“Most Eritreans—refugees and those inside the country alike—are living in extended limbo,” Zere, the exiled journalist, said. “Home has turned into a source of deferred dreams and destitution, characterized by brutal dictatorship, while fleeing is becoming equally challenging.” Refugees who flee the Horn of Africa face the risk of torture, rape, and murder by smugglers in the Sahara, and then a treacherous journey by sea. Yet those who make it fare much better than those who stay in Ethiopia and Sudan, who can get stuck in desolate camps. Some of the players who defected in 2008 have reconstituted their team in the Netherlands, and Arefaine and his teammates talked dreamily of their compatriots’ new lives. At the camp, they ran and kicked around a ball when they could, but they were worried that they wouldn’t get a chance to play professional soccer again. An official at the U.S. Embassy in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, told me that the worldwide exodus of refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, had made the team a low priority for resettlement. The U.N., which administers the camp, is turning it over to Botswana in a few weeks, and the government has expressed a desire to send refugees home.

A sister of one of the soccer players lives in the U.S., and she contacted John Stauffer, the president of an advocacy group called the America Team for Displaced Eritreans. Stauffer had been worried that the “astonishing” reach of the Eritrean government would thwart the team’s asylum application. “The Eritrean regime strives to control the diaspora, including through agents operating out of the embassies, in order to punish refugees and defectors,” he said. Refugees who wish to obtain an Eritrean passport are pressured to sign a “form of regret,” admitting that they have committed an offense and agreeing to accept any punishment. They must also disclose the names of family members back home, who may become subject to fines and imprisonment. Sometimes Eritrean security forces seize refugees from camps and residences in Sudan and return them to Eritrea.

At the mall, the players tried to stay cheerful. In the parking lot, Russom gazed at the people walking toward the entrance. “I’m trying to find Samson a girlfriend,” he said, laughing. But at times they still seemed disoriented by their situation. Arefaine mentioned that he had recently gone to Gaborone to meet with Eritreans living there, and they visited a huge, gleaming shopping mall called Game City. “I was confused. I thought, Is this Europe?” he said, half-jokingly.

“Tell me again, Grandpa, about how you let your freak flag fly.”SEPTEMBER 26, 2011

The players missed eating injera and fataand hanging out at the cafés on Harnet Avenue. They missed their friends and families. Arefaine’s older sister Helen told him on Facebook Messenger to be strong, and sent him photos and updates from home. “It makes me homesick, but it’s better than not having any news at all,” he said. Their families have yet to experience repercussions from their defections; the players hope that the team’s high profile will prevent the government from retaliating, but they can’t be certain. “My family was angry I left them, and they were afraid,” Arefaine said. “The government is going to do something. I am still afraid.”

Outside the supermarket, Arefaine surveyed the mall: a stretch of boutiques selling clothing, shoes, books, electronics. “There’s nothing like this in Asmara,” he observed. “It’s nice.” After a moment, he corrected himself. “The cafés in Asmara are better. There’s nothing nicer than the streets of Asmara.” At last, though, he had managed to leave Eritrea. When I asked how it felt, he said, “We are one step ahead from where we were.”