The Soccer Star Refugees of Eritrea – The New Yorker
Around eleven o’clock on the night of October 10, 2015, Samson Arefaine learned that he had been selected to play on the national soccer team of Eritrea, a sliver of a nation in the Horn
Around eleven o’clock on the night of October 10, 2015, Samson Arefaine learned that he had been selected to play on the national soccer team of Eritrea, a sliver of a nation in the Horn of Africa. For two months, he had been in a training camp in the capital, Asmara, with thirty-three other men, vying for ten open spots on the Red Sea Camels. Now the team was due to fly to Botswana in less than two hours, to play in a World Cup qualifying match. Arefaine needed to pack quickly, so he ran to his room, in a house that team officials had arranged for players to use during the camp. The house had no electricity, and he struggled to see in the dark, but he managed to throw some shirts, shorts, and sandals into a bag. On the way to the airport, he called his parents and told them the exciting news.
At twenty-six, Arefaine is lean and wiry, with bright-copper skin, tight-cropped curls, and a narrow face with a faint beard. On the team, he was known for being outspoken and funny, a reliable source of jokes and stories, and also as sensitive and watchful. “He knows how to read faces,” one teammate said. Though he played on the defensive line, at right back, he was the fastest member of the team, and he often rushed forward to score unexpected goals. His teammates described him as one of Eritrea’s best players.
When Arefaine boarded the plane, he had never been outside the country. For Eritreans, this is not unusual: Eritrea is one of the few nations that require an exit visa. An isolated, secretive state of some four million people, it has been under emergency rule since 1998. The United Nations has accused its military and its government—including the President, a former rebel leader named Isaias Afewerki—of crimes against humanity toward their own people, including indefinite conscription, arbitrary arrests and torture, and mass surveillance. “There are no civil liberties, there is no freedom of speech, there is no freedom to organize,” Adane Ghebremeskel Tekie, an activist with the Eritrean Movement for Human Rights, said. “The regime can do anything it wants.” According to the U.N., as many as five thousand people flee the country every month, making it one of the world’s largest sources of refugees. Last year, thirty-eight hundred people drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea; many of them were Eritreans.
Despite its self-imposed isolation, Eritrea wants to be seen as a normal country, and international sporting competitions are a way to present a good face to the world. Eritrean athletes—runners, cyclists, and soccer players—are sometimes permitted to compete in other countries. The Red Sea Camels are a particular source of pride; Eritrea is no less soccer-mad than Italy or Brazil. But, embarrassingly for the government, members of the national soccer team have repeatedly defected after games abroad: Angola in 2007, Kenya in 2009, Uganda in 2012.
After the last defection, the government disbanded the team. Then, in the fall of 2015, it came up with a solution. It would form a team mostly of Eritrean athletes who lived abroad and held dual nationality, and therefore had no incentive to defect. The remaining positions could be filled with loyal athletes living in Eritrea. “They have to trust you,” Yohannes Sium, one of the chosen local players, said. “Trust was the main thing, not skill.”
After the last defection, the government disbanded the team. Then, in the fall of 2015, it came up with a solution. It would form a team mostly of Eritrean athletes who lived abroad and held dual nationality, and therefore had no incentive to defect. The remaining positions could be filled with loyal athletes living in Eritrea. “They have to trust you,” Yohannes Sium, one of the chosen local players, said. “Trust was the main thing, not skill.”
When Arefaine and his teammates landed in Nairobi for a layover, the foreign-based players wandered through the terminal, shopping and eating. The local athletes sat at their gate in hard blue plastic seats, uncomfortably eying one another, while their coaches and the president of the Eritrean National Football Federation sat behind them, holding their passports. The players felt like hostages. “The others can do anything they want, but you just sit and wait,” Henok Semere, a striker, said. Then a representative from the Eritrean Embassy in Kenya arrived at the gate and began talking with the officials. While they were distracted, Arefaine turned to Alex Russom, a baby-faced left back, sitting next to him, and told him that he wanted to escape. “He asked if I want to join him,” Russom recalled. “I said, ‘How did you know I was also thinking that?’ ”
Arefaine had been contemplating escape for years. He had kept in touch with several players who defected in Uganda, and after they resettled, in Holland, he had asked them for advice on how to get asylum. The most important thing, they told him, was to persuade the entire team to go with him. Any one of his teammates who refused to go could betray him.
It was hard to know whom to trust. Some of his teammates later confessed that Eritrean security officials had asked them to inform on the others in case of an escape plot. “There was no closeness among the ten of us—we were not friends,” Arefaine said. “I just took the risk.” It turned out that many of his teammates were interested. But Nairobi wasn’t a good place to defect: there was nowhere to run at the airport, and they had only two hours before their next flight. Besides, his friends in Holland had given him a second piece of advice: don’t escape until after the game. “If you escape without playing, no one will notice you, because you are not on the media,” they explained. “You need radio, television.”
