Athletics: Dagne closes the door on dark days

Ethnic violence forced her to flee Ethiopia but tomorrow the former refugee will be running for Britain
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The Independent Online
THE NEIGHBOURING children were shouting at her, trying to warn her, but she couldn't hear them because she was wearing a hooded training top.

It was not until she saw the soldier pointing his rifle that Birhan Dagne, then 17, realised the peril of her situation. He demanded to know why she was running there. She said she lived in the area. He told her not to talk any more and led her into the nearby barracks, where he kicked, punched and beat her.

"I said: `Please sir, don't beat me. Why are you beating me?' But he didn't have any answer," Dagne recalled. "With his last blow he hit my leg, and I was injured for three weeks." The reason for the assault was brutally simple. The ruling party in Ethiopia was Tigrean, and Dagne was one of the minority Amhara ethnic group which had previously held sway.

The incident - which was part of a pattern of mistreatment and discrimination - did not prevent Dagne running for the Ethiopian junior team at the World Cross-County Championships in Durham later that year. But it pushed the young athlete into making the most important decision of her life. She was going to run away.

The morning after her race, on 26 March 1995, Dagne secretly boarded a train down to London, where she became one of the 25,000 other Ethiopians who have sought political asylum in Britain.

It was a journey which, in athletics terms, comes full circle this weekend when Dagne represents her adopted country at the World Cross-Country Championships in Belfast.

That, naturally enough, will bring her up against her former friends and team-mates from the Ethiopian team. But the prospect holds no fears for her.

"There is no problem between us,"she said. "We are brotherly, sisterly with each other. There is no problem between the small people - only with the government." Since her dramatic departure she has met former team- mates while racing in Europe, and has trained regularly in Switzerland with one of them, the 1996 world cross-country champion, Gete Wami. While on her last trip there in December, she was briefly reunited with her brother.

"It was very emotional because it was the first time I had seen any of my family since I left Ethiopia," she said. As for her four other brothers and sisters - she does not know if, or when, she will see them again. "There is no law in the country. I told them not to complain after I was attacked because it would be bad for them. I am frightened for their future. I tell them now I am happy because I am alive. In Ethiopia, maybe someone would have killed me."

The memory of how she shaped her own future on that fateful March day is still sharp. Having helped Ethiopia win the junior team gold medal by finishing fifth in her race, Dagne left her accommodation at dawn the following morning, accompanied by two fellow Ethiopian athletes, Askale Bireda and Getenesh Tamirat, and a coach, Anmaz Wondasrash.

It was snowing. While their team managers slept, they hailed a taxi to the railway station and bought single tickets to Kings Cross.

"We were very frightened waiting on the platform," Dagne said. "We thought the police would arrive to stop us. Even in the train we were frightened that they would come on board at another station." When the four travellers disembarked at the London terminus, their tactic was a basic one: find an Ethiopian passer-by. They succeeded, and received assistance from a woman on her way to church who escorted them to the nearest refugee centre.

Dagne lived at a number of different addresses in Stockwell, Lambeth and Tottenham, initially with her fellow athletes. They received help from London's Ethiopian community - a large proportion of whom journeyed up the M1 this February and last to lend colourful support to Haile Gebrselassie as he broke world records at Birmingham's national indoor arena.

For the first two years in this country Dagne - who used to work in an Addis Ababa bank - managed on income support before getting a part-time job, all the time teaching herself English. She now lives in Bethnal Green with her husband, an Ethiopian whom she met while living in Tottenham.

With the experienced coaching assistance of Alan Storey, the general manager of the Flora London marathon, she now trains alongside her fellow refugees with the Essex/Woodford Green club and has begun to regain the form she showed for her native country.

Having successfully challenged a ban imposed at the request of the Ethiopian athletic federation, Dagne has competed widely in Europe and made debuts for England and Britain earlier this year. Her standing is such that she was given a world cross-country place even though she missed last month's official trial at the Inter-Counties event in Nottingham because of food poisoning.

Her England debut came in January at the International Amateur Athletic Federation World Cross Challenge race in Belfast. Tomorrow, in the same city but on a different course, she will attempt to make her mark for Britain.

"When I heard I had been selected for the World Championships I was very proud," she said. "I shall be doing my best to run for the country which has been very good to me. I hope to finish somewhere in the top 20." Although the IAAF cleared her switch of nationality at the end of last year, Dagne is still seeking the full British passport and citizenship she will require to be eligible to compete at next year's Olympics.

"I am hoping my passport will come through in time for me to run in Sydney," she said. "That is my dream." Dagne has overcome more than a fair share of nightmares - she has earned the right to dream dreams now.