Tigray footballers play for victory and Ethiopian unity

The football players of Mekelle 70 Enderta are currently not receiving a salary (Amanuel Sileshi)

The captain of the Tigrayan football team Anteneh Gebrekirstos Haile still remembers the day in July 2019 when his team Mekelle 70 Enderta won its first title in the Ethiopian Premier League.

The stadium in Tigray's capital Mekele “was full of 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 the Ethiopian government and Tigray rebel authorities left the stadium an empty shadow of its former self as the region was torn apart before a peace deal ended the fighting in November 2022.

The conflict affected Tigrayans from all walks of life, including footballers like Anteneh, a native of Mekele, who told AFP that “the war was devastating and damaging, not just for me or the Tigray region, but for all of Ethiopia.”

“The attitude was that it was better to go to war than to die at home,” he said.

“We have turned against each other.”

– Haunted by trauma –

Mekelle 70 Enderta is one of three teams from Tigray, along with Shire Endaselassie and Welwalo Adigrat University, that have been admitted to the Ethiopian Premier League for the first time since the conflict.

Kibrom Asbeha, a 26-year-old striker from Mekelle 70 Enderta, told AFP that he and his younger brother took up arms to find their parents, who had both joined the fight.

He suffered many heartbreaking losses, including the death of his brother in battle, before peace ended the conflict and allowed him to be reunited with his parents.

Even in the heat of battle, his love for football never left him.

“I even watched Ethiopian Premier League matches on Facebook Live and did not give up hope that I would be able to play football again after the war,” he said.

But getting home wasn't easy.

In addition to the chronic lack of money – none of the team members receive a salary – the trauma of the conflict still has an impact.

“On the battlefield, the intensity of the moment often overshadows the emotions, but the memories haunt you when you return home,” he said.

The war in Tigray not only claimed countless lives, it was also marked by brutal sexual violence on all sides.

UN investigators also accused the Ethiopian government of using starvation tactics in Tigray to weaken the rebel authorities.

– “Uniting Force” –

Head coach Goytom Haile told AFP it had been a struggle to get the players back on the field after the fighting subsided and to reunite them as a team.

“It took a long time for us all to come back together and help them get back into social life and focus on football,” said the 39-year-old.

“The war has robbed us of a lot… It will take some time to make up for it, but we will do it,” he said, calling on the government and wealthy Ethiopians to help the team get back on its feet.

He said he saw football as “a unifying force” and pointed to the role played by Ivorian football legend Didier Drogba in brokering a ceasefire in his war-torn country.

In Ethiopia, too, Goytom remains confident that the beautiful game can help his fellow citizens “overcome hatred and learn to appreciate one another.”

– “Help us rebuild” –

Thanks to their efforts, the team has already secured a place in the Ethiopian Premier League and fans hope that their glory days are still ahead of them.

“If we support each other and do well next season, everything will be better,” says Zelalem Etakility, who has been a fan since his youth.

“Even though it won't be the same as before, I'm optimistic that it will change,” the 30-year-old told AFP. “Football can help us rebuild politically, economically and financially.”

For Anteneh, returning to the field has already brought a certain amount of “healing … and hope.”

His team has remained unbeaten this season, with eleven wins and four draws in their 15 games so far.

“We are trying to restore our (pre-war) way of life and recapture the spirit of that time,” he said.

“We have returned to what we love most – playing football.”