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Feyisa Lilesa, who is now living in the United States following his performance at the Rio Olympics, won the United Airlines NYC Half on Sunday. Again, the Olympic marathon silver medallist, who is Ethiopian, crossed his wrists above his head, forming an “X,” in solidarity with the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in the Horn of Africa. It’s not the first, or second, time that Lilesa has performed such a gesture.
Excluding Sunday’s performance, Lilesa has on two previous notable occasions performed what is part of the Oromo protests since the Olympics including at the Honolulu Marathon and the Houston Half-Marathon. The 27-year-old did not return to Ethiopia after the Olympics fearing for his life because of the finish line act. The long-distance specialist is currently residing in Flagstaff, Ariz. with his family recently relocating to the United States on Valentine’s Day.
According to CNN, there have been protests across Ethiopia “since April of 2014 against systematic marginalization and persecution of ethnic Oromos.” The protests can be sourced to the territorial limits of the capital city Addis Ababa extending into neighboring Oromo villages displacing residents. In 2016, Ethiopian security forces “killed hundreds and detained tens of thousands of protesters in Ethiopia’s Oromia and Amhara regions,” according to Human Rights Watch. The government told Lilesa that it would be safe to return home.
As seen a recent feature in the New York Times, Lilesa has received a green card as a permanent resident in the United States “for individuals of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business and sports.” Lilesa’s finish line protests have led other runners, including several in Canada, to cross their wrists above their head at the finish line of races.
On Sunday, Lilesa and Scotland’s Callum Hawkins were side-by-side entering the finishing stretch towards Wall Street. Lilesa won by four seconds in 1:00:04, his first victory since the 2016 Tokyo Marathon. In the women’s race, there was also a tight finish as American Molly Huddle completed the NYC Half three-peat bettering Emily Sisson in 1:08:19 to 1:08:21. The two are training partners and reside in Providence, R.I. (Huddle is married to former Canadian middle-distance specialist Kurt Benninger.)
““I never would have thought I could come back here and win three times,” Huddle said in a New York Road Runners (NYRR) release. “I remember the first win was such a surprise for me, and last year we ran so fast. I just feel really lucky to have won a third time. Every time is really difficult with an international field. New York Road Runners brings in some of the best of the best. Some people are in marathon buildups but some people were really gearing up for this race. I feel like it was a really cool win, and just contributes to my enthusiasm for New York.”
Rachel Cliff (1:12:07) for eighth and Eric Gillis (1:03:49) in 16th were the top Canadians in the race that featured more than 20,000 runners.
Feyisa Lilesa, who has not been back to Ethiopia since his protest at the marathon finish in the Rio Olympics last August, on a training run in Sedona, Ariz., not far from his new home in Flagstaff.CreditMatthew Staver for The New York Times
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The young boy was getting reacquainted with his father after an absence of six months and climbed on him as if he were a tree. The boy kissed his father and hugged him and clambered onto his shoulders. Then, when a protest video streamed on television, the boy grabbed a stick, and the lid of a pot to serve as a shield, and began to mimic a dance of dissent in the living room.
There is much joy and relief, but also continued political complication, in the modest apartment of Feyisa Lilesa, the Ethiopian marathon runner who won a silver medal at the Rio Olympics and gained international attention when he crossed his arms above his head at the finish line in a defiant gesture against the East African nation’s repressive government.
Afraid to return home, fearing he would be jailed, killed or no longer allowed to travel, Lilesa, 27, remained in Brazil after the Summer Games, then came to the United States in early September. He has received a green card as a permanent resident in a category for individuals of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business and sports.
On Valentine’s Day, his wife, Iftu Mulisa, 26; daughter, Soko, 5; and son, Sora, 3, were reunited with him, first in Miami and then in Flagstaff, where Lilesa is training at altitude for the London Marathon in April. Their immigrant visas are valid until July, but they also hope to receive green cards.
“I’m relieved and very happy that my family is with me,” Lilesa said, speaking through an interpreter. “But I chose to be in exile. Since I left the situation has gotten much, much worse. My people are living in hell, dying every day. It gives me no rest.”
Lilesa’s Olympic protest was against Ethiopia’s treatment of his ethnic group, the Oromo people, who compose about a third of the country’s population of 102 million but are dominated politically by the Tigray ethnic group.
Last month, Human Rights Watch reported that, in 2016, Ethiopian security forces “killed hundreds and detained tens of thousands” in the Oromia and Amhara regions; progressively curtailed basic rights during a state of emergency; and continued a “bloody crackdown against largely peaceful protesters” in disputes that have flared since November 2015 over land displacement, constitutional rights and political reform.
The Ethiopian government has said that Lilesa could return home safely and would be considered a hero, but he does not believe this. He lists reasons for his suspicions, and they are personal: His brother-in-law, Tokkuma Mulisa, who is in his early 20s, has been imprisoned for about a year and reportedly tortured, and his health remains uncertain. His younger brother, Aduna, also a runner, was beaten and detained by the Ethiopian military in October.
Aduna Lilesa, 22, said he was training in Burayu, outside the capital, Addis Ababa, on Oct. 16 when soldiers approached him. They hit him in the head with the butt of a rifle, kicked him and threatened to shoot him, he said, while demanding information about Feyisa.
Fearing for his life, a gun pointed at him, Aduna said he lied and told the soldiers what he thought they wanted to hear about his brother: “He is a terrorist; he is no good.”
Since the Olympics, Aduna said, his wife has been suspended from her job with Ethiopian government radio. He is living with Feyisa in Flagstaff until mid-March, when he will return home to his wife and young son. “It is not safe, but my family is there,” Aduna Lilesa said. “If I live here, they will be confused.”
Unease extends, too, to the Ethiopian running community.
When Feyisa Lilesa runs the London Marathon, one of his primary challengers figures to be Kenenisa Bekele, a three-time Olympic champion on the track and a fellow Oromo who is considered by many the greatest distance runner of all time. The two runners were never close and tension between them increased last September in Berlin, where Bekele ran the second-fastest marathon time ever.
Before that race, Bekele said in an interview with Canadian Running Magazine, speaking in English, which is not his first language, that “anyone have right to protest anything” but “you need to maybe choose how to protest and solve things.”
Asked specifically about Lilesa’s Olympic protest, Bekele said it was better to get an answer from him. Asked about other Ethiopian runners who have made similar crossed-arm gestures, Bekele said that sport should be separate from politics, that everyone had a right to protest in Ethiopia and that the government was trying to “solve things in a democratic way.”
Bekele has received some criticism for not being more forceful in his remarks, and on social media in Ethiopia there is a split between supporters of the two runners. “Many people are being killed,” Lilesa said of Bekele. “How can you say that’s democratic? I’m very angry when he says that.”
His own social awareness, Lilesa said, began when he was a schoolboy, living on a farm in the Jaldu district, sometimes spelled Jeldu, west of Addis Ababa. Security forces used harsh tactics to break up student protests, he said, and sometimes his classmates simply disappeared. He belongs to a younger Oromo generation emboldened to resist what it considers to be marginalization by Ethiopia’s ruling party.
“Before, people would run away; they feared the government, the soldiers,” Lilesa said. “Today, fear has been defeated. People are standing their ground. They are fed up and feel they have nothing more to lose.”
When he was named to Ethiopia’s Olympic team last May, three months before the Summer Games, Lilesa felt it was urgent to make some kind of protest gesture in Rio de Janeiro. But he did not tell anyone of his plans. If he told his family, they might talk him out of it. If the government found out, he might be kicked off the Olympic team or worse.
He continued to visit Oromo people detained in jail and to give money to Oromo students who had been dismissed from school and left homeless. He was wealthy for an Ethiopian, independent, and he sensed that the government monitored some of his movements.
He worried that he could be injured or killed in a staged auto accident. Or that someone might ambush him when he was training in the forests around Addis Ababa. When the doorbell rang at his home, he went to the second floor and peered outside before answering.
“I was really fearful,” Lilesa said. “Being an Oromo makes one suspect.”
On the final day of the Olympics, his moment came. As he reached the finish of the marathon, in second place behind Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya and ahead of Galen Rupp of the United States, Lilesa crossed his arms. It was a familiar Oromo gesture of protest and one that carried great risk, both to his career representing Ethiopia and to his family.
“Giving up running for Ethiopia was the least I could do, because other people were giving up their lives,” Lilesa said.
Iftu Mulisa, his wife, was watching at home in Addis Ababa with 15 or 20 relatives and friends. There was loud cheering and celebrating, and then Lilesa crossed his arms. The cheering was replaced by silence and confusion and fear.
“Everyone was asking: ‘Does he come home? Does he stay? What happens next?’” Mulisa said. “It was so shocking. He hadn’t told anyone.”
For two or three days, Lilesa said, he did not answer the phone when his wife called.
“I had put them in this position and I just didn’t know what to say to her,” he said.
Still, he felt he had made the right decision.
