A short work of fiction by Paul Knott
Sitting on the plane, I read my call-up papers for the umpteenth time: “Private Moses Afwerki to report to base at 7am on 11th October”. This is my last trip with the Eritrean national football team before starting my military service. It is not a happy prospect. In my country soldiers serve in the barren, baking hot region bordering our hostile neighbour. We do not get paid and are sometimes barely fed. Conscripts are treated harshly by the regular officers and we are the first to be put in the firing line whenever the lingering conflict flares up again.
Our coaches tell us we are already soldiers fighting for our nation on the football field. They are wrong. Even for a serious international player, football is still a game and you cannot play it well without a sense of joy. That famous British coach was right when he said that football “is not a matter of life and death”. But his punchline “it is much more important than that” is not so funny where I come from. I do not want to be anybody’s soldier and dream of pursuing my passion in a place where football’s only significance is as a glorious spectacle.
For this tournament in Switzerland, we are based where the Swiss national team train. The lakeside location is beautiful and the training pitch has grass like the silk carpets in the Presidential Palace. Even the cows on the adjacent lush green hillside look well-fed and satisfied with life. The sense that you can breathe easily here stems from more than the crisp fresh air.
Since Haile the goalkeeper ran away after the match in Italy last summer, our team has travelled with six security guards. We are not England or Germany. The guards are not here to protect us from over-enthusiastic fans and opposition hooligans. They are here to stop us from escaping. They patrol the corridors and exits of our team hostel and make sure we are locked in our rooms at night.
One morning my roommate, Birhan, and I are heading downstairs for breakfast when a commotion breaks out on the floor above. The team hotheads Gabriel and Tesfay are scuffling again. They are usually the best of friends but sometimes the pressure of being cooped up like this gets to them.
Two guards race up the stairs past us to deal with the disturbance. Birhan and I spot simultaneously that they have left the fire escape unprotected. We glance at each other. It is a split second decision. We decide to run.
We sprint straight for the train station up the road that we pass on the way to the training ground. Luckily for us, a train is standing on the platform. After several hours of hiding in the toilets and switching trains to dodge ticket inspectors, we arrive in a town called Winterthur. It seems far enough away from the team hostel and is the first place we have seen that looks big enough to hide in. The wooden-beamed buildings and church towers opposite the station look nothing like home but the pair of palm trees outside a restaurant provide a hint of familiarity.
That the trees might be an omen is borne out when we see a small group of our countrymen hanging around near the station shops. When we approach in the team tracksuits we are still wearing, two of them turn out to be football fans and recognise us instantly. They take us to eat a “döner”, which is not bad once you put the spicy sauce on it, and then to the Migrant Assistance Office nearby.
By evening, we have been taken to the outskirts of a small town about 15 kilometres away. Somehow after all of that drama, I did not expect to end up locked up overnight in a hostel that is scruffier and more crowded with people from home than the one from which we have just absconded.
My compatriots are a comfort in this alien world, especially Isaias who used to play for my club’s local rivals back home. He has been here for over a year and tries to teach me the ropes. In the process, he is quick to disabuse me of my dreams that I might soon be playing for Bayern Munich.
Two years later, my request to stay in Switzerland is still being processed. I am not allowed to work legally, travel outside the country or do anything much that would allow me to live a free, independent existence. I am grateful to the Swiss for providing us with shelter and a small amount of money for essentials. But I cannot understand why they want to give us these things, rather than let us work to provide for ourselves whilst they decide whether we can stay.
Apart from the handful of local delinquents who hang about near the hostel gates drinking and trying to provoke us into fights, the people are not unpleasant to us here. Sure, when we are out the police take every opportunity to check our ID and pockets but most people treat us with indifference. They greet each other in the street but stare straight past us as if we do not exist. In many ways, this is what grinds me down the most. For all of my homeland’s problems, I am part of a big family and community there, where people always take the time to welcome visitors warmly. I probably enjoyed the recognition that came with being a well-known sportsman there more than I realised too. Here we are nobodies, granted the basic material necessities but starved of human dignity.
My only respite from the suffocation comes on weekends. Isaias has a temporary residence permit now. He coaches the kids at the local football club voluntarily and has fixed up for me to play for the first team. As I am not allowed to earn money and play professionally, the club is in the regional amateur league. It is far from the Bundesliga and playing several steps below my level in front of fifty fans and a dog can be frustrating. But my teammates are friendly and for a few hours every Saturday afternoon it ceases to matter who I am off the field.
It is the rest of the week that is the trouble. I spend endless hours sitting here by the river, thinking about my family and knowing I cannot go home without being thrown in prison as a deserter. I play the scene when we ran from the hostel over and over in my mind. Sometimes I wonder if I should have taken my chances on surviving in the army. As I stare into the fast flowing Rhine, I see my life being swept away with the water.
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull’s King George Dock. He made an improbable career switch to Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service and spent twenty years globetrotting as a British diplomat.
After two decades of excitement, Paul currently lives quietly on a Swiss hillside with the Kenyan wife he met in Uzbekistan and their kids. He is still wondering how he got there.
Paul’s book, The Accidental Diplomat, can be bought at Pile of Books and Stauffacher in Bern, or directly from the author. It is also available online from The Scratching Shed, Hessle Bookshop, Politicos and Amazon.