The Case of Eritrea’s Missing Soccer Team

By Sadie Bass

Dec 16, 2009 11:36am

ABC's Dana Hughes reports from Nairobi: Eritrea's officials admitted today that the national soccer team is officially missing, after failing to return home from a tournament last week in Kenya. The plane carrying the 12 players and coach to Nairobi, returned to Eritrea with only…the coach.  It sounds like an intriguing mystery, but the truth is those young men, who Kenyan officials are now looking for, are just some of the thousands of Eritreans who try to defect from the country every year. An Eritrean government official simultaneously said the country would “welcome” the players home, while acknowledging they had “betrayed” their country. Eritrea is considered one of the most repressive regimes in the world. There is no freedom of press or religion, and the nationalization of nearly all private enterprise has left the country in abject poverty. It is also illegal for Eritrean citizens to leave the country without government approval, which is hardly ever granted. Mandatory conscription can last indefinitely. President Isayas Afewerki justifies the indefinite conscription policy by maintaining that Eritrea needs a strong and large army to counter Ethiopia, after fighting a brutal 30-year war for independence, which was finally gained in 1993. Border issues between the two countries erupting 1998 continue today. But this policy, along with other repressive measures, has turned Eritrea into a “giant prison” according to Human Rights Watch. The organization has documented several cases of people who tried to flee being imprisoned and tortured.  Like East Germany and the Berlin Wall in the 1980′s Eritrea’s security forces reportedly have a "shoot to kill" order for any citizen caught trying to flee the border into Sudan. The situation is so severe that the United Nations High Commission of Refugees recommends countries should not deport any Eritrean, because of the almost guaranteed mistreatment upon the refugees return. For those who do escape, their families become targets and reportedly have to either pay a fine of several thousand dollars or face prison themselves. Two years ago the Eritrean government issued a new policy that all travelling athletes must deposit about $6,000 before leaving the country, a kind of insurance policy that they would return. These 12 young men seemingly decided that whatever the price of escape is to themselves or their families, it is worth paying.

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