AN Olympic athlete forced to flee his African homeland amid fears he would be executed at the hands of its military regime is hoping to start a new life on Wearside.
Steeplechaser Weynay Ghebresilasie was one of four Eritrean athletes who failed to return home after the London Olympics earlier this year.
The country, which has a population of just five million, has one of the largest armies in Africa.
Made up of soldiers forced indefinitely into national service, it is regularly branded “repressive” by human rights groups and is alleged to subject its conscripts to torture and illegal forced labour.
Weynay, who had been a soldier for 18 months, has three brothers in the army and lost a fourth in the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia.
After walking out of the Olympic village, he threw away the sim card that had been given to him by the team’s minders.
He embarked on the process of claiming asylum in the UK, spending 11 hours being interviewed by UK Border Agency staff.
Sent to a detention centre in Croydon, he later spent two weeks in Huddersfield before moving to Sunderland last month.
“Conditions back home are so harsh you have no rights and you are controlled by the state,” he said. “I had no freedom even while I was in London.
“We were not treated as athletes.
“The people in charge were high-ranking army officers.
“Once you are forced into the army there is no way of getting out. If I am sent home I will be accused of treason.
“I could be executed or my life will be in danger.”
Weynay, 18, said he did not plan to seek asylum before he came to the UK, hoping that circumstances back home would improve.
However, while competing at the games, he said he received similar harsh treatment by the Eritrean Federation for Sport.
Weynay said his below-par performance in the Olympics was due to mismanagement and he was also suffering from a chest infection.
He finished 10th in his heat in 8.37.57 – his best stands at 8.28.92.
“I was hoping to race to the best of my ability and maybe come close to winning a medal, so I was really disappointed,” he said.
Weynay is Eritrea’s leading junior athlete, finishing sixth in the 3,000m steeplechase in the World Junior Athletics Championships in Barcelona in July and 30th in the World Junior Cross Country Championships last year.
His best times are 1,500m – 3.40, 3,000m – 7.54.55 and 5,000m, 13.53.
While continuing his battle for asylum, Weynay has been welcomed into the Sunderland Harriers, which he joined as a first-claim club member.
Club secretary Michael Hill said: “Weynay has joined us for training for the last three weeks. He started out with the veterans, but he was a bit too quick for us.
“He is now training with athletes who are a bit faster. He is ever-present at the Harriers’ training base at Silksworth and has been warmly welcomed by the members.”
Weynay is keen to get back to competition, having not raced since the Olympics. He has been registered to UK Athletics as a foreign athlete and is free to compete.
He is expected to make his debut in the North Eastern Harrier League at Bedewell Park today, in the senior men’s handicap race. It is not yet decided what pack he will run from.
If all goes well, Weynay hopes to race in the Northern Junior Cross Country Championships, in Liverpool, on January 26 and the National Cross Country Championships at Herrington Country Park, on February 23.
A UK Border Agency spokesman said: “We do not routinely comment on individual cases.”