For 20 years, Ethiopia and Eritrea stood in a bloody conflict that erupted around the border town of Badme in 1998. Around 100,000 people were killed, and numerous Ethiopians and Eritreans fled their countries. In the two decades of conflict, Eritrea’s society has shrivelled into a poverty-stricken dictatorship, becoming one of the twelve countries with the lowest possible rating for both political rights and civil liberties. The majority of “able-bodied” adult Eritreans are on “indefinite, compulsory” active national service that will oftentimes extend over decades, amounting to what the UN refers to as mass enslavement. Thus, in a country of 4.5 million people, as many as five thousand people flee Eritrea every month, many of them to Europe.
A few of these young Eritreans arrived in Berlin, where they joined the football team Ze Berlin. The team was founded explicitly to accommodate both Ethiopian and Eritrean players who, despite the longstanding conflict between their home countries, train together three times a week.
In August 2018, Ze Berlin took part in the Ethiopian Sports and Culture Federation in Europe Football Cup in Stuttgart. Taking place for 17 years in different European cities, it is considered the most important sports and cultural event for Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in Europe. On the five days of the cup, 33 teams from Europe, Ethiopia and the US competed and celebrated, joined by an international audience of 10,000 people. Ze Berlin was one of the exceptional teams where Ethiopians and Eritreans played side by side. In this way, they exemplify the new era of freedom and cooperation between Ethiopia and Eritrea that was declared by the two nations' heads of government on 9 July 2018. Thus far, it has remained a tantalising promise of peace whose implications are yet to be played out.