After landing in Francistown, the sleepy city in Botswana where the match was being held, the team members took a nap, had practice, and went to dinner. Then Arefaine gathered the local players in a hotel room, to determine who wanted to join the escape. Everyone enthusiastically agreed, except Semere, the striker. He had another way out: as the only college graduate and the only one fluent in English, he could apply for graduate programs abroad. The idea of leaving his family and friends made him nervous, and he knew that his father, a successful farmer, would not approve. “Henok was scared at first,” Arefaine said. But he was also afraid of going back. What if he didn’t get accepted at a foreign university, or the government didn’t allow him to go? The other option—crossing through the desert to Sudan, Libya, or Ethiopia—was too dangerous. Finally, he agreed to join. In the hotel lobby, Arefaine helped the others purchase sim cards and exchange their money for pula, the local currency. He asked the manager to arrange for a taxi to pick them up at 4 a.m., explaining that they wanted to go on vacation after the match.
They lost the game that evening. “Our minds were elsewhere,” Arefaine said. Back in their rooms, the team’s captain, a Swedish-Eritrean, turned on some music to help everyone relax, but the mood remained tense. Eventually, one of the dual-nationality players asked what was wrong, and Arefaine revealed the escape plan. The player gave Arefaine two hundred pounds, and some of the other foreign-based teammates contributed dollars and euros.
At 4 a.m., Arefaine and the others assembled in the hall and packed their belongings into a single bag. They moved quietly; a Botswana policeman who was escorting the team was asleep in an adjacent room. Arefaine was in a fog. He had brought T-shirts, shorts, sandals, and track pants but had forgotten his phone. “We left the hotel in a rush—we didn’t want to waste time,” he said.
When they got to the lobby, there was no taxi on the street. They paused, wondering if they should wait for one. A few of the players went to the reception desk and asked where they could find the U.S. Embassy or the Red Cross. The hotel staff wasn’t sure, but told them that they could catch a minibus into the center of town. The players decided to try to find the offices on foot. As they walked out of the lobby, security guards watched with surprise. “We told them we were just going on a walk, relaxing,” Arefaine said. “When we went out, there was nothing. It was dark, dark. We didn’t know where to go.”
Eritreans think of their sovereignty as hard-won, and with good reason. The country’s modern borders were set in the late nineteenth century, when Italy invaded a funnel-shaped area of highlands and arid plains on Africa’s northeastern coast and named it Eritrea, from the Latin phrase Erythraeum Mare, or Red Sea. The colonists could not have picked a more inhospitable environment: erratic rainfall, a desert-like coast, dry riverbeds, mangrove swamps, and valleys sunk below sea level. Their policies segregated Eritreans from Italians, in a precursor to South African apartheid, and forbade them to attend secondary school, even as they were drafted to fight Italy’s wars. When Italy lost the colony to Britain, in 1941, the new administrators stripped Eritrea of much of its naval, rail, and industrial infrastructure, and then, with little use left for the colony, turned it over to the United Nations.
At the time, Eritreans had high hopes that they would finally be able to govern themselves. Instead, their neighbor Ethiopia intervened. The two countries share common ethnic groups, languages, customs, and historical origins, in the ancient Christian empires of the Horn of Africa. They also share a border, and, for centuries, Ethiopians looking across the frontier have coveted the territory, which offers both fertile farmland and a pathway to the sea. Emperor Haile Selassie, who believed that the land was his by right, lobbied the U.N., and Eritrea was designated an autonomous territory under the Ethiopian crown. In the coming years, Selassie replaced Eritrea’s flag with Ethiopia’s, supplanted the national languages of Tigrinya and Arabic with Amharic, and finally abolished the federation, erasing the Eritrean state.
“Eritreans who were living under the Ethiopian occupation never felt at ease,” Abraham Zere, an Eritrean journalist who lives in exile in the United States, told me. “It has always been ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ” When resistance movements formed, in the north of Eritrea, the crown’s Army punished their supporters, killing villagers, burning homes, and slaughtering livestock. By 1961, Eritrean fighters had gathered in the mountains near the Ethiopian border, in a maze of underground bunkers that contained hospitals, a school, and living quarters. It was an uneven fight: Ethiopia’s population was more than ten times that of Eritrea. Ethiopia had arms and equipment from the Soviet Union and the United States, while the Eritreans were forced to capture munitions from their enemies. The war affected everyone, Zere said. “My family was often hiding from the continuous bombings.”
