Fearing for their lives, six Eritrean athletes absconded while in Scotland - and found a new home with a Glasgow running club

SMILING and signing autographs in the hospitality tent in Holyrood Park after the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh last year, the team of athletes representing Eritrea gave no indication of the dangerous action they were about to take.

• Tsegai Tewelde, Tewoldebrhan Mengisteab and Amanuel Hagos during training in Bellahouston Park. Picture PA

For the six world-class runners competing in Scotland under the strict supervision of their coach, running was more than a sport. Every day they pushed themselves to the limit – literally running for their lives – to avoid the nightmare of being conscripted into the Eritrean military where forced slave labour, torture and brutality are commonplace.

But at the Edinburgh event the runners – three men and three women – hadn't performed as well as expected, with lengthy flight delays taking their toll and attracting the wrath of their coach.

Describing the build-up of tension during the event, in March 2008, one of the runners, Amanuel Hagos, 29, said: "The coach said to us, 'Why did you not win? If you can't run to win we don't want you.'

"There was no humanity. We were very tired and stressed because our flights had been cancelled and we had to wait for a week in Egypt for a visa and then got delayed at Heathrow.

"We asked what he was going to do when we got back to Eritrea and he replied, 'I'll see'."

The team understood this as an implied threat they would be dropped and forced into the army. "Later that day we went up the mountain (Arthur's Seat] to talk about what to do. We were scared to go back to Eritrea and scared what would happen in this country if they did not accept us. We asked ourselves, 'What can we do?'" It was a big, big decision.

"We went out at night and asked someone where the train station was. Then we asked what was the nearest city that was cheapest to get to as we didn't have much money. That's how we got to Glasgow."

On their arrival in Glasgow, the runners went to a police station and asked for asylum. The athletes were granted political asylum by the UK government within two months of their arrival in Scotland, on the grounds that they could face persecution if they returned home.

By one of those amazing twists of fate which would seem far-fetched in a Hollywood movie, John Mackay, a coach at Shettleston Harriers running club in the east end of Glasgow – who had stood in the queue of fans at Holyrood waiting for the Eritreans to sign autographs – got a telephone call from the Scottish Refugee Council. The caller asked: "Do you want some athletes?"

Mackay, a chemistry teacher at St Mungo's Academy in Glasgow, said: "I had no idea who they were but I said yes. A few days later they brought them down to the track. There hadn't been any news coverage of the athletes disappearing and when I realised who they were, I was shocked – we all were, international athletes just appearing like that and asking to join our club," Mackay said. Asked how other running clubs in Glasgow had greeted the news that Shettleston Harriers had overnight acquired a world-class team of athletes, Mackay replied wryly: "Oh, they probably weren't pleased at all."

The runners – three men, Amanuel Hagos, Tewoldebrhan Mengisteab, Tsegai Tewelde and three women, Amelest Twelde, Chichi Germai, and Kohob Menhari – are all stars. Tewelde, 20, set a national 1,500 metres record when fifth at the World Junior Championships in 2006, while Hagos reached the final of the African Games 5,000m last year.

Since joining Shettleston Harriers the runners have been billed as Scotland's best hope for gold medals in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. When not scooping up gold medals wearing the famous Shettleston Harriers blue and gold vests – such as their triumph at the Scottish cross-country relay 4x4,000m championships at Cumbernauld last month, in which they led from start to finish – the runners help train youngsters in the club. Mackay said: "It is fantastic in so many different ways. They turn out all the time for us. They're helping to raise the standard of endurance running in Glasgow. The youngsters in the club all aspire to be like them. The young ones have heard stories of a hyena being killed after coming too near a village – they love it.

"But it's made us aware of how much we have in this country and take for granted. Members of the club have helped them out with things too and given them sofas and domestic items for their homes. This is not the most affluent part of Glasgow but no-one in the club is discriminated of in terms of finance."

Mackay fails to mention that he himself has paid the entry fees for events for the group.

The welcome given to the athletes continues the tradition of Shettleston Harriers set by Allan Scally, Mackay's wife's grandfather, a professional runner in the city during the 1930s Depression who set up soup kitchens with his winnings.

Agostino Desta, who fought with the rebels in the anti-government Eritrean Liberation Front and who came to Scotland more than 18 years ago, said the athletes would be in danger if they returned home and that when he first met them, they were terrified of him, believing he was from the Eritrean Embassy.

"In Eritrea, sport is to survive. But if you lose, even through lack of food and sleep, you go back to the ground. When you go back you will be detained and put into the army where you will be like a slave digging the roads," Desta said.

"Sport is meant to be something voluntary and that people can enjoy but it is different for us."

Meanwhile, the athletes – except for Menhari, who moved away – continue with their Eritrean high-altitude training schedules, battling against the Scottish winter. These include six 2,000m repetitions compared with the Scottish athletes' 10 400m sessions. Their 25-minute warm-ups are also longer than those of British athletes.

Mengisteab said the group often goes running along the Clyde and through the city centre out to Hamilton and Cambuslang, fuelled by a diet of macaroni, spaghetti, fruit and the occasional piece of meat. Tea is drunk black with six spoonfuls of sugar.

They are adapting to life in Scotland but there are culture shocks and low moments, especially after speaking to family members on the telephone. They fear their families, mainly small farmers, will face fines equivalent of up to 1,500 demanded of those whose children abscond or defect from the army.

When not training the runners attend English language classes at the Glasgow Nautical College and are devout Orthodox Christians, attending services lasting up to three hours in a hall made over to Eritreans at Shettleston Old Parish Church.

However, Tewelde, who celebrated his 20th birthday earlier this month, was at pains to point out that strict regime was for a purpose: "This is the way we are now, but we're not hermits, we are concentrating on winning."

ERITREA: A TROUBLED HISTORY

ERITREA has a long history of strife and occupation and its one-party state government is regarded as one of the most repressive in Africa.

In April this year, Human Rights Watch said Eritrea's government was turning the country into a "giant prison".

It has a population of five million; the average life expectancy is 57 years for men and 62 years for women.

The east African country emerged from its long war of independence in 1993 only to plunge once again into military conflict, first with Yemen and then, more devastatingly, with its neighbour and historic adversary, Ethiopia.

Today, a fragile peace prevails and Eritrea faces the gigantic tasks of rebuilding its infrastructure and of developing its economy after more than 30 years of fighting.

A former Italian colony, the country was occupied by the British in 1941. In 1952, the United Nations passed a resolution to establish it as an autonomously entity, federated with Ethiopia.

However, ten years later Haile Selassie annexed it, triggering a 32-year struggle for independence.

At its independence Eritrea was held up by Western governments as a beacon of hope for Africa. Fiercely self-reliant, the continent's youngest nation was hailed for its determination to rebuild after its devastating liberation war from Ethiopia.

Former United States president Bill Clinton has described Eritrea's current president, Isaias Afewerki, as a "renaissance leader".

However, relations between Eritrea and western nations, especially the US, have soured, with the US accusing Eritrea of destabilising the Horn of Africa region by backing rebels as proxies to fight Ethiopia, with whom it remains in a tense border stand-off.

Although both countries have vowed to co-operate on the "war on terrorism" there have also been warnings that Washington could add Eritrea to its list of rogue states alongside countries including North Korea and Iran.

One in 20 of Eritrea's population are in the military, with round-ups at gunpoint of those of military age being a regular occurrence.

Those who manage to evade being conscripted but are later caught are sent to prison camps on the islands of Dahlak and Naqira.

Eritrea is the only African country to have no privately-owned news media, including radio or television stations.