A marathon struggle

Spotlight : Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa, the Olympic silver medallist, is battling to highlight the issues in his country

A marathon struggle

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 one-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 October 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.”

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 OK. 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.

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.

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.

He now has a voice as strong as his legs. Lilesa has met with US 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. 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?”


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