In 1991, the Eritreans, with the help of a rebel group in Ethiopia, finally defeated the occupiers. After thirty years of fighting, Eritrea had lost as many as sixty-five thousand people in combat, and two hundred thousand more to famine and the effects of war. But, with almost no support or recognition from abroad, the Eritreans had won, and they emerged proud and defiant. When I visited Asmara recently, a national festival was celebrating twenty-five years of independence. On the sprawling Expo Grounds, among food venders and historical displays, the government has preserved the fuselage of an airliner, which an Ethiopian fighter pilot had strafed on the runway. Across town, in a vast place called the Tank Graveyard, the rusting remains of Ethiopian tanks stand as a monument to the war.
After the victory, Isaias Afewerki, a hero of the struggle, became Eritrea’s leader, and his party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, or P.F.D.J., promised to lead the country toward a constitution and democratic elections. Two years later, though, another dispute erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea, over a border town called Badme. Both sides quickly escalated the conflict; Ethiopia cut off trade, and Eritrea’s economy stagnated. When Afewerki decided to go into battle, Eritreans, accustomed to war to preserve their homeland, enlisted to fight. One of Arefaine’s older brothers went, and was killed—one of an estimated nineteen thousand Eritreans who died in two years.
In 2002, a commission in The Hague ruled that Eritrea had legal rights to the disputed territory, but Ethiopia has continued its occupation. As the war dragged on, people around Afewerki began describing him as severe and brutish, given to autocratic tendencies. “The P.F.D.J. is Eritrea, and I am the P.F.D.J.,” he proclaimed. After members of the Party’s central council questioned his handling of the war—had there been no diplomatic alternative to the huge loss of life and the economic devastation?—Afewerki had eleven of them thrown in prison. He also shut down independent media, jailing editors. In 2010, after an Al Jazeera interviewer challenged him, he called her questions “a pack of lies.” Then, according to Zere’s reporting, he returned to his office and slapped Ali Abdu, the information minister, while his staff looked on. Two years later, Abdu defected while on a trip to Australia. Afterward, his fifteen-year-old daughter, his brother, and his elderly father were put in prison.
Afewerki has used the threat, real or imagined, of renewed war with Ethiopia to keep his citizens in a precarious state that they describe as “no war, no peace.” Now, Eritreans say, they can be detained for crimes as slight as harboring ill will toward the government. There is usually no trial; detainees are often not told the offense, or for how long they will be held. Zerit Yohhanes, a midfielder on the national soccer team, told me that his father has been in prison for more than twenty-five years. The family has no idea why. Maybe he was detained by mistake.
Asmara, where Arefaine grew up, is a serene city of half a million people, set on a plateau at almost eight thousand feet. There are broad streets with peach-toned Art Deco buildings; on Harnet Avenue, lined with palm trees, people stroll past cafés, bars, bakeries, and cinemas. In the middle of the street stands a red brick cathedral, where, during my visit, teen-agers sat flirting on the steps. The city is slow-placed, and crime is low. Western diplomats say, with evident relief, that Asmara is “not like an African city.
Because the government restricts permits for new construction, there is a housing shortage in the city, and people build homes in unregulated settlements on the edge of Asmara. Arefaine grew up in one of these quarters, named Godaif; a paved main street gives way to dirt roads into the neighborhood, where the homes range from pastel-painted brick houses to lean-tos with laundry hanging outside. His father, a judge, owned land there, and so he built an orange house with four bedrooms for the family—four boys and four girls. Arefaine’s mother didn’t go to school, dedicating herself to caring for their children. Arefaine still sometimes cries when he talks about her. “My mom is the sweetest person, because she devoted her life to us,” he told me.
Arefaine’s neighborhood was known for producing skilled, if rowdy, athletes. He described the local pastimes as playing soccer, fighting, and drinking suwa, a kind of beer made from sorghum. Arefaine wanted to be a professional soccer player from the time he could stretch his legs. His father, who was strict and controlling, pressured him to excel in school, and they argued. Arefaine wasn’t serious enough, he said. He preferred the cinema and night clubs to school, and he was always the first one on the dance floor at weddings. But his talent for soccer was evident. As early as high school, scouts began inquiring about him. He joined a club team called Tesfa, and sneaked out of the house to play matches.
School wasn’t that interesting, anyway. In history classes, his teachers spent most of the time on the country’s perpetual struggle against Ethiopia. In geography, Arefaine learned the names of the other countries in Africa, but that was about it. “Our knowledge about the outside world until we finish high school is very limited,” he said.
Arefaine grew up surrounded by support for the Afewerki regime. During the liberation struggle, his father had spied on the Ethiopian occupiers, and then been caught and imprisoned for seven months; he never relinquished the revolutionary spirit. In Arefaine’s classes, Afewerki was described as a modest, nearly omniscient man, focussed on his people’s well-being. On state-run media, he gives hours-long lectures, in which he spins connections among far-flung episodes in world history and politics; local channels feature him in multipart epics about the independence struggle.
At Santa Ana Secondary School, where Arefaine studied, Eritrea’s national anthem is printed on a bulletin board at the entrance: “The pride of her oppressed people proved that truth prevails.” But Arefaine began to see soldiers violently round up people who had been caught without identification papers. In his second year at Santa Ana, soldiers came to take the oldest students in each grade, saying that they were going to a vocational school. Instead, they were sent to military training camps.
Afewerki had instituted the camps in the mid-nineteen-nineties, as part of a national program of mandatory military service. The term of service, beginning after the third year of high school, was originally eighteen months. It is now indefinite, and the program has become the country’s dominant employer, shuttling recruits from camps into a wide range of occupations. A fortunate few, like children of government officials and generals, can get civil-service positions or white-collar jobs—though even they have to attend drills and guard government buildings. The rest are in a standing military of some three hundred thousand, who work on government projects in construction, farming, and mining, or are deployed to the border with Ethiopia. Most are paid roughly four hundred nakfa, or thirty dollars, a month. Everyone has a gun at home.
A trainee’s experience is determined by his unit and location: generally, the more remote your station, the worse the conditions. “The one thing that is constant is the abuse,” Yohannes Woldemariam, an Eritrean who taught international relations for a decade at Fort Lewis College, in Colorado, said. Arefaine’s older siblings came home complaining about the camps; their parents told them to be patient, that everyone went through it. But Arefaine saw people he knew, students and teachers, fleeing Eritrea. Some walked to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, braving gunfire from border guards. Others paid smugglers thousands of dollars to lead them through the Sahara to Libya and then Europe. In 2012, Eritrean Air Force pilots flew a government plane to Saudi Arabia to seek asylum.
As people left the country, the regime began a more aggressive campaign of surveillance; in some cases, Eritreans told me, you could be detained for “thinking about escaping.” In Arefaine’s neighborhood, a woman named Saada reported evaders to the authorities, and boys avoided walking by her house. “I started being cautious whenever I talk about the government, about other things, with friends, because someone could report me,” Arefaine said. Zerit Yohhanes, the midfielder, told me that, when he dropped out of school to avoid the camps, a friend’s mother reported him. She even delivered the letter recalling him for duty. Yohhanes was baffled; the woman’s own son had fled to Sudan in order to dodge service. “I told her, ‘Your son is somewhere else. Why are you doing this to me?’ ” he said. She replied, “I’m just the messenger.” Suspicion is so widespread that even long-acquainted neighbors can be wary of one another. “The system has created an atmosphere of mistrust among Eritreans,” Ghebremeskel, of the Eritrean Movement for Human Rights, told me. “You can’t trust your own brother.”
In 2004, Arefaine’s older brother fled through the desert to Sudan, eventually making his way to England. “He was angry because of the national service,” Arefaine recalled. “That’s why he left.” Still, their father encouraged the other children to volunteer for service. It was their duty, he said. The government told them that the service and the roundups were necessary, because of the threat from Ethiopia, and they believed it.
As Arefaine finished his third year of high school, he wondered which camp he would be sent to. Many of his classmates would spend their last year of high school at Sawa, an enormous military complex about a hundred and seventy miles northwest of Asmara. Children of the well connected were often allowed to attend Sawa because of its proximity to Asmara. If you managed to find the time amid your duties to study there, you could gain entrance to a college.
Arefaine’s teammate Semere, the son of the prosperous farmer, had lived in one of the hot, poorly ventilated hangars that function as dormitories for Sawa’s thousands of trainees. In the mornings, he attended a school nearby, and then supervisors took him and the other recruits to do hard labor at commercial farms, digging and plowing for no pay. “You think, I don’t deserve this at this age,” he said. “You come just as a child. That’s why they take you at that age—you don’t know anything, and you just follow them. You are terrified.”
Men and women trained together; during the independence struggle, an idea had taken hold that women should be equally involved in all national activities. But Asia Abdulkadir, an Eritrean-German gender consultant for the U.N., told me that the women were often abused. “The senior commander would always choose the best-looking girl and bring her to his unit to wash his clothes, cook his food, make sure his house is always clean,” she said. “And there is a pressure for the girls to offer sexual services.” At Sawa, Semere knew girls who had been impregnated by commanders.
The base was close to the border with Sudan, and thirty of Semere’s hall mates eventually escaped. He stayed, and studied as much as he could, poring over math and physics textbooks in the hours before a 4 a.m. wakeup call. If trainees failed college-entrance exams, they would be immediately drafted back into service. “So you end up in the military for the rest of your life,” Arefaine said. Eritrea has only seven colleges, and there is a shortage of qualified teachers, according to Tadesse Mehari, who heads the National Commission for Higher Education. The government spends five million dollars a year to hire expatriate faculty, mostly Indians. It has sent students abroad for advanced degrees, in the hope that they would return to teach. But, Mehari said, “that’s not faring very well, because many of the youngsters this time do not want to come back.”