“I needed to do this,” Lilesa said. “I thought of it this way: When a soldier enlists, you know the risks, but because you swore to defend the country or the law, you don’t think about the consequences.”
When he finally spoke to his wife, Lilesa said, he tried to calm her and tell her everything would be O.K. But the uncertainty was difficult.
“He had never been gone more than a week or two,” Mulisa said. “Having young kids made it more difficult. They missed him and asked questions I couldn’t answer. But I was hopeful we would be reunited one day.”
In a diplomatic whirlwind, Lilesa secured an immigrant visa to the United States and eventually moved to Flagstaff, a training hub at nearly 7,000 feet where athletes often go to enhance their oxygen-carrying capacity. He was invited there by a runner from Eritrea, which neighbors Ethiopia.
Even in the best of situations, distance running can be an isolating life of training twice a day and sleeping. Lilesa kept in touch with his family through video chats, but they were disrupted for a period when the Ethiopian government restricted internet access.
In Ethiopia it is the traditional role of the wife or maid to prepare the food, to do the domestic chores. Without his family, Lilesa said, he sometimes ate only once or twice a day, too tired to cook dinner, hardly recommended for marathoners who routinely train more than 100 miles per week.
“I had to fend for myself in a way I’ve never done in my life,” he said.
Perhaps the most difficult moment, Lilesa said, came when he was still in Rio de Janeiro after the Games and learned of the death of a close friend, Kebede Fayissa. He had been arrested in August, Lilesa said, and was among more than 20 inmates to die in a fire in September under suspicious circumstances at Kilinto prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Opposition figures have said that the bodies of some prisoners had bullet wounds.
“I didn’t even know he had been arrested and there I was in Brazil, finding about his death on Facebook,” Lilesa said of Fayissa. “He had helped me so much at different times of my life.”
Eventually, Mulisa and their two children received immigrant visas to enter the United States and left Addis Ababa in mid-February for Frankfurt, Germany, then Miami, where Lilesa greeted them at the airport. The scariest time, Mulisa said, came when she walked down the Jetway to the plane, afraid the Ethiopian government would prevent her from leaving at the last minute.
Most likely, Lilesa said, his family was permitted to leave because to do otherwise would have generated negative publicity. In Miami, there was more emotion than words, Mulisa said, as the children hugged their father and she told him, “I didn’t think I would see you so soon.”
While he will surely not be chosen to compete for Ethiopia at the Olympics and world track and field championships while in exile, Lilesa can still make hundreds of thousands of dollars as an independent, elite marathon runner. Since the Olympics, he has run a marathon in Honolulu and a half marathon in Houston. A GoFundMe campaign for him and his family, started by supporters, raised more than $160,000. The London Marathon is two months away.
He now has a voice as strong as his legs. Lilesa has met with United States senators, addressed members of the European Parliament in Brussels, written an op-ed essay in The Washington Post and spoken with numerous reporters, trying to spread the story of the Oromo people.
If the political situation changes in Ethiopia, he said, he and his family will move home. He does not expect that to happen soon. In the meantime, he hopes that his wife and children will be permitted to make yearly trips there to visit relatives. For himself, he said he had no regrets.
“This has given me more confidence, more reasons to try harder, more reasons to compete so that I can use this platform to raise awareness,” Lilesa said. “I’m constantly thinking, what else can I do?”
The Ethiopian marathoner hid behind a column at the Miami airport as he carried a bouquet of red roses.Feyisa Lilesa’s daughter spotted him first and ran in for a hug. Then, his young son and lastly his wife.On Valentine’s Day, the Olympic silver medalist who became an international figure when he crossed his wrists in protest at the finish line in Rio de Janeiro finally reunited with his family. He was a little late (traffic), but what’s a few extra minutes when he’s already waited six long months to see them.As he made his way out of the airport, his daughter rode on the luggage and his son perched on his shoulders, carrying the flowers he brought as a gift.Ethiopia’s Lilesa afraid to return home after Olympic display“The biggest gift is us seeing each other again — and me seeing them again,” Lilesa said through a translator in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s all been very tough.”
The 27-year-old eventually settled in Flagstaff, Arizona, after making an anti-government gesture during the Olympic marathon that drew global attention to the deadly protests in his home region of Oromia. He never returned home after Brazil out of fear of what might happen to him. He’s constantly been worrying about the family he left behind in Ethiopia. His nearly 6-year-old daughter, Soko, and 3 ½-year-old son, Sora, always asked when they will see him again.
Finally, he was able to answer.
Lilesa remains in the U.S. on a special skills visa. His family arrived on visas as well, secured through his attorney.
The plan now is this: A few days of beach time and then it’s off to Flagstaff where the family will settle into everyday life in their rental house.
One weight off his mind.
Still, he can’t forget what his country is going through, with the Oromia region experiencing anti-government protests over recent months. Violent anti-government protests spread to other parts of Ethiopia and led to a state of emergency that was declared in October.
Since his gesture, many have described Lilesa as a national hero.
“My mind is pretty much occupied by what is happening back home,” Lilesa said. “Whether I’m running or I’m sleeping or I’m laying back, my family and what is happening in Ethiopia — and what is happening to my people — that’s constantly on my mind.”
Most days since his arrival in America have been spent training. It was his best cure for loneliness.
“I come from a very big family, and I’ve never lived alone,” Lilesa said. “I’ve always been surrounded by people I know. This has been the complete opposite. Here, I’m removed from all of that.”
“I think me taking the risk and putting family in that position and putting them potentially in harm’s way, it was a good lesson for a lot of people that you need to sacrifice in order for you to win some concessions and change your situation,” Lilesa said. “In that sense, it inspires people to fight for their rights and resist the government in Ethiopia. It also led to greater awareness about the situation in Ethiopia.
“Now, you see more coverage of the human rights violations. I speak with people wherever I go. Even outside the media limelight, people are interested in knowing. They heard the story because of my protest.”
Someday, he would like to go back to Ethiopia.
“But as long as this current government is in power, I don’t have hope of going back to Ethiopia,” he explained. “I do know change is inevitable.”
He also wants to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Whether that’s wearing the colors of Ethiopia, he doesn’t know.
“I’m not too hopeful the system will be changed in the next three years and I will be in a position to run for Ethiopia. We will have to wait and see,” said Lilesa, who plans to run in the London Marathon in two months.
For now, Lilesa’s priority is getting his family settled.
“I knew that we would meet somehow, but I didn’t expect it would happen under these circumstances over here,” Lilesa said. “When I think about my family, it takes me back to why I did this and why I’m here. I missed my family, but this was a big bother to me — the plight of my people.”
His wife, daughter and son flew into Miami, where the 27-year-old athlete met them after a separation of about six months.
Feyisa told the newspaper through a translator:
The biggest gift is us seeing each other again, and me seeing them again. It’s all been very tough.”
Back in August, Feyisa became the first Ethiopian to finish in the top two of a men’s Olympics marathon since 2000, claiming silver behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge.
As he crossed the line, he lifted his arms in an X-shape above his head in solidarity with the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group, who have suffered a crackdown at the hands of the Ethiopian government.
The country’s officials said the runner would be welcomed home from Rio as a hero, but Feyisa said he might be killed if he returned.
Feyisa Lilesa caught the world’s attention when he raised his arms in solidarity with the Oromo people as he crossed the finishing line at the Rio Olympic games. He tells Julian Keane what the gesture has cost him.
The long distance athlete became famous during the just ended Rio Olympic games after he made an anti-government gesture at the end of his track event. He crossed his arms above his head as he finished the event as a protest against the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on political dissent.
He won the silver medal in the men’s marathon after finishing the 42 kilometer race. He later claimed that his life was in danger. He sought for asylum in the United States and has been living there since leaving Rio.
Given the fact that the Olympic Charter bans political propaganda, demonstrations are a rarity at the games. Nevertheless, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa snubbed the rulebook in order to call attention to the brutal actions of his country’s security forces.
Under the title, ‘‘For breaking the rules of the games,’‘ FP wrote about Feyisa: ‘‘Given the fact that the Olympic Charter bans political propaganda, demonstrations are a rarity at the games. Nevertheless, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa snubbed the rulebook in order to call attention to the brutal actions of his country’s security forces.
‘‘As the marathoner approached the finish line in second place, he crossed his arms over his head—an attention-grabbing gesture to show solidarity with his Oromo tribe. In the weeks before the race, the Ethiopian government had cracked down on protests by the embattled indigenous group and killed dozens.
They went on to quote him in an interview with AP news agency as saying, “If I would’ve taken my medal and went back to Ethiopia, that would’ve been the biggest regret of my life.” Adding further that “I wanted to be a voice for a story that wasn’t getting any coverage.”
Feyisa like the twelve others listed in his category were recognized for challenging the status quo in order to put their views across. ‘‘These individuals showed that agitation takes myriad forms,’‘ the FP said.
