On an unscheduled visit to the Dukwi Refugee Camp, Mmegi Staff Writer, SHARON MATHALA this week caught up with the Eritrean football players who grabbed local and regional headlines last October when they requested asylum in Botswana. The players say they feel “right at home”
Their plight grabbed continental attention. It pit government against human rights campaigners. Critics and defenders rose to take up positions in the debate. The case had all the intrigue, suspense and tragedy of a Shakespearean drama: conflict-weary Eritreans using the cover of a football match to escape persecution in their homeland and the government here undecided about their fate.
The 10, who were members of the Eritrean national football team and reportedly in that country’s military, refused to leave Botswana after they were thrashed by three goals to one in Francistown in a World Cup qualifier.
The players demanded asylum, triggering a battle that went to the High Court and culminated in government acceding to their requests.
This week, the players, still in their football-kit gear, could be seen in the camp, appearing to be fresh from practice. The players seemed amazed when this reporter gestured them over for a chat and a few selfies.
Only five of the 10 were spotted, and in their gear, they looked like typical football players on their day off. The players hardly speak English, except for one. The others smiled but could not engage in the conversation. The meeting took place in the refugee camp’s market place, an area dominated by ramshackle spaza shops run by the refugees themselves.
Standing in front of one of the shops, it appeared the players seemed comfortable in their surroundings.
It even appeared one of the shops was their business. The shop has a rickety structure, which looks like it could fall in strong wind, but inside loads of groceries were neatly packed in order.
The Eritrean players said they still had a passion to play football, but just not in their native country.
Their request was reportedly previously accepted, but the local football team would have then had to seek permission from the teams they were already signed to in Eritrea as per the FIFA rules.
The players confessed to Mmegi that they were settling well at the camp and had no intention of going back home. “We are settling in very well, we can’t really complain,” one of the players said.
“We are just okay here, no problems.” They said there were some requests they had made to ‘the leadership’ and were awaiting responses.
“In a different world, we would still be staying in our home country with our families,” he said, staring at the Mmegi news crew as it drove out of the camp.