As Feyisa Lilesa ran the final stretch of marathon in Rio in August, the memories flooded his head — the injustices that he’d witnessed, the fragmented Ethiopia that he called home. He reflected on how far he’d come from the Ethiopia that was getting worse, from the nation that no longer gave his home culture a voice.
So he threw his arms up over his head, crossing them to form an “X”. He’d make the symbol — a peaceful sign of solidarity that his community in Ethiopia understood and the world would soon learn — three times, and as he raced across the finish line to claim second place in the Olympic marathon, he knew what that meant for his future.
He could not return to Ethiopia.
“I grew up witnessing sufferings and the oppression of my people, and this has always been on my mind,” Lilesa said through a translator a month later, from the safety of a Washington D.C. hotel room. “I knew that if I trained well, and got a good result, I would get the spotlight for a limited amount of time. I wanted to use that moment to send this message in the voice of my people.”
It was a message that the 26-year-old marathoner sent from the massive platform that is the Olympic stage, a gesture of protest that changed the course of both a runner and his nation. Since then, Lilesa has fled his national team, opting to stay in Rio following the Olympics before obtaining a temporary visa to come to the U.S. earlier this month.
Meanwhile, his protest has left the international community confronting his reality, that a duplicitous Ethiopian regime has disenfranchised his indigenous ethnic group, the Oromo, for decades.
Before Lilesa’s Olympic “X,” there was little international awareness of the plight of the Oromo, who have seen hundreds die during protests against the Ethiopian regime taking their land, a situation that grows worse by the day.
Now, Obang Metho, who left the Gambella region of Ethiopia for the U.S. nearly two decades ago and now serves as executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, says he’s seen “many more” emails inquiring about the situation in his home nation. And Lilesa happily spoke to a room full of reporters in Washington D.C., pushing them to “get my story out.”
“You are going to see a great tragedy in Ethiopia unless the international community convenes and helps bring about a change in that country,” Lilesa said.
His is an athletic protest meant to impact a nation a continent away, but to study Lilesa’s push for repairing Ethiopia is to see the anatomy of a protest, and understand both the freedoms and shortcomings in the United States based on the reaction to its own protests.
Lilesa has been in the country for barely two weeks, and has recently followed the efforts of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others campaigning to end police brutality and black oppression. He sees similarities in Kaepernick’s national anthem kneel downs and his own efforts to bring awareness to the struggles of the Oromo.
“All people want to live in peace, and they want to live with others,” he told The News. “From what I understand, they (U.S. athletes) have grievances about inequality in this country and injustice in this country. And they’re using their platform.
“This is very good because in my country, you either support the government, or you get in line with what they say. Look at what has happened to me. I protest, and then I am forced to leave.”
Lilesa doesn’t know that while Kaepernick has utilized his American freedom, many of his detractors have suggested the quarterback just “leave the country,” a comment that speaks volumes about how easy it is for a nation to misinterpret peaceful dissent. But he does realize that his comparison is incomplete and flawed.
“It is a very hard comparison to make,” he said. “This is advanced democracy. Mine is not.”
The American “advanced democracy” has yet to properly address the run of deaths at the hands of law enforcement. But to hear Lilesa tell it, his nation is closer to the brink of anarchy, thanks to a corrupt government that feels no need for accountability.
The Tigrayan Elite, an ethnic group that makes up just 6 percent of the population, has run the country since 1991, when it was recognized as the nation’s government by the United States, and it’s long left the Oromo people, who are largely farmers, marginalized, with only light signs of protest.
But last November, the government inflamed the Oromo even more, attempting to sell off lands to foreign investors, leading to heavy protesting in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. The Tigrayan Elite did not react kindly to the marches and rallies; according to the Human Rights Watch, as of June, more than 400 protesters had been killed, “thousands” had been injured and “hundreds, likely more, have been victims of enforced disappearances.”
“The current group is just heavy-handed. They’re desperate,” said anthropologist Bonnie Holcomb, who has studied the Oromo people for decades. “They’re not even reaching out to consult with (the Oromo) in development. They’re just pushing them off the land and selling it.