Those who graduate college have little assurance of working in the area that they studied; most seem to end up back in national service. One afternoon, at a breezy, secluded café in Asmara, I had tea with a young woman who had gone to Sawa and then completed a degree in engineering. The government assigned her to teach English at a school in Asmara for three years, with the understanding, she said, that “after that maybe they can put you in your field.” She now worked part time at a restaurant; other graduates she knew were working in kindergartens. “You try to be flexible,” she said, laughing. “You have to, in order to live. You can even clean the streets.” She went on, “Just waiting to be an engineer is losing time. I have to do my duty to my family.”
Outside Asmara, I drove past a guard post manned by soldiers. There was a cluster of zinc shacks serving as a residence, but there was nothing to guard: no ammunitions depot, no intelligence post, nothing. “If you are not on a farming or a construction project, breaking stones, it’s about keeping you in check,” Ghebremeskel, the activist, said. In Asmara, a man who had worked for decades in the civil service told me that he was sometimes assigned to duty as a prison guard. “What’s frustrating to the youth is that there is no end to national service,” Woldemariam, the professor, said. “The suspense—you can’t plan your life.”
Because Arefaine was a gifted athlete, the Eritrean Sport and Culture Commission offered a deal: if he went to a remote camp in the east, called Wi’a, he would be allowed to leave after just six months and play for a club team in Asmara. He packed jam and peanut butter, a sorghum drink, a little money, a blanket, and a few changes of clothes. He felt ready to go.
To get to Wi’a, he and about a hundred and fifty other recruits rode for three hours in the back of a giant truck, so crammed together that they could barely find room to stand. When they arrived, Arefaine was stunned. The camp is in a volcanic area on the Red Sea coast, a sun-blasted expanse of white sand. “There is just plain ground,” he recalled. “There is no housing except for small shelters made out of sticks.” Soldiers hustled the recruits out of the truck and told them to kneel, then divided them into groups. In a long shelter covered with branches and leaves, they dropped their things. A soldier was serving stale bread and watery lentil soup, ladled out from a cavernous pot. “You could barely see the lentils,” Arefaine said. He ate some of the food he had brought from home, already regretting the decision to come.
That evening, the commander, a man named Jamal, laid out the rules: trainees had to obey whatever instructions their superiors gave them, and they would be shot if they tried to escape. “Immediately after the meeting, people started running,” Arefaine said. Soldiers swarmed the remaining recruits, telling them to kneel. Arefaine could hear vehicles moving over the sand and guns firing into the air. No one knew if any of the runners were caught. If they were, they would be put in the camp prison, a hole in the ground that felt like a coffin.
At night, the recruits slept in the open, surrounded by a ring of sleeping soldiers. Arefaine poured water on the sandy ground to cool it, and then laid down his blanket. Each day, he and the other trainees had to wake up at 4 a.m., quickly stow their bedding and change clothes, and then jog to a clearing a mile away, where they could relieve themselves, under close watch by the guards. For the remainder of the day, they marched and had target practice, with a rest in the early afternoon to avoid the high sun. Every thirty minutes, a whistle shrieked, and everyone had to line up in formation. Their superiors were checking to make sure that no one had escaped.
The recruits were beaten for failing to show up on time, or for falling out of formation, or for stealing water. “You were treated like an animal,” Arefaine said. At breakfast, they were given a cup of black tea, six rolls, and five litres of water to last the day. Lunch and dinner were more lentil soup. There were about two thousand men in the camp, and every Wednesday afternoon they all went to the river to bathe. (The women went on Tuesdays.) People unfailingly tried to escape across the river, and Arefaine watched as they were shot down, their legs collapsing beneath them in the water. The ones who made it disappeared into the scrubland. Later, when soldiers dumped corpses on the ground in front of the recruits, Arefaine saw that many of them had been mauled by hyenas.
A man in the camp was tattooing recruits, using a thorn and kohl, and although religious practices were forbidden, Arefaine had a cross imprinted on his right forearm. “We were stressed and worried, and we wanted to think of our God,” he said. When the tattoo became infected, he went to a medic to have it treated. The medic scolded him: “Why did you do this?” When Arefaine came for follow-up treatments, the medic beat him with a stick.
After six months, it was clear that Arefaine wasn’t going to be allowed to leave early. Around that time, his parents were permitted to make a one-hour visit. His mother looked at the camp and at Arefaine, who was frighteningly thin, and sobbed uncontrollably. “I was telling her not to cry,” he recalled. “From then on, whatever happened to me I kept to myself.”
