Almost two years after his protest of oppression in his home country led him to go into exile, Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa has been hailed as a hero and invited to return home in safety.
In the wake of the election of reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed, Lilesa, who crossed his forearms over his head after winning a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has been extended the invitation by the country’s Olympic committee and the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. Lilesa, a member of the Oromo ethnic group that rebelled against the previous government in 2015, has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since 2016 and was joined by his family the following year. The Oromo protested a crackdown by former Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn that included imprisonment of dissidents and disregard for human rights.
“My legs were running, but my mind was also racing,” Lilesa told The Post’s Rick Maese in September 2016. On his training runs, he said, he feared authorities would leap from the bushes and attack. He said when someone knocked on his door, he raced to the roof to check on the visitors before allowing anyone inside. The Olympics offered a platform to raise awareness of what was going on even as he, his wife and his children left for Rio knowing they wouldn’t be returning home. “I debated for a long time, deciding if I take this stand and leave my family behind, what would I do about them?” he recalled. “At the same time, the situation in Ethiopia was getting worse and worse, which only made my decision easier.
Desalegn resigned in February and Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo, has initiated reforms since taking office in April.
“We want Feyisa to return home and continue to register great results,” Olympic committee chief Ashebir Woldegiorgis and Haile Gebrselassie, head of the athletics federation, wrote in an open letter. Getachew Reda, Ethiopia’s communications minister, told CNN that Lilesa is “an Ethiopian hero” who “shouldn’t at all be worried” to return.
The marathoner wrote in The Post in September 2016 that “I’m a runner, not a scholar or politician. But I know that all people yearn for fairness and justice. I will continue to race and pursue my career, and I will speak out until the Oromo and others in Ethiopia find justice.”
Lilesa came to the United States on a special skills visa.
“As I was preparing for Olympic competition, my thoughts were always preoccupied with the suffering of my people,” he wrote. “The Oromo are Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group. The Ethiopian coffee that Americans drink comes mostly from my region. We are also well known for our long-distance runners. Peaceful protests against the government started in November when the government was forcing Oromo farmers off their land and selling it to foreign investors. Since then, human rights reports say more than 500 people have been gunned down by the security forces, but I believe at least twice as many have been killed. This includes at least 12 people that I know from my home district of Jaldu in Oromia. Tens of thousands have been arrested. Families do not know what happened to their sons and daughters after they were taken by the army and police.”
His protest during the Olympics was designed to raise awareness, he wrote, with communication from Ethiopia suppressed under Desalegn.
“This is sign of peaceful protest used by my people, the Oromo, for the past 10 months,” he wrote. “I did it to raise awareness; hundreds of my fellow Ethiopians have been killed by security forces only because they peacefully protested against injustice. I knew there were millions of people watching the Olympics, and I wanted the world to see me. I want to tell the world what is happening in Ethiopia — in Oromia, Amhara, Ogaden, Gambella and elsewhere.”
Read more from The Post: