The Soccer-Star Refugees of Eritrea

(The New Yorker; By –Dec. 12th, 2016)

Athletes from the national team plan a mass defection.

 

“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.”

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.

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.”

“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.