Six months ago, Feyisa Lilesa won Olympic glory. His next challenge: keep himself and his family alive and safe in the face of Ethiopian ethnic purges.
On the final day of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Feyisa Lilesa crossed the marathon finish line in second place. As he did so, he raised his arms above his head, wrists crossed in an X. Most viewers around the world probably assumed this gesture was some personal expression of triumph in celebration of his Olympic silver medal.
Instead, articles published shortly after the race informed the world that Lilesa’s gesture was a symbolic protest of the Ethiopian government’s persecution and killing of members of the Oromo ethnic group to which Lilesa belongs. More than 400 Oromo people were killed between November 2015 and the August 2016 Olympics. Many others have been, or are currently, imprisoned. In Ethiopia, the state television network did not air a replay of the Olympic marathon finish.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe,” Lilesa said after the race. “My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.”
He also knew his freedom would be in jeopardy should he return home after his symbolic gesture. “If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me. If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country,” he said.
Part I: The Oromo
In 1991, the year after Lilesa’s birth, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took control of the nation’s government, a position it has held ever since. From that time forward, the EPRDF has worked to create animosity between the country’s two largest ethnic groups: the Oromos and Amharas. The EPRDF has routinely blamed the Oromos (who made up 35% of Ethiopia’s population in 2012) as secessionists and terrorists in order to further divide the different ethnic groups and justify the continued monitoring, control and policing of Oromo activists.
Feyisa Lelisa grew up hiding from the government security forces arresting Oromos throughout Ethiopia. Then came the 2005 elections, which the government promoted as openly democratic. Yet when early returns showed a large lead from groups opposed to the EPRDF, the government delayed final vote counts, killed almost 200 protesters and arrested 20,000 more. Mass arrests were common in Lilesa’s hometown in the Jeldu district, and the purges were so aggressive that fifteen-year-old Lilesa and his friends and family would conceal themselves in fields of unharvested crops to avoid nighttime raids.
Unrest and persecution have continued into the current decade. According to Amnesty International, at least 5,000 Oromos were arrested in Ethiopia between 2011 and 2014. These arrests included thousands of peaceful protestors and hundreds of members of political movements opposed to the ruling EPRDF, as well as hundreds of other individuals arrested based on the mere expression of dissenting opinions or their suspected opposition to the government.
In April 2014, the Ethiopian government announced its “Integrated Master Plan,” which called for expanding the capital city of Addis Ababa into neighboring Oromo villages and towns. The Oromo people responded with renewed protests against what they saw as a move to evict Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands. Federal police and military special forces shot at and beat hundreds of protesters and bystanders. Thousands more were arrested.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere.”
Further government crackdowns followed additional protests in November 2015, but the government did drop its “Master Plan” in early 2016. Lilesa’s brother-in-law was arrested around the same time. When he was selected for the Ethiopian Olympic team in May, Lilesa decided on his protest, later recalling his thoughts at the time, “If I get good result, the media would be watching and the world would finally see and hear the cry of my people.” He left his wife, five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter in Ethiopia on August 17, knowing he might never see them again.
His symbolic “X” gesture as he crossed the finish line at the Olympic marathon four days later signified his solidarity with the Oromo people still suffering in Ethiopia. After the race, he reiterated his message in a brief press conference before returning to the Olympic village where he collected his belongings and snuck off to a Rio hotel, distrusting the Ethiopian Olympic officials who had accompanied him to the Games.
He stayed in his hotel for three weeks while Oromo sympathizers in Rio assisted him with a visa application to the United States. He arrived in America in early September 2016, with no intention of returning home until the political situation improves. His family remains in Ethiopia, and Lilesa plans to continue running to raise awareness for their plight and the struggles of all Oromo people.