When his year of training was done, he was assigned to a military base in the village of Gelalo, in the south. He was often on the move, sent to man checkpoints or guard telecommunications infrastructure, or, worse, to carry out roundups. He and his platoon were dropped off in surrounding villages to look for evaders, grabbing boys who didn’t have permits off the streets or from their homes. They searched under beds, in cupboards, and even took girls, herding them into a prison or a stadium for questioning. If someone resisted, Arefaine could end up having to shoot him. “I felt very bad,” he said. “No one wanted to do it.” He knew that, if he protested, his treatment would worsen.
Like many men in national service, Arefaine hoped that soccer would provide a way out. The club teams are owned by the military, the ruling party, and state companies, so coaches can recruit anyone they want. When he joined the service, he wrote on his entrance forms that he was a soccer player, but nothing had come of it. At last, three years into his service, he got a call telling him to come to the city of Assab to try out for a military-sponsored club team.
Arefaine wanted to play, but he was desperate to get home. If he tried out for the team and didn’t make it, he knew, he’d have to go back into national service. Instead, he sought out a relative who lived in town and, with his help, bought a forged permit that said he was on medical leave. Early one morning, he heaved himself into the back of a transport truck, and, sitting on top of the cargo, rode north. When the truck reached its destination, several hours later, he got on another one, and then another, paying the drivers small bribes. At checkpoints, he showed the fake permit. When he got home, his family greeted him with happiness and surprise; he didn’t tell them that his papers had been forged. He put his belongings down in his familiar bedroom, with posters of the Barcelona soccer team. He took a bath.
On Harnet Avenue, I visited an ornate, four-level theatre called Cinema Impero, where people often gather to watch soccer games. In midafternoon, fans were scattered across the seats, engrossed in an English Premier League match that played on the giant screen. The fans sat in rapt silence, periodically bursting into shouts and cheers. Soccer is immensely popular in Eritrea, featured prominently on state media and dominating the discussion in public spaces. “It is a way of escape from the frustrating reality,” Zere, the exiled journalist, said, “and a refuge to discuss safe issues that will not draw attention from state security.”
In Asmara, there is much that critics can’t comment on. The streets are filled with decades-old bicycles and cars, and the electricity goes out frequently. The state-run mobile-phone network is spotty, and people resort to pay phones. The ruling party’s company, Red Sea Trading Corporation, is the country’s primary legal importer, but most of what’s for sale in Eritrea’s small shops is smuggled into the country in giant suitcases—a practice that is tolerated, perhaps even sanctioned, by the government. On the outskirts of the city, police cars driving to Adi Abeto prison pass a thriving black market for diesel.
According to the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, P.F.D.J. officials skim millions of dollars a year from party-run companies, but the charges are difficult to investigate because the government never discloses its budget. Eritreans joke that Afewerki runs the country as if it were a small grocery store. Hagos Ghebrehiwet, the President’s economic adviser, told me that the budget had to be kept secret, to protect against “economic sabotage” by Ethiopia and its supporters. A former treasury chief, quoted in Martin Plaut’s book “Understanding Eritrea,” gave a simpler explanation: no budget has ever been committed to paper.
Eritrea has resources—gold, copper, zinc, and potash—but the majority of the population depends on subsistence farming. Ghebrehiwet told me that the problem was a limited workforce: “A small country with a lot of resources in agriculture, mining, and fisheries—I don’t think we will have enough manpower to be able to exploit the potential here.” Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, was more direct. “The government is broke,” she said. “They can’t pay people to do jobs that would normally be civil-service posts. So what they’re doing is conscripting people.” In 2016, the government increased the monthly pay to between two and five thousand nakfa. But Eritreans are not allowed to withdraw more than five thousand nakfa a month from a bank without approval. “You take it to the market and it’s gone in five days,” an Eritrean in Asmara told me.
Eritrean officials insist that the threat from Ethiopia forces them to divert resources to the military. Berhane G. Solomon, the chargé d’affaires at the Eritrean Embassy in Washington, D.C., complained that the international community has done nothing to compel Ethiopia to withdraw its troops. “It has put the burden on us to protect our independence,” he said. “Eritrea is only twenty-five years old. We are just crawling, trying to stand on our own feet.”
Publicly, the U.S. has hesitated to criticize Ethiopia, a key ally in regional anti-terror efforts. Between 2006 and 2009, Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia to fight Islamists, including the terror group al-Shabaab. In 2009, the U.N. placed sanctions on Eritrea, for allegedly supporting al-Shabaab in order to undermine Ethiopia. But the U.N.’s own Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has found no evidence to support that claim. (The group does say that Eritrea has ties to Somali arms traffickers.) When a U.N. report alleged persistent human-rights abuses, the government called the claims “an unwarranted attack not only against Eritrea, but also Africa and developing nations.” Amid the continuing dispute, Afewerki has barred the monitoring group from the country since 2013.
