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Samson Arefaine was ecstatic when he was invited to try out for the national soccer team. “It was a dream come true,” he said. “One day, I would be able to leave the country.”
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.”
Samson Arefaine, a defender, Francistown, Botswana. Arefaine led the team to defect from Eritrea in 2015, after contemplating escape for years. 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.”