Aside Feyisa, another African was listed in the same category. Pastor Evan Mawarire of Zimbabwe who championed the #ThisFlag protests through the use of social media platform, Twitter. The FP listed him ‘‘For initiating a democratic movement.’‘
As marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line to win the silver medal at the Olympics this summer, he raised his arms over his head in an X to defiantly protest the Ethiopian government’s treatment of his fellow Oromo people. Three months later, unable to go home or see his family, he contemplates the price of being a world-class athlete speaking out.
As 26-year-old Ethiopian Olympic marathoner Feyisa Lilesa neared the finish line at the 2016 Rio Olympics with what would be a blazing time of 2:09:54, fast enough to win a silver medal in the men’s marathon, he felt no sudden wave of euphoria.
Instead, Lilesa took a deep breath and carried out the plan he’d dreamed about from the moment he was selected to compete in Rio: He crossed his arms above his head in an X. Putting them down for a quick moment and raising them again, he held the gesture as he ran through the finish line with his country’s strife running through his head.
“I knew by all accounts I was supposed to feel happiness in that moment, but all I could think about was the people dying back home,” the long-distance runner told me in Amharic when we spoke in Washington, DC, in September.
Lilesa’s gesture was unfamiliar to most international viewers, but Ethiopian audiences around the world recognized it immediately as the sign associated with anti-government protests stemming from Lilesa’s home region of Oromia, which have been growing in breadth and intensity since November 2015. The #OromoProtests contend that the country’s current government represses its largest ethnic population both culturally and economically.
Later, after flowers were placed around his neck at the end of the race, Lilesa prepared to make a second statement — this time at the post-race press conference. Stepping up to the conference-area podium with his official jacket unzipped — to disrupt the block text bearing Ethiopia’s name — he raised his arms once again and crossed his wrists above his head, spotlighting a wristband in Oromo colors: black, white, and red. If the first gesture could have been interpreted as spontaneous, Lilesa used this second one to make evident his long-held plan to speak out.
Feyisa Lilesa crosses the finish line to win silver during the men’s marathon. Matthias Hangst / Getty Images
Despite government spokesman Getachew Reda’s insistence that Lilesa would receive a “hero’s welcome” if he returned to Ethiopia, Lilesa told reporters in Rio he knew he could not go home without either being either jailed or killed for his actions. In fact, subsequent airings of the Olympics in Ethiopia did not show his gesture, and few state-run print publications covered that or even his win — at all.
Lilesa told journalists he’d seen the government’s duplicity with his own eyes: “The state-run Oromia TV posted on Facebook after I won saying, ‘Feyisa Lilesa successfully sent the terrorists’ message to the international community,’ but they immediately took down that message and changed their narrative” to a more positive one echoing spokesman Reda’s statement.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter forbids explicit political activity, decreeing that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.” But sports — and the Olympics in particular — have long played host to protests both quiet and overt, a stage for the world’s greatest to express both physical rigor and patriotic dissent.
In 1968, American gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home from the Summer Olympics in Mexico City and suspended from the US team for raising a fist in the air as they stood on the podium during the national anthem. In the aftermath of the protest, they lost their medals, their reputations, their friends, and in Carlos’s case, a marriage. Lilesa had never heard of John Carlos and Tommie Smith before he protested, and Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest had not yet garnered headlines. Becoming a hero or entering historical record was never part of Lilesa’s plan.
But online, Ethiopians around the world were discussing his historic show of solidarity. All over Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp, Oromo people were changing their avatars to pictures of Lilesa with hands raised and wrists crossed in front of him. At the end of his race, he’d emerged a hero to Oromos everywhere, even with his own future uncertain.
Days later, Lilesa saw rumors on social media that his friend Kebede Fayissa was among the countless dead after a fire — and officers’ bullets — erupted at a prison just outside Addis Ababa. He called home from his Rio hotel; confirmation of the news strengthened his resolve to continue speaking out.
American athletes Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right), protest with the Black Power salute at the Summer Olympic Games, Mexico City, October 1968. John Dominis / Getty Images
For Lilesa, the choice to protest came at tremendous personal cost. His wife and two young children, whom he did not inform of his plan to protest, live in the nation’s capital. He kept the decision from them, afraid they might compel him to change his mind. As an athlete, he supported them and his extended family, living a fairly comfortable life compared with those around him: He had his own house, a car, and an athletic career that had been thriving since he’d won the Dublin Marathon at only 19. Athletes are among the most respected public figures in the country, and remaining publicly apolitical — or even performing gratitude to the Ethiopian Athletics Federation — would have eased Lilesa into a simpler life. But amid the chaos that ensued after his protest, Lilesa lost valuable training time; his diet changed in transit, and the stress of impending exile wore on him.
The resultant series of setbacks will keep him from competing in this year’s New York City Marathon. Afraid to return home amid worsening political unrest, Lilesa is now training in Arizona for April’s London Marathon. Nine thousand miles away from his wife, his children, and the community he holds closest, he contemplates the personal cost of his protest.
To stay silent with the world’s eyes trained on him would have been a wasted opportunity to attract the media and political attention Lilesa believes is necessary to bring about change in Ethiopia. Progress in the region has not been linear, but Lilesa’s actions marked a catalyst: In the months since his protest, Western media coverage of the country’s political affairs has both increased and taken on a more widespread critical lens. “The little happiness I feel now is because I was able to show the world our desire for peace and it’s reached the world’s media,” he said.
But Lilesa himself lives in fear despite being one of the world’s most celebrated and talented elite athletes, the course of his life and career effectively derailed by the decision to speak out. At the apex of his career, one of the best runners in the world is now running for his life.
Feyisa Lilesa, photographed on September 13, 2016. T.J. Kirkpatrick for BuzzFeed News
The Oromo account for almost 40% of Ethiopia’s population — an estimated 39 million people — and a disproportionate amount of the nation’s elite runners. Born in 1990, Feyisa Lilesa grew up in Jaldu, a district in the West Shewa region of Oromia. The child of farmers, he was the second of seven children raised in a farming community about 75 miles west of Addis Ababa. Like many children in the surrounding area, Lilesa grew up thinking of running as a way to get to his classes — or as fellow runner Biruk Regassa told me, “When school is far, everyone is a runner.”
Since November 2015, protests in the region have sprung up in response to what the government called its “Addis Ababa Integrated Regional Development Plan,” or “Master Plan.” The plan outlined the method by which the federal government would integrate the capital city, Addis Ababa, with surrounding towns in Oromia.
“When school is far, everyone is a runner.”
Concerns over the proposed expansion were raised in 2014 by farmers who feared the government’s ongoing takeover of their land would expand under the plan. Uniting under the hashtag #OromoProtests, citizens of the region organized to make their concerns known: The re-zoning plan would constitute an effective government takeover of their land, yet another blow to their autonomy and livelihood after years of ongoing repression.
In January, however, the Ethiopian government announced it would abandon the Master Plan following the deaths of an estimated 140 protesters in clashes with federal security forces. The televised government statement, which has since been removed from the state media where it was originally aired, cited a “lack of transparency” and “huge respect” for the Oromo people as reasons for the decision to scrap the widely opposed plan. But activists — and Lilesa himself — contend the plan was just one flash point in Oromos’ ongoing struggle for equal rights.
The presiding political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), rose to power in May 1991. Before the May 2015 elections, the EPRDF, led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, held all but one seat in the nation’s 546-seat parliament. Amid widespread claims of intimidation and suppression of media, the coalition secured a landslide victory, claiming every single seat. Many opposition leaders contend that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front party, which represents Ethiopia’s Tigrayan minority (approximately 6% of the population), holds all the power within the ruling EPRDF coalition — and by extension, within the country. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, another one of the EPRDF coalition’s four parties, is viewed by many as a comparatively toothless group.
The Oromos have found an unlikely ally in the Amhara, the nation’s second-largest ethnic group. The Amhara comprise about 27% of the population; together, the groups account for about 62% of Ethiopia’s estimated 100 million people. After over a century of oscillating tensions, the two ethnic groups are coming together to protest what they say is shared repression under a Tigrayan-led government and the #AmharaProtests movementhas been rapidly gaining steam. Many people, Lilesa included, note that the groups’ unprecedented union against the EPRDF could portend “Rwanda-like” ethnic conflict in the country.
Lilesa said he has been bearing witness to ongoing discontent in Oromia since well before this round of protests. Born just a year before the EPRDF came into power, he grew up seeing the repression of his people — so helping protesters came as second nature to him.
“People are being exiled from the place I was born, so I tried to do what little I can to help; sometimes I give them my shoes or a little money,” he said. “But after I started doing that, people told me the government had become suspicious of me. Because I trained in the countryside, I feared they could come at any moment and just snatch me.”
Lilesa during the men’s marathon post-race press conference. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
It’s part of what made him take his protest to the Olympic stage, pushed by a growing sense that only international intervention would change the situation in Ethiopia for the better. Protesters and opposition forces had been agitating for so long and facing only violence in return because their pleas were not heard by international press, he insisted.
“I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I didn’t make that gesture,” he said. “I knew that the media would be watching, and the world will finally see and hear the cry of my people.”
“We just want peace, we just want equality,” Lilesa said. “That’s why people are still protesting. Even if [the government] says there is no Master Plan anymore, they are still killing us.”
Human rights organizations estimate state forces have killed over 500 protesters in the last year, with elections taking place against a backdrop of “restrictions on civil society, the media and the political opposition, including excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, the disruption of opposition campaigns, and the harassment of election observers from the opposition.”
From the minute Lilesa crossed his wrists as he crossed the finish line in Rio, things moved quickly. He says the moments immediately following his gesture still feel like a blur of cameras and rapid-fire questions from journalists, but he remembers his fellow Ethiopian athletes’ embrace as he left the Olympic Village vividly.
“The athletes cried. They sent me off with tears,” he said. “I’m usually not the kind of person that cries, but they actually made me cry, saying goodbye.”
“The federation officials knew that they would get in trouble if they spoke with me or if they helped me,” he continued. “They gave me some signs and gestures but that was really it because they could not really do much because they presumably had concerns for their safety.”
T-shirts made for Lilesa’s welcoming ceremonyHannah Giorgis / BuzzFeed News
Within hours of his protest, a GoFundMe page to support Lilesa and his family was launched and exceeded both its initial $10,000 goal and the subsequent $40,000 goal. It has since raised a total of over $160,000, much of which has been set aside for Lilesa’s legal expenses. Oromo friends like Bayissa Gemechu, a sports agent who had just left Rio after his wife Tigist Tufa competed in the women’s marathon a week earlier, raced back to his side. By the time Gemechu arrived back in Rio to meet Lilesa, the US embassy had already heard of his case — and made the decision to allow him to apply for a special skills visa into the country from Rio instead of insisting he return to Ethiopia to do so.
Bonnie Holcomb, an American anthropologist who has been closely involved with the Oromo community since living in Oromia during the last years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign in the early ’70s, also played an integral role in supporting Lilesa from the US and facilitating his contact with Brazilians who would ensure his safety. Holcomb, the co-author of a book investigating Ethiopia’s political history, reached out to Brazilian friends who helped shepherd Lilesa’s visa application process.
The Brazilian couple contacted their local friends, who then worked quickly to support Lilesa, sending officials from the foreign ministry to take him to the airport and begin his temporary visa application to stay in Brazil. Fearing he would be sought by Ethiopian authorities, Lilesa had left the Olympic Village immediately. Alone in his hotel, he was terrified when the Brazilian officials knocked on his door.
But when the Brazilian officials entered the room, they greeted him with smiles instead of the violence or the detainment he’d feared — and took him for coffee. On the car ride to the airport, he called friends in the US to inform them he was safe. By the time he made it to the US embassy after securing his temporary Brazilian visa, Lilesa was surprised by his newfound celebrity among Brazilians and how excited people were to see his medal.
Fearing he would be sought by Ethiopian authorities, Lilesa had left the Olympic Village immediately.
“People were fascinated and they wanted to touch it and they wanted to look at it,” he said. “There was a moment when everybody stopped working and they were just lining up to look at the medal and that sort of made me realize that this is a big deal.”
Gemechu saw the warm reception firsthand when he walked around Rio with Lilesa: “Most of the time we were outside around the beach, and a lot of people there, they watched [him] on the TV and media, so we had fun. They said ‘Oromo!’” he recalled while raising his hands above his head to replicate the now-famous gesture. Stopping to high-five Lilesa periodically on the street, they heralded him as a champion of resistance whose symbolic act spoke to communities well beyond his own people. This support didn’t make up for being away from his wife and two young children, but it helped sustain him for the long, lonely journey ahead.
Lilesa at a press conference in Washington, DC, on Sept. 13, 2016. T.J. Kirkpatrick for BuzzFeed News
A conference at Washington, DC’s Phoenix Park Hotel on September 13 was an opportunity for Lilesa to keep attention on the issue he’d brought to the world stage at Rio and his second big hurdle after arriving in the United States. Earlier in the day he had held his first news conference outside the US Capitol, where he implored Congress members to intervene on behalf of the Ethiopian people. Congressman Chris Smith later announced the introduction of House Resolution 861, “Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia.”
Stepping up to the podium, Lilesa immediately thanked the journalists in the DC hotel’s conference room, noting that freedom of speech is not a right he takes lightly. The urgency of the protests had been suppressed by state-run Ethiopian media and largely ignored by the West — until, of course, Lilesa.
“We Oromo have not had access to you in the media,” he told journalists through an interpreter, OPride.com founder and editor Mohammed Ademo. “We have been cut off from you. We have not had a free press in our country.”
Ethiopia has come under fire for restricting journalists’ freedoms in recent years. Ahead of the May 2015 elections, government forces had tamped down on dissidents, most notably charging nine bloggers and journalists with terrorism and arresting eight of them under the guise of the 2009 anti-terrorism law (one member residing in the US was charged in absentia).
Lilesa’s first language, like many other Oromo people, is Afaan Oromo. He speaks Amharic in a soft, self-conscious cadence. Lilesa is at his most vibrant when he speaks in Afaan Oromo, especially with the runners who approached him after the press conference. They came to him with beaming smiles, ushering him into hugs to thank him for his gesture. He was visibly relieved to be alongside people who are almost family. Among them was Demssew Tsega, a marathoner who has been in the US for seven months now. Tsega also testified at the news conference announcing House Resolution 861 on Capitol Hill.
One day last December, Tsega wound up amid a crowd of peaceful protesters on his way home from training for the marathon in Sululta, a city 20 miles north of Addis Ababa. Along with four other athletes, Tsega joined the protest. When government security forces came to apprehend protesters, three runners got away — but Tsega and another teammate didn’t.
“Because I’m a runner and the security forces recognized me since they’d seen me on TV before, they were especially keen on capturing me,” he told me in Amharic in October. “They jailed me for two days and tortured me on my feet so I couldn’t run anymore.”
Lilesa with runners Ketema Amensisa and Demssew Tsega, advocate Obang Metho, and runner Bilisuma Shugi Courtesy of Andrea Barron
Upon his release, Tsega did not seek treatment for his injuries at the local hospital because it’s run by the government.
“I was afraid they would arrest me again if I went to the hospital,” he said. “Before I lived with my family in Addis Ababa, but after [my arrest and torture] I hid in the countryside.”
When the notice that Tsega had met the minimum qualification to compete in the marathon arrived, he was conflicted. With injured feet, he had no hope of racing, and it seemed all his training had been for nothing. But he took the opportunity to secure a visa and came to the United States, knowing it was his only shot at accessing treatment for his injuries and one day racing again.
“They’re still looking for me now,” he said. “[The government] still harasses my father; they took our land.”
Sitting next to Tsega at a downtown Silver Spring restaurant, fellow long distance runner Ketema Amensisa sighs. Before the government took 75% of their land, Amensisa’s family had 20 cows in Gebre Guracha, a central Ethiopian town in the North Shewa region of Oromia. Stripped of their primary means of income, the family of subsistence farmers has been struggling to survive since.
“We miss our country,” Amensisa said. “When we don’t have any other options as a people, we stand beside the government because we fear for our safety if we say otherwise.”
The two runners paused their stories intermittently to check in on Momina Aman, a teammate who arrived later in our conversation. Tsega mentioned repeatedly that he wants to take her to TASSC, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, the organization that’s been helping him access medical care for his foot, immigration support, and psychological care.
“I came to this country because Ethiopia’s government killed my father, stepmother, my sisters, and my brothers.”
“I came to this country because Ethiopia’s government killed my father, stepmother, my sisters, and my brothers,” Aman said through tears. “The rest of my brothers and I were only spared because we were in Addis Ababa.”
“We were in Addis Ababa when we got the call that our family had been killed,” she continued. “Recently another one of my brothers was beaten and left to die by government security forces.”
Aman’s brother was one of the 2 million attendees of this year’s Irreecha celebration the first weekend of October. Irreecha, the annual thanksgiving holiday that marks the shift from Ethiopia’s rainy season to the warmth and bounty of the dry months at the end of September, draws crowds of up to 4 million from across Ethiopia to the town of Bishoftu, about 25 miles southeast of Addis Ababa, to pray and sing alongside the crater lake Hora Arsadi. The festivities are filled with color and calm, an opportunity to reflect on the changing seasons and their attendant harvests.
But this year’s Irreecha took place against the backdrop of heightened police presence in Oromia. State forces encircled festivalgoers, eventually firing a mixture of tear gas and bullets into the crowd after attendees began reciting chants associated with the #OromoProtests movement that has grown in the region in the last year. Some reportsestimate up to 678 people were killed between authorities’ violence and the resultant stampede.
When reports first emerged that the festival had turned violent, Aman stayed up all night trying to call her brother. She reached him in the morning, relieved to hear he was shaken but safe.
The festival’s deadly turn was coveredwidely in international press, despite the Ethiopian government’s control of state-run media in the country. Questions about Ethiopia’s future as beacon of the once-promising “Africa rising” narrative surfaced again in the West, pointing not only to the massacre but also to the simple gesture that put enough attention on Ethiopia for its people’s suffering to even matter outside the continent.
Immediately after the bloodshed at Irreecha, the government declared a three-day period of mourning. One week later, it announced a six-month “state of emergency,” under which the army was deployed nationwide and access to social media and mobile internet indefinitely suspended. In three weeks, over 2,000 people were detained for participating in anti-government protests, which government officials blamed on “foreign anti-peace forces” from neighboring Eritrea and Egypt.
“They laid their actions bare,” Lilesa said of the state of emergency. “But there’s nothing new here.”
A celebration of Irreecha held in Maryland the morning after the bloodshed in Ethiopia. Hannah Giorgis / BuzzFeed News
Even amid the uncertainty of the government’s state of emergency, Lilesa remains a beacon of hope for runners like Tsega, Amensisa, and Aman — and for Oromo people around the world.
In the time between Lilesa’s protest and his arrival in the US, two more Ethiopian runners had repeated the gesture as they crossed finish lines around the world. On August 29, Ebisa Ejigu won the Quebec City Marathon and followed in Lilesa’s footsteps. On September 11 — Ethiopian New Year — Tamiru Demisse did the same as he claimed the silver medal in the men’s 1,500-meter T-13 race at the Paralympics in Rio.
Even those who have not protested themselves see Lilesa’s actions as a path forward, an opportunity to rally around one another especially as Ethiopia’s government continues its crackdown. It’s an act they see as fundamentally patriotic: If he didn’t love his country, he wouldn’t want it to be better.
For Tsega, Lilesa’s action and the ensuing media attention was a matter of life and death: “I know sports and politics don’t always go together, but when situations are this urgent, it’s something you have to do even if it kills you. Leaving his children, wife, and all his possessions behind, he… I don’t even have the words. He did all that for his country, for his people.”
“I know it was hard to say that,” Amensisa added. “But after Feyisa did it, he opened up a new path for us.”
All of them are hopeful for the potential of Lilesa’s spotlight on the issue to attract more international intervention in the area — especially from the US, long a military ally of Ethiopia. In the weekend following his arrival in the US alone, there were over 60 news stories on Lilesa and the Oromo protests.
Many of them called for the US government to halt aid to Ethiopia until the totalitarian nature of security measures in the country are addressed. Some of the sanctions being sought by the community are reflected in Congressman Smith’s House Resolution 861 and the identical 21-cosponsor Senate resolution introduced in April.
But Lilesa’s impact reverberates far beyond runners’ circles, community events, and the dense Ethiopian population of the DC metro area. As conversations about athletes’ political voices continue to gain steam following Kaepernick’s silent protest of the American national anthem, Lilesa remains a lightning rod for a community divided by both politics and geography.
On Twitter, the hashtag bearing his name is most often used to share updates on news regarding the community at large. Facebook and Viber — when not being axed by the government — remain digital organizing hubs. And on Snapchat, a massively popular channel for Ethiopian and Eritrean youth held a discussion about Oromo politics earlier this month while one of its hosts wore a shirt printed with Lilesa’s name and face.
“How could I feel the same comfort I did before? How could I feel happiness?”
“BunaTime” (taken from the Amharic word for coffee) draws an average of 15,000 views per Snapchat story, and Ethiopian and Eritrean youth from around the diaspora take turns hosting it for several hours at a time. Its attendant Twitter and Instagram channels boast almost 10,000 and 37,000 followers respectively.
The Oromo-led Snapchat teach-in drew both excitement and ire from young viewers. But hosts were clear: Lilesa, and the #OromoProtests, are the future — not just for the Oromo community, but for all of Ethiopia.
And Lilesa is committed to keeping his career going, despite the complications. He has been training in Arizona since last month. The choice to head west was made partly because of the state’s altitude, and partly, Gemechu joked, because “he don’t like snow.” Lilesa had briefly considered Kenya as another training location, but fears that the Kenyan government’s close relationship with Ethiopia’s would lead to his extradition kept him from pursuing that option. He would’ve been closer to his family, but recent developments in Ethiopia reinforce his decision to stay away from the region.
“The crisis puts [runners] in a position where we can’t focus on our training,” he said. “If this continues without any change, Ethiopia may not win as many medals as it used to.”
Lilesa won’t be running in the New York City Marathon in November, but he has plans to run in both December’s Honololu Marathon and next April’s race in London. The return to the sport he loves has left him energized, but tensions flaring up back home — and his own distance — continue to sap him of energy.
“I left my country and I live in a strange country,” he said when we spoke recently. “How could I feel the same comfort I did before? How could I feel happiness?”
Lilesa photographed on September 13, 2016. T.J. Kirkpatrick for BuzzFeed News
Both his own future and that of his country feel tenuous at the moment, a heavy sense of both revolutionary excitement and dread hanging over both. Lilesa speaks to his wife and children regularly, but hasn’t seen any of them since August 17. “I don’t feel weight on myself since I did what I did, because I believed in it,” he said. “But I do worry about my family back home.”
He was careful and exacting when speaking of his 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son in hushed tones: “I don’t want to look at my children any differently from others in my country who are being killed,” Lilesa said. “They face the same fate and the same destiny like all other children in Ethiopia.”
He knows he cannot return to them until the political situation changes, but hopes now that he will one day be able to see them in the US if it doesn’t. The decision to live here for now — even and especially in exile — weighs on him, a sense of guilt pervading his words as he responds to the fact that Oromos around the world now consider him a hero.
“The one who leaves isn’t a hero,” he said recently. “Heroes are the ones who go and fight alongside the people.”
On August 21st, in Brazil, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa was awarded the silver medal for the Men’s Marathon in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Although this was perhaps one of the greatest sporting achievements of his life, this day will forever be remembered for the political protest he made just before the finish line. While in the global spotlight, Lilesa raised his hands above his head in an ‘X’ formation to stand in solidarity with the Oromo people of Ethiopia, who have suffered a crackdown at the hands of the Ethiopian government.
Lilesa is one of the thousands fighting for the rights of the Oromo people. In August 2016, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, called on Ethiopia to allow UN international observers to investigate the excessive use of force by the government’s security forces against peaceful protesters in the Oromo and Amhara regions of the country. There is a strong need for organized international pressure on the Ethiopian government. A credible and independent investigation into this country’s Human Rights offences is long overdue. This will be a huge and very welcome step for the people and the country as a whole.
Human rights abuses have been prevalent throughout Ethiopia’s history, but for the last nine months, protests have erupted in Oromiya, the homeland of Ethiopia’s largest but historically marginalized ethnic group, the Oromo, of which Feyisa Lilesa belongs. The protests are have now spread north, to a second region, the Amhara.
Although these protesters from Oromo and Amhara have different backgrounds, cultures, and complaints, they share a growing fear and frustration with the rule of a third, minority ethnic group — the Tigrayans. As NPR reported, the Tigrayan elite has a “cartel-like grip on the government, military and the fast-growing economy.” The Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) forcefully rose to power after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, there have been numerous human rights violations, with examples like the 2001 killing of forty Addis Ababa university students for simply demanding the academic freedom to publish a student newspaper, to the Killing of 200 Oromo in 2014, according to the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE).
Related: Learn more about the TPLF in Ethiopia here.
The right of peaceful assembly is protected in Ethiopian and International law. Ethiopia’s Constitution states “everyone shall have the freedom, in association with others, to peaceably assemble without arms, engage in public demonstration and the right to petition.” But, after Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 125 witnesses, victims, and government officials, a significant pattern of human rights violations during peaceful Oromo protests was revealed. Examples from late 2015 when the decision of authorities in Ginchi to clear a forest for an investment project triggered protests in at least 400 different locations across all the 17 zones in Oromia, until May 2016, and even into current times, prove there have been massive human rights violations. Numerous reports exposed that in many locations security forces have gone at night, arresting innocent and unsuspecting members of the community such as students and those accommodating students in their homes. Security forces also strategically target those seen as “influential members of the Oromo community, such as musicians, teachers, opposition members and others thought to have the ability to mobilize the community for further protests.” Even more shocking, is that many of those arrested and detained by the security forces were children of eighteen years and younger. Security forces have also been reported to open fire on, and kill peaceful protesters, as well as torture or beat many of the detained Oromo. Many of the females detained have reportedly been raped by security force personnel, while almost none of the detainees have had access to legal counsel, adequate food, or their family members.
An unnamed student said in an interview with HRW on January of 2016, said his friend “was shot in the stomach [at the protest], his intestines were coming out, he said, ‘Please brother, tie my [wound] with your clothes.’ I was scared, I froze and then tried to do that but I was grabbed and arrested by the federal police. Jamal died. They arrested me and took me to Bedeno police station.”
