It was while his team-mates on Eritrea’s Olympic team were out watching the men’s marathon in the Sunday sunshine that Weynay Ghebresilasie finally decided to take the decision that has changed his life forever.
Without a goodbye, the 18-year-old walked out of his quarters at the Olympic village, threw away the sim card that had been given to him by the team’s minders and embarked on the process of claiming asylum in the UK – turning his back on a life as a conscript in the army of one of the world’s most reclusive and repressive regimes.
“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 told the Guardian. The middle-distance runner carried his nation’s flag during the Olympic opening ceremony at the head of a team 12 Eritrean athletes.
While there have been reports that as many as a dozen athletes from various countries have gone “missing” rather than choose to return to their home country, Ghebresilasie is the first to go public on why he has chosen to claim asylum.
Visas permitting Olympic athletes to be in the UK legally run out in November but Ghebresilasie said that he has already spoken to immigration officials at the UK Border Agency’s asylum screening unit in Croydon.
Three other Eritrean athletes including Rehaset Mehari, the team’s only female athlete, have also claimed asylum but were not willing to come forward to speak due to fears of retribution against their families, according to the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change, a diaspora-based opposition group which is now providing support to Ghebresilasie.
“There are reasons to be concerned about our families because the regime is unpredictable and is likely to treat my actions as a betrayal,” the 3000m steeplechase runner said.
“If someone is being accused of illegally leaving the country it’s not unusual for a fine to be imposed on their family, or for their next of kin to be detained.”
Despite struggling with extreme poverty and with a population of little more than 5 million people, Eritrea maintains one of the largest armies in Africa, made up of soldiers forced indefinitely into national service. A 2009 investigation by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) said these conscripts are subjected to torture and illegal forced labour.
“Once you are forced into national service there is no way of getting out of what is a very tough life, other than if you lose a limb or are declared medically unfit,” said Ghebresilasie, who has three brothers in the Eritrean army and lost a fourth in the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Clad in a red and black tracksuit and cradling a bottle of water, he appeared melancholy as he chatted about his Olympic experience, in which he finished 10th in his heat.
“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.” he said
“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.”
In contrast, he had nothing but positive comments to make about Britain’s stewardship of the Olympics, mentioning the “fantastic hospitality” and singling out the volunteers for special praise.
Asked if he could one day envisage himself competing for Britain, should the right circumstances evolve, he replied: “I still very much love my country and it’s the harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights which has compelled me to seek asylum.”
“Who knows what the future holds but for now I’m taking things one day at a time and I hope to continue to pursue my first love which is athletics.”
Read More on The Guardian.co.uk