Eritrea and the United States are in a kind of standoff: a Western diplomat whom I spoke to acknowledged that Ethiopia is behaving thuggishly, but thought that the onus is on Eritrea to allow the monitoring group to inspect again. If the country were cleared of the allegations raised by the U.N., the international community would be more amenable to helping resolve the border issue. Eritrean officials regard the U.S.’s reasoning as nearsighted. “Why should good relations with Ethiopia mean hostility toward Eritrea?” Yemane Gebreab, the P.F.D.J.’s head of political affairs, said.
In Asmara, Arefaine knew that he had to protect himself from informants, so he went to see Saada, the neighborhood spy, and told her that he was on medical leave and going to a military hospital in town for treatment. Without release papers from the military, he couldn’t join a club team, so he got a job at a shop in the city. When he wasn’t working, he stayed indoors to avoid the military’s sweeps for evaders. After a few months, though, he reconnected with a high-school friend, Mikal, and started going with her to Harnet Avenue at night, strolling from café to café or going to Cinema Hamsien, where they could watch Indian movies for a few nakfa.
Late one night, about a year later, he heard his father shouting for him to wake up. A contingent of soldiers had jumped the gate of their house and announced that they were looking for him. Arefaine recognized the men: three were platoon mates from Gelalo, and the fourth was the platoon leader. All were holding guns. They handcuffed him and led him out of the house, as his mother and sisters cried.
Arefaine spent the night in a local police station, and then was taken to a prison near his old base in Gelalo. He was confined, along with some sixty other men, to a cell where the only light came from small, high windows. The men weren’t allowed out, so they had to relieve themselves in a corner. They all became infested with fleas. “I was about to lose my mind,” Arefaine said. “You think about the way you’ve been taken from home. You think about your mom, your dad, how they feel.”
After six months, prison authorities told Arefaine that he was being released: the military wanted him to play soccer again. It was true that he had briefly evaded service, but so did many other men. Evasion was normal, almost expected—and Arefaine was unusually talented. Arefaine immediately called his parents, who thought he had been killed, and told them that he was free. He cut his hair to get rid of the fleas.
Back in Asmara, he practiced with the team in the mornings, went to a mandatory political-education center in the afternoons, and worked as a guard at a national-service office on some nights. He made four hundred and fifty nakfa, about twenty-eight dollars, a month. “Once you go to the camp, you are the property of the government,” a former journalist in Asmara told me. “Whether you work in a highly professional position or as a security guard, everybody gets four hundred for life.” On nights off, Arefaine bribed his commanders to let him broker houses and cars on the informal market, so that he could make ends meet.
Arefaine was sitting in a café when he got the news that he had been called to try out for the national team. He shouted so loudly that he startled the other customers. “It was a dream come true,” he said. “One day, I would be able to leave the country.” When he told his parents he wanted to escape, they were against it. The government has sometimes required families of national-team players to turn over the deeds to their houses as a guarantee in case their sons fled, and if Arefaine defected his family could lose their home. He assured them he wouldn’t leave. But, he said, “I made up my mind—I would do it anyway.”
The team members based abroad—in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and elsewhere—were flown in and put up in a five-star hotel. The local athletes moved into a guesthouse with no electricity and no running water, where they slept four to a room. While the foreign-based players were paid in dollars, the rest were told that they would receive nakfa—and then were given nothing. They trained for two months, and, as Arefaine and his teammates watched the coaches lavish praise on their foreign-based counterparts, they grew resentful. “There was a double standard,” Minasie Solomon, the goalkeeper, said. Solomon, the oldest member of the team, had loved his country enough to volunteer for the war effort against Ethiopia, but now he was disillusioned. By the time the team got to the airport in Nairobi, nearly everyone was ready to join Arefaine’s attempt to defect. “Samson is brave and smart,” Yohhanes, the midfielder, said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
The night of their escape, after the players left the hotel, they walked for half an hour down a wide avenue called Marimavu Road. A police car drove up to them; a policewoman had recognized them from coverage of the match. “Are you O.K., guys?” she asked. “What are you doing?” Semere spoke first. “We are refusing to go home because we don’t have human rights,” he said. All around him, his teammates began talking at once in Tigrinya, asking him to translate. “I told them, ‘Keep quiet, please—give me time to think!’ ” he recalled. Semere asked the officer if it was safe for them to stay in Botswana. “Yes, it’s safe—don’t worry,” she said, and then drove away.
Not long after, several police cars pulled up to the group, and officials from the team stepped out. The players backed up as if they were going to run. “Where are you going?” a coach said. “Please don’t do this.” The players shook their heads. “We said we are not going back—we have decided,” Semere recalled. “We have been waiting for this time.” As the police discussed the situation with the team officials in English, several of the players tried to convey their desperation without words. They mimed guns and made shooting sounds and grabbed the necks of their shirts.
