Olympic refugees

Damiano Benzoni

During the Parade of Nations he had carried the flag of his country with pride in front of the London Olympic Stadium. Few, seeing him, could have imagined that one Sunday morning Weynay Ghebresilasie, the flag-bearer of Eritrea, would leave the Olympic village to seek asylum at the UK Border Agency. A steeplechase runner, Ghebresilasie is only the last of a list of athletes who disappeared from the Olympic village. And while the Georgian judoka Betkil Shuk’vani, whose story we already featured, ran away in order to get back to his own country, seven Cameroonians, three Sudanese, four Congolese, three Ivorians, three Guineans and three other Eritreans made the choice to disappear and leave their country. The Olympic permits released by the UK Border Agency to the athletes and their families won’t expire until November 8th: only after such date does their permanence on British soil become illegal. LOCOG, the Games’ organising committee, underlined that, not having any of the athletes infringed any law or rule, it isn’t entitled to take any kind of measure against them.

This is not the first time in which an Olympic event prompts asylum seeking and defections. In Atlanta, in 1996, almost whole the women’s basketball team of Zaire disappeared in order to escape the regime of Mobutu while, according to RMC’s Gilbert Brisbois, the Cuban delegation is rarely ever back from an international sports competition with its entire squad. The Melbourne 1956 Olympics, held a couple weeks after the Soviet tanks had drowned the anti-Communist Budapest uprising in blood, saw the Hungarian delegation decimated. Out of 108 competing athletes, 44 defected. Among them, the water-polo player Ervin Zádor, whose face is the logo of Dinamo Babel and whose story we have told some time ago.

Olympic defections started even before the flame was lit for the opening ceremony: in July three Sudanese runners – Al-Nazeer Abdul Gadir, Sadam Husein and Osman Yahya – who the previous month had reached the pre-Olympic meeting in Middlesbrough, sought asylum to the UK. The reaction of the delegation head Elfatih Abelaal was furious, as he told the three were acting irresponsibly and backing a conspiracy against the government. Abelaal’s press release, published by Le Monde, told: “Some economic migrants of the Sudanese Communist Party and some Darfur armed groups living in the north of England have encouraged the young athletes into seeking asylum to the United Kingdom in order to embarrass the Sudanese government”. According to Abelaal’s statement Communists had offered the three athletes apartments, a salary and a British passport. The situation in Sudan is now tense, after the government acted with a steely fist in order to stop protests against recent austerity measures.

As the Games went underway, it was the turn for seven athletes from Cameroon to disappear. The first defection was that of Drusille Ngako Tchimi, second goalkeeper to the women’s football team, who left the team in Coventry on the eve of their match against New Zealand. Immediately after that, the 21-year-old swimmer Paul Ekane Edingue disappeared leaving his room at the Olympic village empty. On August 5th, then, five boxers left the village: Thomas Essomba, Christian Donfack Adjoufack, Abdon Mewoli, Blaise Yepmou Mendouo and Serge Ambomo. The five were interviewed by the BBC in an undisclosed place in London some days later, in order to explain the reasons for their escape. They told they were threatened and that officials had tried to confiscate the passports from some of their team mates. Essomba, explaining the five are looking for a sponsor in order to be allowed to stay abroad, told: “We are not staying here because we don’t like our country, but [because we] want to practise the sports we love. We want to become professional. We cannot return to Cameroon: if we return, we will not practise anymore”. Drusille Ngako, according to RMC, declared that she left the national team in order to exploit the opportunity of being in Europe and look for a contract on the continent in order to leave a life of miseries at home behind her shoulders.

Other athletes didn’t respond to the roll-call at the end of the Games: after the closing ceremony a judoka from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cedric Mandembo, disappeared and avoided returning to Kinshasa. Three other members of the delegation disappeared with Mandembo: coaches Blaise Bekwa (boxing), Guy Nkita and Ibula Masengo (athletics). In the previous days also three of the four athletes of Guinea – swimmer Dede Camara, judoka Facinet Keita and sprinter Aissata Toure – had disappeared, as well as three members of the Ivorian delegation whose names were not disclosed: they should be two swimmers and a wrestling coach. Finally, four Eritrean athletes sought asylum. Among their names are those of marathon runner Rehaset Mehari and of Weynay Ghebresilasie.

Ghebresilasie was the only one to concede an interview to the Guardian, while the others were afraid of exposing their families to retaliation on behalf of the regime of Isaias Afewerki, president of Eritrea ever since its independence from Ethiopia in 1991. Afewerki repeatedly refused to indict public elections, launched an economic campaign of autarchy chasing several NGOs and international organisations from the country, promoted religious and political persecutions and militarised the country waving the threat of a new war with Ethiopia. According to the UNHCR Eritrean soldiers are subject to torture and forced labour. It was to flee from the Army, where he is doing his military service, that Ghebresilasie decided to defect: “As recently as last month, when I competed in Spain, I had managed to retain some optimism that the conditions back home would get better, but they seem to be getting worse and worse instead”.

Ghebresilasie described the hardships of army life in Eritrea and expressed his disappoint in not managing more than a 10th place in the heats: “It had been a dream come true to compete here and I was hoping to perform well, perhaps even come close to a medal, but due to mismanagement and politics I could not achieve what I wanted. The truth is that we are not treated as athletes. For example, there were times when we went to other countries to compete and I was denied medical treatment by the Eritrean officials in charge, some of them high ranking-army officers”. On the last day of the Games, while the rest of the team was out to see the men’s marathon, Weynay threw away the sim card he had been given by the team’s minders and left the Olympic village. His defection will probably be branded by the Eritrean government, which Ghebresilasie defined “unpredictable”, as treason.

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