Monday, December 5, 2016

The soccer team that defected from Eritrea

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.


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,”