund national team and a premier league with dispiriting games ending in a tie, or without a single goal scored.

Holes in the field

Back at the stadium, Adama takes a 2-0 lead. One of its players weaves through the Welwalo defense and finds an opening outside the box — no defenders and a distracted goalie.

He shoots but misses — high and wide. The crowd groans.

Tadyos, a guy in his early 20s, who also wants to be identified only by his first name because he fears retribution, sits down near SolomonHe has one hand on his forehead, not believing what he just saw.

A well-trained team shouldn’t miss a shot like that. But, Tadyos says, it’s not the training. “It’s the field,” he says, in Amharic. “It’s uneven with holes everywhere. If the government took care of it instead of using the money to enrich itself, fans would see better football.”

That play set Tadyos off. Suddenly his voice grows louder and he stops looking at the paramilitary police in front of him.

“The corruption in Ethiopia has not only ruined the country’s football,” he says, “but also torn the country apart by sowing division along ethnic lines.”

After almost three years of nonstop protests, Ethiopia has become deeply divided. A central aspect of the conflict is that huge ethnic groups in the country feel marginalized and left out of prosperity by the ruling coalition.

It’d be nice for the game to be pure again, says Tadyos, but he’s certain that won’t happen until all Ethiopians feel heard.

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  • Hazo March 4, 2018

    Why is assenna blocking many of the news I tried to post? The recent news articles about Arab Muslim crimes on Eritrean refugees in Sudan and the cruel Arab world in Arab Libya and Egypt.
    Why is Assenna ignoring these news? It is true the Janjawid Jihadi websites such as Awyate had never posted the Jihadi Arab crimes on Eritrean Christians on its pages that had been rampant in the last fifteen years in the Arab world. Awyate an Arabized website often blocks real Eritrean comments that exposes the Arab-Muslim racism, xenophobia, organ harvest of Eritreans, sex slavery, kidnapping, murder, rape and ransoms
    I agree Eritreans need to read everything that is happening to them. No Abeed or Arab wanabe or Janjawid worshiping should be allowed to cover up Arab crimes on Eritreans and to dictate the free speech in Assenna.

    “A Survivor’s Story

    The first group of kidnappers said I had to pay $3,500. They blindfolded all of us and chained our hands and legs together. They threatened to remove our organs if we didn’t pay. Even though my family paid, they didn’t release me but instead sold me to a second group.

    The second kidnappers said we had to pay them $33,000 because they had bought us from the first group, so we had to help them get their money back.

    They beat me with a metal rod. They dripped molten plastic onto my back. They beat the soles of my feet and then they forced me to stand for long periods of time, sometimes for days. Sometimes they threatened to kill me and put a gun to my head. They hung me from the ceiling so my legs couldn’t reach the floor and they gave me electric shocks. One person died after they hung him from the ceiling for 24 hours. We watched him die.

    Whenever I called my relatives to ask them to pay, they burnt me with a hot iron rod so I would scream on the phone. We could not protect the women in our room: they just took them out, raped them, and brought them back. They hardly let us sleep and I thought I was going to die but in the end a group of us managed to escape.

    Human Rights Watch interview”

  • Hazo March 4, 2018

    The news and articles, many of the deviant Arab Abeeds do not want for the real Eritreans to read because they want to protect the empty “honor” of their Arab masters:

    “A Trafficker’s Story

    I buy Eritreans from other Bedouin near my village for about $10,000 each. So far I have bought about 100. I keep them in a small hut about 20 kilometers from where I live and I pay two men to stand guard. I torture them so their relatives pay me to let them go. When I started a year ago, I asked for $ 20,000 per person. Like everyone else I have increased the price. I know this money is haram [shameful], but I do it anyway. This year I made about $200,000 profit.

    The longest I held someone was seven months and the shortest was one month. The last group was four Eritreans and I tortured all of them. I got them to call their relatives and to ask them to pay $33,000 each. Sometimes I tortured them while they were on the phone so the relatives could hear them scream. I did to them what I do to everyone. I beat their legs and feet, and sometimes their stomachs and chest, with a wooden stick. I hang them upside down, sometimes for an hour.

    Three of them died because I beat them too hard. I released the one that paid. About two out of every 10 people I torture pay what I ask. Some pay less and I release them. Others die of the torture. Sometimes when the wounds get bad and I want them to torture them more, I treat their wounds with bandages and alcohol.

    I beat women but not children and I have not raped anyone. My parents don’t know I do this and I don’t want them to know. I’m not interested in speaking to anyone who wants me to stop doing this. The government doesn’t care so I don’t mind talking to you. The police won’t do anything to stop us because they know that if they come to our villages we will shoot. The military might try to get us, but I am young so I don’t think about that.

    I first started doing this because I had no money but saw others making lots of money this way. I know about 35 others who sell or torture Eritreans in Sinai. There are 15 just near my house, living close to each other. We are from different tribes. Some just buy them and sell them on to others, and some of us torture them to get even more money.

    Human Rights Watch”

    • tirhas March 5, 2018

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