Eritrea women’s team footballers still in hiding after escaping in Uganda

·3-min read
<span>Composite: Getty</span>
Composite: Getty

Five members of Eritrea’s Under-20 women’s team who escaped after playing in a tournament in Uganda last year remain in hiding, the Guardian understands.

According to sources close to the players, the five – Luwam Solomon, Yordanos Abraham, Shamat Futsum, Rahel Michael and Trhas Habate, who are aged between 16 and 19 – are “safe and well” after fleeing hours before their game against the hosts in the Cecafa Women’s Under-20 Championship on 2 November. It is estimated that more than 60 players have used their status as internationals to escape the oppressive regime of the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, since 2009, although this is the first case involving female players.

Related: Eritrean footballers on the run face anxious wait in push for safe haven

It is understood that the Uganda football association (Fufa) was initially involved in the investigation into the female footballers’ disappearance but its spokesperson Ahmed Hussein confirmed that “that matter was handed over to Uganda police and it’s out of our jurisdiction”, without specifying what Fufa’s role in the investigation was.

Cecafa’s executive director, Auka Gecheo, said: “As the tournament organisers, we did inform the authorities of the disappearance of the players and offered all relevant cooperation that was required by the investigation authorities.” Asked whether Cecafa, being aware of past defections of Eritrean footballers during regional tournaments, had put in place specific measures to avoid new disappearances, he said that “the authorities had been informed of the tournament and the participating teams. There was also security provided at all the hotels where the teams were staying”.

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said they could not comment on individual cases.

This month a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea issued a report critical of the deteriorating situation in the country, noting forced military conscription to fight, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture among the violations recorded. It said children as young as 14 had been recruited to fight in the conflict with Ethiopia and that the human rights situation in Eritrea continued to push thousands to flee to other countries for asylum.

“I remain gravely concerned by the situation of hundreds of Eritreans who have been disappeared and arbitrarily detained in secret prisons in violation of human rights standards,” wrote Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

At the end of March Eritrea were due to face Botswana in preliminary stages of qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations. But they withdrew three weeks before the first leg was due to take place without specifying a reason. It meant Eritrea’s men have not played a senior game since a friendly against Sudan in January 2020, and their last competitive match was nearly three years ago – against Namibia in a World Cup qualifier in September 2019.

Robel Teklemichael has excelled for Ethiopian Coffee since becoming only the second Eritrean footballer to cross the border since war broke out between the countries in 1998, but there is little prospect of his former Under-20 teammates Hanibal Tekle, Mewael Yosief, Simon Asmelash and Hermon Yohannes joining him any time soon. They remain in hiding in Uganda nearly three years after fleeing during the Under-20 Cecafa Cup. They have received support from the UNHCR but have yet to hear news about being resettled to a new country.

“It’s basically in UNHCR’s hands at this point,” said Kimberley Motley, an American lawyer who has been working on their case.

Another seven senior internationals – Abel Okbay Kilo, Eyoba Girmay, Yosief Mebrahtu, Filmon Serere, Robel Kidane, Abraham and Ismail Jahar, who went missing after helping Eritrea reach the Cecafa Cup final for the first time in December 2019 – are hoping to hear positive news after being interviewed by the Norwegian Refugee Council in late April.