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Escape from one of the most dangerous countries on Earth: The story of the footballers who made it out

“We see potential spies and enemies everywhere,” says David. “It can be at border control or it can be in a cafe. The other day, a guy was looking at me strangely, so I left without finishing my breakfast, and jumped in a taxi — asking the driver to take me to the wrong address.”

David is an Eritrean footballer, a refugee who thinks government agents are still watching him even though he fled the country a long time ago and is now thousands of miles away. Though he has claimed asylum abroad, his fears mean that he often sleeps with a chair pressed against the door of his bedroom. Sometimes he will have nightmares about a group of men armed with weapons bursting in and taking him away.

He lives with the memory of 18 months of training at the Sawa military camp in Eritrea, where, from the age of 15, he was awoken each morning before sunrise and beaten if he did not carry out the orders of his superiors to their liking. There were day-long hikes without food or water and he saw unspeakable violence to women and girls, some of it sexual. He felt like his future was being stolen from him yet insists he was one of the lucky ones. While military service can be an unending indenture of slavery in Eritrea, he was released, he believes, because he had already started to prove his talent as a footballer. Yet there was always the threat of being sent back, even after being called up to play for the Eritrean national team.

After Sawa, he could not stop thinking about getting out of Eritrea, a country that was ranked as the least free state in the world in the 2021 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, behind North Korea and other countries known for oppressing and jailing journalists. David says escape became an “obsession”. Levels of repression inside the country were getting worse but those trying to leave via its borders were risking indefinite detention. He had heard about underground prisons and a torture chamber known as ‘the oven’ because of the sweltering conditions. That is why, when he one day travelled abroad to play for Eritrea, he decided to make his move: leaving the team hotel in the middle of the day ostensibly to go shopping for souvenirs. He did not return. He is one of as many as 80 footballers to abscond from the country while in other nations since 2007.

David, whose name has been changed at his request to protect his identity, describes himself as a “patriot” and he insists that he will never experience a greater honour than representing Eritrea as a footballer. But he thinks he can never go back. He will not disclose his name publicly because of the perceived threat to his freedom, nor will he confirm where in the world he has resettled, or whether anyone else from the squad escaped with him while on international duty. He says Eritreans are conditioned to distrust journalists because a free press does not exist in their country and anyone who tries to tell the truth is oppressed.

Though he recognises the importance of telling at least part of his story, he is thin on detail at times because the conversation makes him feel nervous. When he speaks to The Athletic, he talks quietly. He does not want anyone to hear what he is saying. When the latest Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) starts in the Ivory Coast on Saturday, a team from Eritrea will not be there.

Eritrea have never qualified for a major international tournament but, on this occasion, did not even enter the process after the Confederation of African Football (CAF) confirmed the country did not have a stadium that fulfilled its safety requirements to host home matches. Nor are Eritrea competing to reach the 2026 World Cup. In November, the Eritrean National Football Federation (ENFF) withdrew its entry via a short statement issued by world football’s governing body FIFA and CAF, which said simply that “all of Eritrea’s matches have been cancelled”.

This decision came after talk of an agreement being reached between ENFF and the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (RMFF) to use that country’s training facilities, which meet CAF standards, before all matches. David interprets Eritrea’s most recent retreat as a reaction from the government fearful of geography, given Morocco’s proximity to Europe and the increased likelihood of more players using the agreement as an opportunity to flee.

“It then becomes an international incident,” says David. “Eritrea does not want the world talking about its problems.” The last time Eritrea played a competitive, FIFA-recognised game of football, in 2019, they tumbled out of the 2022 World Cup at the qualifying stages after losing over two legs to Namibia. In the same month, four members of the nation’s under-20 side sought asylum in Uganda. In a sporting sense, the timing of this defection was significant. Eritrea had trounced Zanzibar to reach the semi-finals of the CECAFA Under-20 Championship — consisting of national teams from east and central African nations — when, amid the celebrations and platitudes from government officials back home, the players made their move. This escape involved convincing the ‘minders’ watching over the squad that they had earned the opportunity to go for a walk without unwanted companionship. Three months later, another seven players from the senior national team absconded in the same country. Six of those players have since claimed they were underage when they were forcibly conscripted into the army.

On five occasions since 2009, Eritrean footballers have used the opportunity to seek refuge elsewhere rather than return to a country that is often referred to by Western media as the “North Korea” of Africa. Permanently mobilised conscripts have been instrumental to the rule of Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, since the start of the 1990s, when the country gained independence from southern neighbour Ethiopia following a war that lasted 30 years. Though he initially presented himself as a man of the people, Eritrea has become an authoritarian state under Afwerki, with no national assembly, no constitution or independent judiciary. According to a report produced by the UN Human Rights Council, nearly 40,000 Eritreans tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2014 alone. Two years later, the UN claimed that crimes against humanity had been committed in Eritrea in a “widespread and systematic manner”. The same report said: “Crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder, and other inhumane acts have been committed as part of a campaign to instil fear in, deter opposition from, and, ultimately, to control the Eritrean civilian population.”

By 2018, a peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia led to its borders opening and 5,000 people a day leaving the country. That year, half a million Eritreans fled — a tenth of its population. Yet footballer David, along with other Eritrean sources who have discussed their experiences with The Athletic on the condition of anonymity, has spoken about the “paranoia” there, where people are sceptical of old international alliances and are, in some cases, thankful to Afwerki for maintaining the country’s sovereignty. The president retains the support of a mainly older generation having successfully created an image of himself as a besieged leader, successfully combating threatening external forces in the name of independence, while maintaining its key strategic position on the Horn of Africa.

This means that some refugees remain loyal to him, even after resettling following tremendous hardship in their journeys. They say they have not sought a future elsewhere because of Afwerki but because of the actions of other countries, including landlocked Ethiopia, which is threatening to establish a port on Eritrean soil. Afwerki has informed Eritrean behaviours to such an extent that within expat communities abroad, it is dangerous to discuss politics wherever you happen to live. David knows people who have been verbally and physically abused on the street for telling their stories publicly. “You never know who is reading, who is listening, what they think, and what they will do with that information,” he says.

The last time Eritrea played a competitive game of football, Mohammed Saeid made his international debut. Unlike the other footballers featured in this article, he is willing to talk on the record because none of his relatives or friends still live…

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