Finally, the officers told everyone to go to the police station, a few minutes away. The Eritrean Ambassador to Southern Africa, Saleh Omar, who had come to Francistown for the game, met them there. In a holding room, he pleaded with the players to return to Asmara, promising that he would protect them. “I’ll take you home myself,” he said. “Nothing will happen to you.” When they didn’t answer, he threatened that the Botswana police would arrest them if they stayed.
Filmon Berhe, another midfielder, had been quiet, listening as his teammates did the explaining. Bearded, with wary eyes, he was usually not much of a talker. But he was getting frustrated. The Ambassador didn’t understand what they were telling him. “Where are your children?” Berhe asked.
Omar paused. “They are living with me at the moment,” he said.
“That is why you don’t feel for us,” Berhe said. “You don’t understand what we are going through.”
Omar angrily left the room and destroyed their passports. When he returned, he said, “I’m not responsible for you. You’re on your own.”
The mass defection was a humiliation for the government, and if the players were deported back to Asmara they could face severe punishment. (Refugees who have been forced to return speak of being tortured, and of being held for years in windowless shipping containers with little food and water.) Gebreab, the P.F.D.J. official, suggested that the soccer team had been deliberately lured away. “How about our runners and our cyclists who compete and come back?” he said. “For me, this is cherry-picking. In Botswana, they were given cause—they said if they stay there they will be given green cards and they will be going to the United States, so most of them decided to stay. It shows that there are certain people in this country who will take any opportunity to leave.”
At the police station, though, Arefaine became convinced that they had made the right decision. “It was like I was born again—I had been given a second chance,” he recalled. As the teammates pleaded with the police chief, he softened, and admitted that they had the right to apply for asylum. After waiting a week in jail, they saw a Botswana lawyer, and were allowed to call their families. Arefaine told his that he was safe.
One Sunday afternoon in Asmara, I went to see Adulis, the Asmara municipal team, play Red Sea, owned by the Red Sea Trading Corporation. The players, wearing crisp uniforms in yellows and reds, warmed up on a wide green field, surrounded by a red-brown track. Old men in corduroy blazers sat on concrete bleachers, alongside boys in sweatshirts with headphones plugged into their ears. Everyone was talking and laughing with excitement.
The defection of so many good players in the past decade had left a dearth of talent. These were two of the best teams in the country, but the players’ footwork was sloppy, and passes kept going out of bounds. “It’s like the ball is moving on its own,” one spectator said. Another, a bald man in a camel-colored blazer, looked on in disgust. “I’m not happy with this team,” he said.
After halftime, Adulis scored a goal—but the ball trickled out through a hole in the side of the net. The stadium erupted. “How can that be a goal?” a bearded young man in a blue button-down shirt yelled in front of me. (The man asked not to be named, fearing retaliation from the government, so I refer to him as Freselam.) Freselam told me he had been a finalist for the national soccer team that had competed in Botswana but had narrowly missed the cut. Now he was playing for another club team. It was a decent life, he said: he practiced twice a week and got paid sixteen hundred nafka a month, along with room and board at the clubhouse.
As the game went on, the fans’ frustration gave way to scuffles in the stands, and then to an all-out fracas. In the last minutes, a referee called a foul on Adulis, and Red Sea scored on a penalty kick, winning the match. Policemen wielding batons had to escort the referee out of the stadium amid fans shouting threats. “I’m going to kill you,” Freselam shouted at a man who was hassling the referee. “People like you shouldn’t even be here!”
After the match, Freselam headed to a pizzeria to celebrate with some of the winning athletes and fans. He had become friends with several national-team players who are now in Botswana, and had been saddened when he learned that they weren’t coming back. “I was disappointed that I wouldn’t see them again,” he said. “But it was their choice.”
When I asked about Arefaine, Freselam smiled broadly. “He was one of the strongest players, especially with his speed,” he said. “He scored a lot of points.”
“He’s a nice guy,” another player said. “We miss him a lot.”
The two players said that they hadn’t been surprised when Arefaine defected. It was just something that happened in Eritrea. But they were surprised to hear that he had been dissatisfied with his life there: he always seemed happy, they said. Later, Arefaine told me, “You don’t want to seem to anyone that you are not happy in Asmara. Because if you do, they may arrest you.”
A few months ago, Arefaine and Russom, the left back, took a minibus from the refugee camp where they have been staying to Galo Shopping Center, a fashionable mall in Francistown. An airy, light-flooded complex with an attached supermarket, it was filled with late-afternoon shoppers. The men were relieved to be away from the camp, an uncomfortable place with limited electricity and running water. “It’s not what we expected,” Russom said. Unaccustomed to the local food, the players had grown skinny. They had little money, scrounging what they could from sympathizers in the Eritrean diaspora and trading their food rations with local shops to buy pasta, as well as minutes for the phones they shared. They had nothing to do and nowhere to be.
“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.
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.” ♦