DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Seven members of Eritrea's national soccer team have disappeared after playing in a tournament in Uganda. They are believed to have defected, and if so, they are among many thousands of Eritreans who have found ways to flee their homeland. NPR's Eyder Peralta has been following this from his base in Nairobi and joins us. Hi, Eyder.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, David. Merry Christmas.
GREENE: Well, Merry Christmas to you, too. Thanks for - thanks for working and doing reporting today.
GREENE: So what do we know about this, this incident of more Eritreans peeling off from the soccer team?
PERALTA: So the Eritrean team was at a regional tournament in Uganda. And authorities there say that seven players did not make their plane. They say they are looking for them. But a bit later, a group that works with Eritrean refugees said that the seven are not missing, that - they say that the soccer players have defected and that they didn't return home because they will be seeking asylum.
GREENE: And this is not a first. I mean, there were five other soccer players who disappeared in Uganda in October back in 2012. Another 14 members of this team defected. What's going on?
PERALTA: Look; the story of Eritrea's football teams is the story of Eritrea. I mean, in short, Eritrea is one of the most repressive countries in the world. And ever since it had a very deadly border war with Ethiopia, it has been ruled under a state of emergency. And that means that every Eritrean has to do military training at the end of high school. And at the end of that, many of them are conscripted into civil service indefinitely. And that means, for example, that the government can make you become a teacher for very little pay, and they can post you far away from your family. And this government is so controlling that even if you want to leave, you have to ask them for permission.
I've spoken to many Eritreans who are fleeing, and they say that they just don't see a future in that country, and so they're willing to risk their life. Many of them travel through Sudan and Libya, and they get on boats to travel through the Mediterranean. In recent years, Eritrea has lost 10% of its population, and thousands of them have drowned making that journey across the sea.
GREENE: Wow. Well, to what extent is the soccer team like a symbol? I mean, do people follow soccer there? And seeing those players leaving - I mean, how impactful is that?
PERALTA: They love soccer, I mean, both in Eritrea and Ethiopia. I mean, they love it. And, look; they actually did really well in this tournament. They were the underdogs. They beat Kenya 4-1 in the semifinal. They lost against Uganda and ended up in second place. But here they are, once again, rebuilding. And this, as you noted, is not new. In the last 10 years, they have lost 50 players to defections.
GREENE: I thought we were in kind of a hopeful moment in this part of the world. I mean, you had the president of neighboring Ethiopia winning the Nobel Peace Prize - right? - for really trying to end the conflict with Eritrea. So is that changing?
PERALTA: No, I think everybody expected that this would be a hopeful time here. I mean, remember; this state of emergency, this forced conscription was instituted because Eritrea was at war with Ethiopia. The government has always said, look; we have to do this because we are at war.
So when the two countries officially ended this cold war, one of the first questions was, will President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power for almost three decades, loosen his grip? And we saw some positive signs. But, you know, the border has once again closed. And I think what these defections tell you is that not much has changed in Eritrea.
But just to leave you with some hope on Christmas, you know, one of the promises that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made after he received the Nobel Prize was that he would reach out once again to Isaias Afwerki. And as we speak, the two men are meeting at the - in the Ethiopian capital.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Eyder Peralta for us this morning in Nairobi. Thanks so much, Eyder.
PERALTA: Thank you, David.
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