With ongoing events such as these, the people of Ethiopia have appeared to have reached their limit; the brutal force being used by the regime to deter an uprising is starting to backfire, creating new alliances between previously divided groups of Ethiopians such as the Oromo and the Amhara. The regime, struggling to find ways to retain domination, resorts to solutions like the exploitation of Ethiopian resources, land, and opportunities; but this too, is becoming a regime failure.
A press release from The Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE)notes, this is a regime, accustomed to using tools like manipulation to divide the people by ethnicity or other differences, furthering ethnic hatred, alienation and isolation, leaving a niche for the regime to squeeze into. It has allowed them to repeatedly commit fatal human rights atrocities against these groups with no fear of a united retaliation; but this is suddenly changing. These methods of turning selected ethnic groups against one another, is being scrutinized by Ethiopians; and previously rival groups are now unifying to challenge it. As SMNE said, “more killing, wounding and use of violence against unarmed civilians on the part of the regime’s security forces are strengthening, not weakening, the movement of the people,” but the movement is just beginning.
Ethiopia’s government has rejected the call for UN intervention and promised to launch its own investigation according to Al Jazeera. With the TPLF now facing a crack in the current power structure of the country, the government’s resistance to UN intervention was to be expected. The fearful reality is, however, that the TPLF, power hungry, and corrupt, will continue to use illegal force in an attempt to maintain control. But this lack of legal and transparent investigation of human rights violations in Ethiopia strongly implies that the Ethiopian government’s investigation of the ongoing human rights crisis will not be independent, impartial and transparent, and according to Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. “It is time to step up efforts for an international and independent investigation in Ethiopia.”
For years the government has worked to project a “forward thinking, democratic, and economically progressive image” of Ethiopia to outsiders, while on the inside, achieving the total opposite. For example, laws such as the Charities and Societies Proclamation law (CSO) which is meant to appear as an advocacy network, actually has criminalized human rights and other kinds of advocacy work in Ethiopia, making an equal and civil society impossible to maintain in Ethiopia. This makes the presence of an independent organization like the UN crucial for the protection of the Oromo people, who are practically inhibited from seeking protection themselves.
According to the Press Release from SMNE, “meaningful democratic reforms, restorative justice, and reconciliation for all the people of Ethiopia, including the current ruling party,” are the essential measures which need to be enacted if Ethiopia is to find peace and avoid total disaster. History shows that the government will not cooperate without pressure from key donor nations such as the the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, Norway, Sweden etc., as well as from major international human rights organizations, to provide leverage critical in obtaining substantial changes for the rights of the Oromo people and governmental structure of Ethiopia as a whole.
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Press Conference to announce the introduction of a House Resolution “Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia.” Oromo Olympic marathon runner who won silver in Rio, Feyisa Lelisa was invited to this event to make a remark and meet with U.S. Representatives.
Oromo Ethiopian diaspora community optimistic about human rights bill
Several dozen members of the Oromo Ethiopian diaspora community expressed support for recently introduced legislation aimed at curbing human rights abuses in that country during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Click here to read more.
Oromo athlete Tamiru Demisse (Center) shows solidarity in the world stage with #OromoProtests after the final of men’s 1500m of the Rio 2016 Paralympic.He is the silver medal winner at the event. Tamiru Demisse is 22 years old ( Born October 7, 1993).
Oromo Oromo athletes Tamiru Demisse (C), Megersa Tasisa (L) and sport journalist Adugna Angasu (R) who are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Paralympic 2016 show solidarity in a world stage to #OromoProtests, 11 September 2016.
Atleetiin Oromoo Damiseee Taammiruu ‘RioParalympic’ (Oloompikii qaama miidhamtootaa) irratti Fiigicha meetra 1500 irratti sadarkaa 2ffaan injifatee harka isaas waliin qaxxaamursee diddaa wayyaanee mul’isee injifannoo dachaa galmeessee jira.Kana kan raawwate Fulbaana 11 bara 2016 tti. Atleet Damiseen qaama miidhamaa yoo tahu ijji isaa takk0 hin agartu. Gootichi kun garuu addunyaa irratti saba isaa, saba Oromoof injifannoo guddaa fi boonsaa galmeesse jira . Wanti nama ajaa’ibu garuu atileetiin kun 1ffaa bahuu ni danda’a ture. Yoo sarara seenuuf xiqqo hafuuf mallattoo fincila xumura garbummaa Oromoo mul’isuuf jedhee hanga inni harka isaa ol qabu duubaa dhufanii bira dabranii saba isaaf jedhee 2ffaa bahuuf dirqame.
Itti dabaleesi Damisee Taammiruu yoo badhaasa fudhatuus alaabaan Itoophiyaa (wayyanee) akka ol hin baane dhoorkee yoo faaruun alaabaa Itoophiyaa faarfamtuus afaan qabatee jibba qabuuf mul’ise. Akkasumaas wayta baayyee harka isaa ol kaasuun mormii isaa irra deddeebi’ee mul’isaa ture. Atileetiin kun saba isaatiif jedhee wareegama qaalii injifannoo dachaa galmeesse. Innillee Itoophiyatti gale taanaan miidhaa hamaatu isa qunnama. Wayyaaneen aara Fayyisaa mara irratti dabalattee miiti. Kanaaf Oromoon addunyaarra jirtan akkuma inni daandii Fayyisaa Lalisaa baase irra deeme, nutiis daandii Fayyisaaf irra deemne irra haa deemnuuf. Isa waliin ‘RioParalympic’ irra kan turan Atleet magarsaa Taasisaa fi gazexeessaa Adunyaa Angaasuu isa waliin mallattoo fincila xumura garbummaa agarsiisaniiru.
News Week: Ethiopian Paralympian Tamiru Demisse showed solidarity with Oromia protesters—who have clashed with the country’s government—as he claimed a silver medal, following a protest gesture made by Olympic counterpart Feyisa Lilesa.
Demisse, who competed in the men’s 1,500-meter T13 race for visually impaired runners, claimed a silver medal in the race on Sunday at the Olympic Station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As he crossed the finish line, Demisse crossed his arms above his head.The gesture has become widely adopted among members of the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group. Oromo protesters have clashed with Ethiopian security forces in recent months, with Human Rights Watch claiming the unrest has seen more than 400 people killed.
The protest by Tamiru Demisse, the silver medalist in the men’s 1,500 m in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, comes after fellow Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa made headlines during the Olympics last month when he made a similar protest as he claimed silver in the men’s marathon.
The gesture — a sort of X above the head — is a symbol of defiance against the Ethiopian government’s crack-down on anti-government protests that started in the Oromo region in November last year.
Africa News: An Ethiopian Paralympic athlete, Tamiru Demisse, crossed his arms above his head after finishing second in the Men’s 1500m race in Rio. He did same during the medal ceremony.
Tamiru finished behind Algeria’s Abdellatif Baka who took gold in the event. His gesture follows that of fellow athlete Feyisa Lilesa who also won silver in a marathon during the Olympic Games. Kenya’s Henry Kirwa won the bronze medal.
Crossing arms is a sign of protest against Ethiopian government’s treatment of the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in the Horn of Africa. The protests were sparked after the government began extending the municipal boundary of the country’s capital, threatening parts of Oromia and the people’s land rights.
Beneficiaries of this fund are Oromo athletes Tamiru Demisse, Megersa Tasisa and sport journalist Adugna Angasu who are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Paralympic 2016. Mr. Demisse won a Silver Medal in the T13 1500 meter race and declared his support for pro-democracy movement in Ethiopia by raising his arms above his head X-style which is the symbol of #OromoProtests. Mr. Bayisa, an athlete, and Mr. Angasu, a sport journalist, from Ethiopia are also in Barzil for the Paralympic 2016. The three men fear persecution for supporting #OromoProtests if they go back to Ethiopia and are seeking political asylum. All fund raised will be used to support the beneficiaries. Please donate whatever amount you can. Thank you. Click here to go to the site
Feyisa Lilesa: the marathon runner’s gesture in Rio recalled the Black Power raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico in 1968.
On the final day of the Rio Olympics, as the Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finishing line in second place, he raised his arms above his head and crossed his wrists in an X.
The simple gesture was a highly political act, a sign of solidarity with the Oromo protests that have convulsed Ethiopia in recent months. The runner is from the Oromia region, where protests about land rights have mushroomed in to a larger civil-rights movement. This has prompted a ruthless government crackdown, leaving hundreds of unarmed protesters dead.
The crossed-wrists gesture has become a symbol of defiance.
As well as raising the international profile of the Oromo protests, the gesture has changed Lilesa’s life: he says he cannot safely return home, despite government assurances to the contrary, and has remained in Brazil as he seeks asylum elsewhere.
As well as raising the international profile of the Oromo protests, the gesture has changed Lilesa’s life: he says he cannot safely return home, despite government assurances to the contrary, and has remained in Brazil as he seeks asylum elsewhere.
Like Smith and Carlos before him, Lilesa has been criticised for “politicising” the games, which like to think of themselves as an apolitical sphere of human co-operation and goodwill. Indeed, the International Olympic Committee’s rule 50 imposes conditions on host nations prohibiting political signs and demonstrations.
