Feyisa Lilesa knew, when he was selected to represent Ethiopia at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, he had to speak out. Months later, as he crossed the finish line and placed second in the men’s marathon competition, he clenched his fists and raised and crossed his arms to form an ‘X’ in a symbol of peaceful defiance.
Lilesa’s gesture was simple but powerful. It was a symbol adopted by Ethiopians peacefully protesting the government’s expansion of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Government forces responded to peaceful protests with bullets, beatings, and detentions. Rights groups report that around 500 people from the Amhara and Oromia regions have been killed, while Lilesa said the number is over 1000.
“If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” Lilesa, 26, told reporters after his race. A government official has since said he would be welcomed back to the country, but Lilesa fears imprisonment and lacks trust in the Ethiopian government.
Lilesa returned to the Olympic village briefly. He said his fellow athletes met him with tears, thankful that he had brought their plight to the world stage. The Ethiopian federation members did not openly support Lilesa but gave him indirect signals of support for fear of government retribution.
After, he quickly left the Olympic village and, with the Brazilian government’s approval that he could stay beyond the Olympic games, stayed in a hotel for a couple weeks before being granted a U.S. visa.
On Tuesday, he addressed a crowd of journalists in the Phoenix Park Hotel in Northwest Washington, D.C. He took a break from training to land here late last week so he could share his story and perspective with the American media.
Lilesa entered the press conference with his arms raised above his head in an ‘X’ and was greeted with applause. Anthropologist Bonnie Holcomb introduced Lilesa, labeling him a hero, and criticized the Ethiopian government’s treatment of its people.
Lilesa, speaking through a translator, addressed his desire to return to running and, eventually, his country. Before he can return though he said the country needed to change.
“I’m an Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and I understand the suffering of my people very well,” he said. “The government has opened fire on peaceful protests. Some Ethiopians have been exiled and slaughtered in the Libyan desert and others have become food for fish in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Oromo make up about a third of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people, but they and other ethnic groups in the country often face discrimination. Ethiopia’s last prime minister, Meles Zenawi, gave Tigrayans a more privileged position in Ethiopian society. He also brought in leaders of other ethnic groups’ political parties, but did so in a deal that benefited the rulers and oppressed the common people.
“Under the Tigray Region administration, the people didn’t gain any benefits,” Colonel Demeke Zewdu, a committee leader in the Welkait district of Ethiopia told VOA. “Land has been taken away from them and they don’t have socio-economic advantages. The society feels like it is regarded as second-class citizens.” Zewdu was arrested shortly after the interview.
“Oromo culture and language have been banned and their identity stigmatized, becoming invisible and unnoticeable within mainstream perspectives,” Dr. Awol K. Allo, an LSE Fellow in Human Rights at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights and the Department of Sociology, wrote for CNN in August.
But as Lilesa noted while talking to reporters, while there has long been discrimination, the past nine months have been unprecedented.
Lilesa said children as young as nine years old were killed in protests, as were pregnant women, and the elderly. He said the elites were taking land away from Oromo farmers and selling it to investors or investing in it themselves in a bid to expand Addis Adaba.
Lilesa said his pre-Olympics training was also affected. “It is not a good time in Ethiopia. My legs were running but my mind was preoccupied with the killings around me.” He said that the training of other Olympians was likely affected as well, considering Ethiopia didn’t finish with as many medals as it initially expected (they finished with one gold, two silver, and five bronze medals, for a total of eight medals — all in track and field events). “The crisis put us in a position where we can’t focus on training.”
He left behind his mother, wife, and two young children. They haven’t been arrested or harassed by the government but Lilesa said he worries about them constantly. Their conversations on Skype are carefully conducted for fear that big brother may be listening in.
While a government official said Lilesa would not face any retribution on his return to Ethiopia, Lilesa remained skpetical.
“When I protested [a local TV station] said I sent a terrorist message to the international community but then quickly took it down and changed the message,” he said. “So you see, they do one thing and say something else. You can’t trust them.”
Now, he has friends looking for places with high altitude where he can train, like New Mexico or Arizona. He said he doesn’t expect to be picked to represent his country again, a response that drew laughter from the crowd, but expects to continue running. “I am a free man,” he said. “I know I can go anywhere and participate.”
Despite his sacrifice, Lilesa said he does not regret his decision to take the suffering of his people to a global stage at the Olympics.
“ I have no regrets,” he said, adding that news of the demise of a close friend killed in a jail fire in Addis Adaba reached him while in Rio. According to Lilesa, the friend had been arrested for peacefully protesting. “I would have regretted it if I didn’t take a stand. I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.”