Tigray footballers play for victory and Ethiopian unityMon, 03 Jun 2024 06:13:27 GMT

Tigrayan football captain Anteneh Gebrekirstos Haile vividly remembers the day in July 2019 when his team Mekelle 70 Enderta won its first Ethiopian Premier League title.The stadium in Tigray’s capital, Mekele, “was alive with energy and excitement, and the seats were filled with passionate fans”, the 31-year-old recalled, describing it as “the happiest day of my life”.But a two-year war between Ethiopia’s government and Tigrayan rebel authorities left the stadium an empty shadow of its former self as the region was torn apart before a November 2022 peace deal ended the fighting.The conflict drew in Tigrayans from all walks of life, including footballers like Anteneh, a Mekele native who told AFP that “the war was devastating and harmful, not only for me or the Tigray Region but for the whole of Ethiopia”.”There was a prevailing mindset that rather than dying at home, it was preferable to go to war,” he said.”We turned against each other.”- Haunted by trauma -Mekelle 70 Enderta is one of three Tigrayan teams, along with Shire Endaselassie and Welwalo Adigrat University, that have been readmitted to the Ethiopian Premier League for the first time since the conflict.Kibrom Asbeha, a 26-year-old striker for Mekelle 70 Enderta, told AFP he and his younger brother took up arms in order to find their parents, who had both entered the fray.He suffered many heartbreaking losses, including his brother who died in battle, before the peace deal brought an end to the conflict and allowed him to reunite with his parents.Even during the heat of battle, the love of football never left him.”I even watched Ethiopian Premier League games on Facebook Live, holding onto hope that after the war, I could return to playing football again,” he said.But coming home has not been easy.Apart from a chronic shortage of money — none of the team’s members are drawing a salary — the trauma of the conflict lingers.”On the battlefield, the intensity of the moment often masks the emotions, but the memories haunt you once you return home,” he said.In addition to killing untold numbers of people, the Tigray war was also marked by vicious sexual violence carried out by all parties.UN investigators also accused Ethiopia’s government of using starvation tactics against Tigray in a bid to weaken the rebel authorities. – ‘Unifying force’ -Head coach Goytom Haile told AFP it was a struggle to bring the players back to the pitch and reunite them as a team after the fighting eased.”It took us a long time to reunite everyone and help them transition back to social life and focus on football,” the 39-year-old said.”The war robbed us of many things… It will take time to catch up, but we will get there,” he said, urging the government and wealthy Ethiopians to help the team find its feet again.He said he sees football as “a unifying force”, citing the role played by Ivorian legend Didier Drogba in brokering a ceasefire in his war-torn country.In Ethiopia too, Goytom remains hopeful that the beautiful game can help his fellow citizens “overcome hate and learn to appreciate one another”. – ‘Help us rebuild’ -Their efforts have already seen the team earn a spot in the Ethiopian Premier League, raising fans’ hopes that its glory days are still ahead.”If we support each other and perform well next season, everything will improve,” said Zelalem Etakility, a fan since his teens. “Even though it won’t be the same as before, I am optimistic that it will change,” the 30-year-old told AFP. “Football can help us rebuild politically, economically, and financially.” For Anteneh, the return to the pitch has already brought a measure “of healing… and hope”.His side has maintained an undefeated streak this season, claiming 11 victories and four draws in the 15 games they have played so far.”We are endeavouring to rebuild our (pre-war) way of life and recapture the spirit of those times,” he said.”We have returned to what we love most — playing football.”