DENVER — The third time Yonatan Kefle tried to escape from the repressive regime of Eritrea — yes, the third time — he climbed a mountain at night, starting out when it was as dark as possible.
"If the moon comes out, the Eritreans can see you, and they're crazy and they'll shoot you," Kefle said.
He wasn't put in prison — like his first escape — and he didn't turn back like the second time, when there was a shooting ahead. This time he made the harrowing eight-hour journey to the other side of the mountain to Ethiopia successfully.
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After two years in that country, his family eventually reunited in Denver. And now, almost four years later, Kefle is competing in cross country at MSU Denver and his potential has begun to shine through.
Last weekend at the Roadrunner Invitational, Kefle finished third among collegiate runners — and second among Division II competitors — while leading MSU Denver to its first team championship in a meet in two years.
For his contributions to that title, Kefle has been named the MSU Denver Student-Athlete of the Week.
But no matter what Kefle does with his bright future in both cross country and track and field, it may never compare with the journey it took for him to get here.
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Eritrea (though many use four syllables, the correct pronunciation is closer to Air-Tra) is located in East Africa along the southwestern shore of the Red Sea. It gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 but it is a one-party state that has never had any elections.
Since armed hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea began in 1998, Eritrea has been in a virtual state of emergency ever since, according to the BBC.
In 2001, the government arrested 11 high-ranking officials and 17 journalists who reported on the officials' request to allow political parties and hold elections and, according to Amnesty International, they have never been seen or heard from again. Another former official was arrested last year has also not been heard from, according to reports.
The Freedom House report has consistently given Eritrea a seven, the worst possible score in its seven-point system which represents the levels of political rights and civil liberties of the citizens of countries. Human Rights Watch considers Eritrea's government's human rights record among the worst in the world. And the Committee to Protect Journalists calls Eritrea the world's most censored country, worse even than North Korea.
But the good-natured Kefle (his first name is pronounced Yo-na-tun, his last name Kif-la), who laughs about the danger of his escape attempts, also is philosophical about his youth, growing up in the small town of Segheneyti.
"It doesn't really affect kids," he said. "And when you're young, you don't know any better. That's the way you see it from the beginning.
"But when I came out and got to Ethiopia and I saw the world I was like, 'Wow, what did I just leave?' "
According to helprefugees.org, the slightest sign of "political activism or even sympathy with dissenters, is grounds for immediate arrest and indefinite detention" in Eritrea. Arbitrary arrests, and torture in prisons and in military service are also common, the report said. Citizens are forced to spy on one another and can be jailed for not having anything to report, according to helprefugees.org.
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The number of known refugees from Eritrea is more than 500,000.
Said Kefle: "A smart person will be arrested and sometimes they are killed."
Another thing Kefle escaped was compulsory and often open-ended military service. That's why his father escaped, four years before Yonatan.
One must escape Eritrea in order to then move to another country, so after several years in an Ethiopian refugee camp, his father was able to relocate to Denver with family members. That paved the way for the rest of the family to start its escape.
"The first time was my entire family, but we got caught," Kefle said. "My mom and my oldest sister had to pay money (to be released). I was 12 or 13 and I was in prison for two weeks."
On the second attempt, he was traveling with a group.
"We got almost to the border and we found someone who knew one of our friends," Kefle said. "He said someone got shot and we shouldn't go up there. So we turned back."
The third time, he escaped after saying he was going to church, and then he was able to avoid border guards who can typically spot someone from the city as opposed to the local village and then ask for identification. He was traveling with one of his three sisters and two others.
"Right when it gets dark, when people are in their houses eating dinner," the escape began.
They weren't noticed as they made it to the other side some time around midnight. But they weren't finished yet.
"It's super steep," he said. "When we got to the Ethiopian side, we couldn't find the way down. We'd climb down and it'd be too steep, so we would go back and try another way. There were a lot of problems."
Eventually, with the moon now out, Ethiopian border guards spotted the group and began shouting directions to help guide them down. It was 4 a.m. by the time their journey finished.
After two years in Ethiopia, which included two months in a camp and then residence in the capital city of Addis Ababa, Kefle made it to Denver.
He spoke Tigrinya, the most popular language in Eritrea, and was pleased to find several others who spoke the language at Denver South.
Kefle, known as Yoni, laughs about his running ability as a youth, indicating that he was overweight and wasn't good at soccer. But his Eritrean friends were runners.
"They were running, running," Kefle said. "Then they said, 'We have a race today.' And I said, 'A race? What is this?'
"So I tried running. And they said, 'Let me talk to the coach.' They took me and told the coach I wanted to run. And he said OK. And then he said, 'I like Eritreans.' "
And why not?
Kefle ran on a 4x800-meter relay team that ranked seventh nationally in 2017, and he finished 21st in the Class 5A state cross country meet in 2016 and 14th in 2017. He would have finished higher in the cross country meets, he said, if not for the cold.
"Cold is not my weather," he said, laughing. "My junior year in cross country, I was supposed to get in the top 10, on the podium. With a mile and a half to go, I was like in fifth place. But my quad got frozen.
"I slowed down and I started seeing everyone (pass). I was thinking, 'I used to beat this guy, and I used to beat that guy.' But they're passing me. So cold doesn't work with me."
Some cold weather is expected this weekend when the Roadrunners compete again in the huge Lewis Crossover in suburban Chicago.
MSU Denver coach Nicholas Lara is hoping for a top-25 finish for Kefle this weekend.
"It's easy to see that he has talent," Lara said. "But going forward is a learning thing, because for much of his high school career he was always a dominant force. Now he's in that area where he's learning what the college scene is like, and he's a little unsure of himself.
"Last weekend was the first time I saw him really competing. Before when he got passed, he would kind of sulk, because he wasn't used to it. Now that the talent level is much higher, the intensity is higher, so there's a learning curve. His potential is as much as he wants it to be."
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Said Kefle: "Running is crazy. Sometimes you get beat. But I'm going to try to not get beat by those people any more."
Besides the talent, Lara also loves the attitude that Kefle spreads throughout the program.
"Everybody loves being around him," Lara said. "He's kind of the clown of the team. He's definitely a funny dude. He's always very bright, rarely in a bad mood. He's been great for the team. Having that positive attitude all the time really rubs off on the other kids."
With Kefle, veterans Sam Berg and Jacob Link, and other rapidly improving runners, MSU Denver moved up to No. 7 this week in the coaches' association's South Central Regional rankings. The top five teams in the region are among the top 15 in the national rankings.
"They've been making steady progress all year long," Lara said. "We're starting to see the team come together and it seems like we're starting to hit our stride right now. This is kind of the unofficial start of the season. Lewis, conference, regionals, nationals. This is where the cream rises."
As for Kefle, Lara said the sky is the limit.
"Moving forward, he could be top 10 in the RMAC, easily, if he wants to be," Lara said. "He's starting to trend that way, the same as Sam and some of these other guys. Yoni is figuring it out. Talented people usually pick it up a lot quicker, and that's what he's doing."
The women's team, meanwhile, was disappointed in finishing second last week and hope to turn in a more representative effort against a much deeper 40-team field on Saturday.
"We didn't run to our full potential," Lara said. "We had a lot of bright spots individually, but team-wise, we didn't do what we were supposed to do, and that cost us the win. I was happy to see us come back (Tuesday) on a mission to change that. They were upset that they didn't do what they were supposed to do as a team. Their expectations have jumped, and they want to be a great team."