After a number of peaceful protesters were ejected from arenas, a Brazilian judge ruled that the conditions were in violation of the Brazilian constitution. The organisers appealed the ruling.
Controlling which platforms can and cannot be used for political messages is a privilege of the powerful, of course. For Lilesa the moment he crossed the finishing line with the world watching is not merely the only platform he has but also by far the largest platform the Oromo people have.
Lilesa may have discomfited the IOC and put himself in danger, but in doing so he reclaimed part of that elusive Olympic spirit.
After crossing the finishing line in Rio Olympics, the Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his hands over his head. #DWMyPic takes a look at this symbol of anti-government protest in Ethiopia. DW Journalist Merga Yonas Bula says that silver medalist Feyisa has risked his life and family by making this gesture of solidarity with the Oromo Protests. Click here for more ‘My Picture of the Week – Symbol of protest in Rio’ at DW.
In the midst of celebrating one of the chief successes of his athletics career, a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Feyisa Lilesa symbolised the tremendous sufferance of his people, the Oromo by crossing his arms over his head in a gesture of protest. In the following days, his gesture has reverberated around the globe making headlines in many countries as one of the images of the 2016 Olympic Games. While the fate of Lilesa remains unknown as the outcome of the act of protest moves on, the gesture of solidarity has given reasons of hope to many and definitely helped raise awareness of the struggle of his people.
The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which for several years has been advocating for the Oromo and other ethnic groups oppressed by the Ethiopian regime, praises Mr Lelisa for his brave gesture and hopes that it will help convince the international community to take a bolder stand on the issue.
Following his gesture, the athlete might face problems if he goes back to Ethiopia, where the authorities have been violently repressing protests for months. The protests began several months ago as peaceful demonstrations regarding development plans, before the government’s harsh and ongoing response led to the death of several people. Many in Oromia now live in fear, and gestures like the one Lilesa made are essential symbols of resistance and solidarity.
During the protests, the government had blocked internet service and scrambled social media apps to stop people from collaborating or expressing dissent. She said Lilesa’s feat exemplifies how fearful a lot of the Ethiopian diaspora is to speak out on this subject.
Lilesa’s silent statement while crossing the finish line in Rio instantly reverberated worldwide. Rule 50 of the Olympic charter bans political displays or protests and the IOC have confirmed that they are gathering information to better understand the case. Ethiopia’s government has said he will be welcomed as a hero for winning a medal, but state media is not showing photos of him crossing the line. Ethiopian state-owned television station EBC Channel 3 covered the race live, including the finish, but did not repeat the clip in subsequent bulletins – focussing instead on the winner, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge.
Information Minister Getachew Reda told the BBC the government had no reason to arrest him and it respected his political opinion. He also said none of Mr Feyisa’s relatives had been jailed over the Oromo protests.
Lilesa’s agent Federico Rosa stated that the runner would not be returning home after staging his protest, despite Ethiopian government assurances he would not face any problems if he went back.
A crowd-funding campaign to help Feyisa Lilesa seek asylum, has raised more than $136,000 (as of time written), to the surprise of its California-based organizer, who had initially set a target of $10,000, exceeding it within an hour.
“Among his compatriots, including those in the diaspora, Lilesa’s protest was welcomed with tears of joy,” said Mohammed Ademo, the founder and editor of OPride.com, a website that aggregates Oromo news. “A hero was born out of relative obscurity. […] I have no doubt that it will be remembered as a watershed moment in the history of Oromo people.”
Ethnic Oromo athletes have often been erased from Ethiopian lore, yet they were the first black Africans to win Olympic gold, Ademo said. Abebe Bikila did so in the 1960s while running barefoot and Derartu Tulu followed in the 1992 and 2000 Olympics. Yet, behind the scenes, these same athletes faced implicit and explicit biases. For example few Oromo athletes spoke Amharic, the language of power in Ethiopia, but Oromo translators rarely accompanied them.
“In the context of this long and tortuous history, Lilesa’s protest was revolutionary. Beyond the politics within the Ethiopian Olympics federation, his gesture brought much-needed attention to escalating human rights abuses in Ethiopia,” Ademo said.
You may find below a list to some of the news sources that covered the story:
Ethiopia’s Oromo people are systematically targeted and oppressed by its ruling regime. The athlete’s crossed arms protest shouldn’t be ignored
When the Ethiopian Olympic marathon medallist Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms at the finish line, the world asked what the symbol stood for. Little is known about the historical marginalisation and collective persecution of Lilesa’s people, the Oromo of north-east Africa.
Almost all Ethiopian runners come from the Oromia region; but the Ethiopian athletics federation is highly scornful of their Oromo identity. Perhaps the federation’s imperious attitude towards the athletes emanates from its paranoia and mistrust of the people, and fear that one day Oromo athletes might open Ethiopia’s Pandora’s box and spill the beans at an international sports event. Exactly what Lilesa did in Rio – and now he has not returned to Ethiopia.
At risk to his life, and at the sacrifice of his career, Lilesa was determined to express at the Olympics the collective grievances and institutional discrimination his people suffer in the Oromia region. The courageous crossing of his arms is a gesture of solidarity with the Oromo protest symbol that has been used over the last nine months in defiance of the ruling regime. In a short interview, Lelisa told what many believe is the story of the Oromo: the killings, the maimings, arbitrary detentions, profiling, enforced disappearances and economic injustices perpetrated by the Ethiopian government against the Oromo nation.
The current social and political crisis in Ethiopia was triggered by theAddis Ababa “master plan”, which was perceived by protesters as an attempt to remove the Oromo from the capital city. Even though it later dropped plans for this land grab, the regime claimed that its intention was to develop the city’s business district by further moving into the Oromo territories and neighbouring districts. No prior consultation, discussion or deliberation was had with the Oromo people, the ancestral owners of the land. Some saw this as being part of a grand scheme to ensure the long-term hegemony of the regime’s favoured ethnic group over the rest of the country. The Tigray, the regime’s dominant group, make up only 6% of the country’s population.
As Lilesa’s protest drew national attention, the situation in Ethiopia appeared to be deteriorating and having a serious impact on internal stability. It also cast a shadow of political uncertainty over the country.
Contemporary experiences teach us that economic and political inequality increases the risk of internal strife. When one ethnic group captures political power and excludes its perceived rivals, ethno-nationalist conflict is likely to increase, potentially descending into civil war. A heterogeneous society such as Ethiopia, where disparities in wealth overlap with ethnic grievances, is a good case study.
The scale of the Oromo protest over the last nine months has exposed Ethiopia’s ethnic-coded wealth distribution. According to Oxford University’s 2014Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), Ethiopia is the second poorest country in the world with about 58% living in acute destitution. Not all Ethiopians have benefited equally from the country’s economic growth.
The Oromia region, the nation’s agricultural breadbasket, is also the nation’s second poorest region in the federation. According to the 2014 MPI, about 90% of Oromo live in severe poverty and destitution, more than 80% of Oromo households do not have access to electricity or sanitation and more than 75% of Oromo do not have access to potable drinking water. Similarly, the UNDP’s 2014Human Development Index (HDI) placed Oromia well below the national average. Development in Ethiopia is not inclusive, not shared; many rural Ethiopians – the majority Oromo – remain in severe poverty. Oromo people are the most affected by the current drought and by the government’s response to it.
Economic inequality is echoed in the political realm. Amnesty International’s 2014 report, Because I am Oromo, chronicles targeting based on ethnic identity. Long before that, in June 2007, the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination had highlighted how Ethiopian military and police forces systematically targeted certain ethnic groups, in particular the Anuak and the Oromo peoples, and reported the summary executions, rape of women and girls, arbitrary detention, torture, humiliations and destruction of property and crops of members of those communities.
It is this marginalisation in the Oromia and Amhara regions that has forced the younger generation to protest in the streets, but the government response has been bloody. International human rights organisations report more than 500 lives were lost, but activists believe this figure could be more than 700. An estimated 20,000 or more people have been imprisoned, tens of thousands wounded and disappeared; many more rendered landless, homeless and jobless.
Now, with rallies taking place and with funerals in several corners of Oromia and Amhara lands, the conflict is likely to escalate and the country’s public security and stability to deteriorate. As reports continue to emerge, after several days of internet and social media blackout in the country, there is a growing fear that the regime has, knowingly or not, helped foment inter-ethnic conflict, pitting the Tigray against the Oromo and Amhara peoples. In fact, given the differences among ethnic groups, this could quickly descend into a large-scale conflict.
If there is any lesson the world can learn from Rwanda’s genocide, it is the pressing need to act as swiftly as possible to avoid this kind of worst-case scenario. Lilesa’s gesture is a request to the citizens of the world to stand with the Oromo in their quest for political and economic survival against the unjust face of Ethiopia. It is also a call for the western powers to re-evaluate their foreign policy towards Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in the interests of real security, dignity, stability, peace and development for all the people – not a select few.
