Feyisa Lilesa has not returned home to Ethiopia since his finish-line protest at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics made global headlines but also made him an exile.
Lilesa, silver medalist in the Olympic marathon, does not know when it will be safe for him to return to his native country, where he said the government’s brutal repression of his Oromo people has grown more acute since August, when he crossed his arms above his head as he strode across the finish line. After the race, he said he made the gesture to publicize the plight of the Oromo but knew that it would put his life in danger.
Six months later, Lilesa was reunited with his family in Miami. His wife, two children and brother flew in from Addis Ababa on Wednesday, and Lilesa joined them from Flagstaff, Arizona, where he has been living and training.
“My one greatest worry is lifted now that my family is beside me, but I still don’t sleep,” Lelisa said. “The suffering of my people has gotten twice as bad. I have relatives in jail. Friends have been tortured and killed.”
My one greatest worry is lifted now that my family is beside me, but I still don’t sleep. The suffering of my people has gotten twice as bad.
Feyisa Lilesa, Olympic marathoner
When Lilesa left for Brazil, his wife did not know of his plan to make a public protest. When she heard his statement — “If they do not kill me, they will put me in prison” — she realized he would be at risk if he came back.
“It’s been very difficult to be alone with the children,” Iftu Mulisa said as daughter Soko, 6, and son Sora, 3, played in a Miami Beach swimming pool with Lilesa’s brother Aduna. It was their first trip outside Ethiopia. “But I know he had to do it. He had to tell the world what is happening. He wants to help our people.”
They will accompany Lilesa back to Flagstaff. They have temporary visas and he has a special skills visa. Since his arrival in the United States, he has finished fourth in the Honolulu Marathon and second in the Houston Half Marathon. Lilesa, 27, who has a personal best of 2:05:23, is racing in April’s London Marathon.
“I cannot go home as long as the current government is in power,” he said. “But change is inevitable, and when change comes to Ethiopia I will go home.”
Almost half of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million is Oromian, but the country’s largest ethnic group has been subject to discrimination for decades under three successive governments.
People of the Oromo region, which encircles Addis Ababa, have sought political reform since the government announced a capital expansion plan that would have caused evictions and seizure of farmland.
Almost half of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million is Oromian but the country’s largest ethnic group has been subject to discrimination for decades.
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have issued reports documenting how hundreds of Oromians have been slain and thousands arrested, tortured or beaten by security forces during crackdowns on protests. On Oct. 2, as many as 500 people were killed in a stampede triggered by police who unleashed tear gas and gunshots to disperse a demonstration at a holiday festival in Bishoftu.
Ethiopian leaders have said Lilesa would not be persecuted.
“They say I can return to a warm welcome, but you can never trust this government,” said Lilesa, son of a farmer, who recalled the unity of his community in times of drought and hunger. “To those in power I am a traitor and a terrorist. To the masses, I am a hero.”
Lilesa is thankful for the support he’s received, including a fundraising campaign on his behalf. He’s encouraging the U.S. and other foreign governments to re-evaluate their aid agreements with Ethiopia.
“Even though I feel stranded, I don’t regret what I did,” he said. “In fact, I feel it was not enough. Despite my refuge here, my mind is not at ease. I want to shed light on injustice and give a voice to the oppressed.”