“Now the people are being removed from the land. And the cultural substance of their connection to that land is that it is their umbilicus, it is their lifeline. These protests, they’re an act of desperation.”
But until Lilesa’s Olympic gesture, the protests of his nation had gone on for nearly a year and drawn a paucity of international attention. Part of Lilesa’s mission in the United States is to implore the U.S. to do more, to pressure the Ethiopian regime into less violence.
“The U.S. government is a close ally of Ethiopia,” he said. “A U.S. ally should not be killing our people.”
He’s the son of farmers, he said, like most Oromo.
“We are not violent,” he said. “My people are a peace-loving people.”
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It is all of that that fueled Lilesa’s decision to protest during the Olympics, throwing his arms up in the “X” that’s become part of the fabric of Oromo marches and rallies. It’s a reminder of the peace of the protests, a symbol that showed up two years ago, when the Oromo first began protesting their treatment and lack of human rights.
“The ‘X’ is a symbol of strength… clenched fists, not holding any weaponry,” Holcomb said. “It’s a sign of civil peaceful resistance to oncoming repression.”
Lilesa believed it was the perfect protest for the Olympics, a symbol that would invite media curiosity and remind his people that he was with them.
“I rubbed their (the Oromos’) wounds and sort of made them feel better,” he said. “They were yearning to feel better. It was almost that I touched their pain.”
But it came at great consequence, as most effective protests often do. Instantly, he said, Ethiopian Olympic team officials, some of whom may have sympathized with him, knew they had to distance themselves from him. A day after the marathon, Ethiopian government spokesman Getachew Reda claimed that Lilesa “won’t face any problem do to his political stance,” indicating that he would be “welcomed while returning home.”
Lilesa didn’t believe it.
“I heard the spokesperson’s comments, but it happens so often that the government of Ethiopia says one thing and does something different to change the narrative,” he said. “So I cannot go back.”
Even now, Lilesa says, his government is trying to shift the national narrative. Early last week, Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn claimed that Lilesa’s Olympic protest had been “orchestrated from the outside,” suggesting that American Oromo sympathizers had pushed him into the gesture.
Lilesa released a statement Friday refuting that claim as “baseless, completely false and insulting.”
“I base my positions on my own convictions,” he said. “I am not a follower and no one can sway me into darkness or an immoral direction… I am not a messenger for any individual or group. Never will be.”
Back in August, he believed nobody could save him from doom upon his return to Ethiopia either. So he immediately left the team, transferring to a Rio hotel for two weeks until he secured a temporary visa back to the United States. He has not seen his wife, Iftu Mulisa, his 5-year-old daughter and his 3-year-old son — all of whom went back to Ethiopia — since. As one of the world’s finest marathoners, he ranked among the more affluent members of Ethiopia, and he’s able to communicate with his family.
He still fears for their lives.
“The government cannot be trusted,” he said. “I am in regular contact with (my family). I call them and they also call me. So far, that’s it, but I have a concern (for them).”
Still, he believes he made the right decision to protest, placing the needs of his people above the needs of his family.
“I don’t want to look at my children any differently from the children of my country that are being killed,” he said. “I have no regrets. I would regret it if I did not make my stand.”
He recalls a recent protest that led to 67 deaths, according to Amnesty International, on Aug. 8, just after the Olympics had started. It was the first protest that prompted a stern response from the U.S. Embassy, which released a statement saying it was “deeply concerned with the extensive violence.”
“The people were burned alive, people that I knew,” he said. “I only found out about it while in Rio. I’m very happy with the reaction that (my protest) created and I have no regrets.”
Lilesa, much like the continually misunderstood Kaepernick, still loves his country dearly, he said, and has no plans to truly begin a new life elsewhere.
He’s planning to resume his marathon training in New Mexico, and expects to return to long-distance running competition soon. But he does not expect to compete in international competition as a member of the U.S. team — or any other national team, for that matter. And he has no plans to help his family escape from Ethiopia and join him stateside.
No, Feyisa Lilesa harbors the most patriotic of dreams: That he can find a way to bring healing to his nation.
“What I am thinking here today is not so much that I can bring my family here but that change will come to Ethiopia,” he said. “So then I can go home.”