Fayyisaa Lalisaa (Feyisa Lilesa), an athlete from Oromia/ Ethiopia, caught the world’s attention Sunday 21 August 2016 when, at the finish line of the Olympic marathon, he raised his arms in solidarity with the Oromo people in his country. This is NY Times Video:-
Oromia: Athletic Nation Report: #Rio2016 Olympic Marathon: Oromo athlete Fayyisaa Lalisaa has demonstrated his Solidarity to #OromoProtests as he wins silver medal. Oromian Economist August 21, 2016
Oromia: Athletic nation Report: Short poem (Rio) about Oromo Olympian Fayyisaa Lalisaa, the world icon of #OromoProtests (the call for social justice). Oromian Economist August 23, 2016
Why Lilesa’s simple act of making an “X” with his arms after winning an Olympic medal was a watershed moment for so many Ethiopian people.
After nabbing a silver medal in Olympic marathon, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa hoisted his arms inches above his head in the form of an “X.”
With a seemingly innocuous gesture, the 150-pound black man was actually displaying a symbol of solidarity with the Oromo people of Ethiopia, who have protested the government’s reallocation of their land. At least 400 local protesters were killed by Ethiopian security forces over the last year, according to Human Rights Watch. The “X” symbol that Lilesa showed came into widespread use in Ethiopia four and half years ago by protesters as a mark of unarmed, civil resistance.
Following his demonstration, which he repeated on the medal stand, Lilesa toldreporters in Rio De Janeiro, “If I go back to Ethiopia, the government will kill me.” That’s the cost of protesting a government in Ethiopia that controls its media and stifles those who speak out against its will.
After Lilesa’s protest, James Peterson, the Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University spoke to many Ethiopians in America who felt galvanized by the gesture despite the ongoing human rights violations in their homeland.
“There are a lot of complicated things folks don’t understand about continental African politics,” Peterson said. “Addis (Ababa) as a city is sort of engaged in this moment of neoliberal straw. The city is trying to expand at the expense of these rural and suburban settlements that have been in place for like thousands of years. For an Ethiopian athlete, on the largest stage of any Ethiopian of the world right now at the Olympics, to be in solidarity with them, I don’t think it’s too much to say this is the equivalent of some of the most courageous, solidarity protests that we’ve seen in athletics.”
Olympians have long used the games as a stage to draw attention to national causes.Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics during an American wave of Civil Rights. After Simone Manuel’s historic gold medal, she also spoke out about police brutality and black lives in America.
Such acts have caused the International Olympic Committee executive board to ban political or religious demonstrations in multiple ways in their Olympic Charter Rule 50and can result in the “disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned.”
Yet for Lilesa’s protest, his defiance of the Ethiopian government didn’t open up a new wave of Oromo activism. But it did demonstrate their current struggle for the world’s purview.
“Ethiopia has been praised as a poster child for peace and stability in the last 25 years. Western governments that continued financing this government, including the U.S. Government, have turned their eyes away,” Tsedale Lemma, the editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard, a monthly magazine focusing on Ethiopian current affairs from the country’s capital Addis Ababa, told SB Nation.
“To be able to tell this to the world, where everyone can see, on this stage was monumental,” she said. “It was telling the world to its face that this country, this poster child of peace, isn’t that way. It’s killing its own people. When everyone kept silent in the wake of this excessive killing, this young man (protested) at the great cost that he might not be able to come back to his country afterwards.”
Lemma’s magazine shares the same views as Lilesa. In January, it published a widely shared cover. Employees were intimidated and threatened, and the publication’s subscription numbers in Ethiopia have drastically declined for questioning the government.
Since the Ethiopian government announced plans in 2014 to expand the territory of the capital Addis Ababa, the country has been racked with protests resulting in hundreds of deaths at the hands of the government. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn wanted to further Addis Ababa’s territory into Oromia, where Lilesa lives.
Doing so would displace many of the Oromo people in Ethiopia who work on farmlands. It’s similar to American eminent domain, the right of the government or its agents to expropriate private property for public use. Oromo people are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for nearly 40 percent of its population, according to a 2007 census.
Historically, the Oromo people have been marginalized by the government. Protests started in November; and though the government has dropped proposals to widen the capital in January, protests have continued, though, with citizens corralling for wider freedoms.
Local residents and Oromos between the United States and Ethiopia have claimed that thousands have also been jailed. Many incidents happened where the Oromo have gone to the streets and they almost always end in violence. They are killed. They are exiled or tried for treason. At best, the protestors just disappear from sight.
Within Ethiopia, Oromos mostly expressed their support for Lilesa on social media, Lemma said. Current government mandates do not tolerate people flooding the streets for celebration, particularly not for a man that flashed a symbol that is the nightmare for a regime in front of billions of people.
State-run media only showed a censored version of the marathon Lilesa won, and completely blocked his protest at the games. Some have refused to mention his name at all. But in the United States, where Ethiopians are the fifth–largest source of black immigrants, their ebullience was overflowing.
“Among his compatriots, including those in the diaspora, Lilesa’s protest was welcomed with tears of joy,” said Mohammed Ademo, the founder and editor of OPride.com that aggregates Oromo news. “A hero was born out of relative obscurity. A GoFundMe account was set up within hours. I have no doubt that it will be remembered as a watershed moment in the history of Oromo people.
“Kids will be named after him. Revolutionary songs and poems will be written in his honor. For a people who have been silenced for so long this is likely to embolden and generate more momentum for the budding movement in Ethiopia.”
The overwhelming thought is that the plight of the Oromo people, and Lilesa’s protest shedding light on it, are not what Ethiopia wants the world to know. It is an extremely censored country, where most newspapers and other outlets are either controlled or affiliated with the government.
One woman, who asked for anonymity to speak to SB Nation because she feared the consequences of speaking out against the Ethiopian regime for her and her family, said that when she last visited Ethiopia around the start of the protests, the government had blocked internet service and scrambled social media apps to stop people from collaborating by using them, a form of silencing dissent.
She said Lilesa’s feat exemplifies how fearful a lot of the Ethiopian diaspora is to speak out on this subject.
“(Lilesa) acknowledged the significance of this dialogue and that he may never walk the land he’s from or see his family again,” she said. “It was meaningful and it’s going to spur the type of international engagement that is necessary to challenge the Ethiopian government to recognize their faults and consider what a just government looks like.”
American media still largely ignores the African continent and most news organizations have dramatically cut their African bureaus or rely on one person to cover the entire continent. There’s more coverage generally on terrorism with direct implications for American national security, Ademo said.
There also hasn’t been much coverage of the Oromo protests. One reason is because Oromia has largely been off-limits to journalists since the protests began, and those who go to Ethiopia often face insurmountable hurdles for access, Ademo said.
Even Lilesa’s dominance as a marathoner is unique for Ethiopia. Ethnic Oromo athletes of all genders have often been erased from Ethiopian lore, yet they are the first black Africans to win Olympic gold, Ademo said. Abebe Bikila did so in the 1960s while running barefoot and Derartu Tulu followed in the 1992 and 2000 Olympics. Yet behind the scenes these same athletes faced implicit and explicit biases.
Few Oromo athletes spoke Amharic, a language of power in Ethiopia, and they were never sent with Oromo translators. They often had to operate by the doctrine of the country’s current rulers and the official Olympics body to compete, Ademo said.
Within Ethiopia, those who protest see these same issues at the micro level. Lemma described a phrase many have used to explain the discrimination and marginalization the Oromo face. Oromo have said “the prisons in Ethiopia speak Afaan Oromo,” the native language of the Oromo, which shows the disproportionate rate at which Oromo are jailed in Ethiopia.
Video this month, obtained by the Associated Press, showed Ethiopian security forces beating, kicking and dragging protestors during a demonstration in the capital as they cowered and fell to the ground.
This same fight to upend oppression in Ethiopia is one being done by current American black protestors at the height of a renewed wave of activism. Lilesa’s protest spoke to some on a bigger level. Because just like black lives, African lives also have value.
“Not even in just this particular incident, but the dominance of black athletes on the global stage is in a sense of protest, especially when you have representatives of countries under such oppression as Ethiopia and the black America,” said Kwame Rose, an activist from Baltimore most known for his stand-off with Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera after Freddie Grey’s death.
“What he did would get a lot of people killed in Ethiopia and could’ve gotten his medal stripped,” Rose continued. “This was the time to send a message, not only about competing as an athlete, but surviving as a human and trying to better humanity.”
The reality is that what Lilesa did might not change anything for the Oromo people, but his demonstration had much more validity than to be limited to just that notion.
Ademo said it provided a crucial show of inspiration for people being disproportionately jailed, that are unheard and have yearned for a change in their government.
“In the context of this long and tortuous history, Lilesa’s protest was revolutionary. Beyond the politics within the Ethiopian Olympics federation, his gesture brought much-needed attention to escalating human rights abuses in Ethiopia,” Ademo said.
Lilesa’s act was a moment to show the shackles of systemic oppression binding the Oromo people. He took their fight to the international stage.