For Hanibal Tekle, the news that Robel Teklemichael had only become the second Eritrean footballer to cross the border and sign a professional contract with an Ethiopian club since the war between the countries began in 1998 has elicited mixed emotions. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Tekle recalls.
But when Teklemichael – the 21-year-old defender who led Eritrea to second place in the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup 2019, a tournament for teams from East Africa – followed in the footsteps of compatriot Samyoma Alexander in joining the Addis Ababa Ethiopia Bunna team in April, Tekle wondered what could have been his own career. He was one of four players who fled after Eritrea’s 5-0 victory over Zanzibar in the Cecafa Under-20 Cup quarter-finals in Uganda nearly two years ago and are in hiding in awaiting the outcome of their asylum application. Tekle knows he could easily have played as a professional alongside Teklemichael.
“After Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the peace agreement in 2018, I received many offers from Ethiopian clubs, but the government rejected them all,” he says. “When you receive offers from overseas, you should talk to your club officials, but even if they accept, the government [usually] refuse. And when you ask for the reason, they hide it or just say, “You can’t go. All clubs in Eritrea are under government control, so club officials are in constant contact with the government – or sometimes they are state officials themselves.
Same story for Sami Tesfagabr, a promising talent spotted by Israeli club Hapoel Petah Tikva in 2008. The Eritrean government blocked the transfer without explanation and the defender and his international teammates fled during the Cecafa Cup the following year. in Kenya. They spent eight months in a refugee camp before being granted refugee status from Australia, with Tesfagabr being granted full citizenship in 2016.
Teklemichaël did not encounter such obstacles. He was cleared to join Bunna – also known as Ethiopian Coffee and who finished second in the Ethiopian Premier League last season – after excelling for his home club Red Sea FC in Asmara.
Since 2009, it is estimated that more than 50 players have used their status as international footballers to escape the oppressive regime of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, which imposes life-long military service on many subjects and prohibits groups of more than two people from. gather in public places. . Seven – Abel Okbay Kilo, Eyoba Girmay, Yosief Mebrahtu, Filmon Serere, Robel Kidane, Abraham and Ismail Jahar – disappeared after helping Eritrea reach the Cecafa Cup final for the first time in December 2019 and stay in secrecy. Tekle and his teammates Mewael Yosief, Simon Asmelash and Hermon Yohannes were recently transferred to a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) camp after being deported from a shelter made available to them to avoid capture by Eritrean agents who were looking for them in Uganda.
“UNHCR told us it was time to live with the rest of the local population like normal people,” he says. “We were only supposed to stay in this house for three to six months, but we refused to go, given our case. We told them it was too risky for us to go out, that we don’t know what can happen to us outside. So we stayed until December, although they let us know every week. In December they said they were going to renovate the house so we had to go out. It was then that we lived in fear.
He adds: “Since Covid-19 broke out, no one has asked about us. We have asked the UNHCR to relocate us, but we are still awaiting their response. There are Eritreans who help us sometimes. The footballers who escaped in 2012 and are now in the Netherlands also helped us once. They collected money and sent it to us for food and rent. It meant a lot to us.
Their American lawyer, Kimberley Motley, who was introduced to the players by Stockholm-based activist Vanessa Tsehaye, says they face an anxious wait for their case to be resolved. “The Covid issues have completely messed things up for everyone, especially when it comes to the refugee cases,” she says.
“We just hope that the file will be approved so that they are placed in a safe place. It’s outside Uganda, which is not a safe place for them given their status with the Eritrean government and their profile. Hopefully the UNHCR will rally and another country will rally and accept the footballers, but unfortunately at this point that has not happened. “
The Guardian has requested comments from UNHCR.