Marathoner Feyisa Lilesa packed his bags and left his wife and two children last month, with plans to post a blazing fast time at the Summer Olympics, earn a spot on the medal podium, bring attention to the plight of his people — and most likely never be able to return home.
“It was very hard to say good-bye,” said the Ethiopian long-distance runner, “but I also knew that it’s not harder than what people are going through in my country.”
Lilesa indeed won silver at the Rio de Janeiro Games and made international headlines when he approached the finish line with his wrists crossed, flashing an “X” symbol that the world soon learned was a bold protest against the treatment of his people by Ethiopian government. He has lived in limbo since, convinced that if he returned to Ethiopia he would be imprisoned or possibly killed.
After nearly three weeks of uncertainty, living covertly in a Rio hotel room, the 26-year-old finally left Brazil and arrived in Washington last week, a temporary stop en route to a new life, one in which he’s indefinitely separated from his family, constantly worried for their safety and thrust onto a global stage as a visible lightning rod for political dissent back in his native country.
“I think what I did is good so far because the government has shut off the people’s voices and no one knows about the fight,” Lilesa said Monday in an interview with The Washington Post through an interpreter. “It’s almost as if I opened the shutters and now people can know, people can hear.”
Lilesa is part of the Oromo tribe, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. By most estimates, Oromos make up about 40 percent of the population, but few hold positions of power. In recent months, human rights organizations say Oromos have had their land seized and faced imprisonment, and more than 500 of them have been killed.
Against that backdrop, Lilesa trained for the Rio Games, regularly hearing about friends or family members who had been swept up, imprisoned and beaten but never charged with crimes. He was an accomplished — and relatively well-off — runner who was distracted.
“My legs were running, but my mind was also racing,” he said. 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 his visitors before allowing anyone inside.
For months he fantasized about using the Olympics as a platform.
“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 Monday. “At the same time, the situation in Ethiopia was getting worse and worse, which only made my decision easier.
“I made up my mind that I needed to do this, that it was the right thing to do.”
Lilesa’s gesture of protest elicited audible gasps from those in Ethiopia who watched the live broadcast on state television. Subsequent airings featured Lilesa as a footnote of sorts, and the “X” gesture was never played. Just a few independent newspapers in the country mentioned his protest, and Ethiopians flocked online for their news coverage. Many supporters used photos of Lilesa’s face and crossed arms as their Facebook profile picture.
At a post-race news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Lilesa explained his action and the exact risks it carried. “If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” he told reporters that day. “If not kill me, they will put me in prison.”
Following his race, fear chased him back to the Olympic Village, where the athletes were housed. Not trusting the Ethiopian Olympic officials in his traveling party, he immediately gathered his belongings and snuck off to a hotel.
Lilesa was initially alone, comforted by social media and thousands of well-wishers. “For me, it was a realization that it was just not me that was carrying that weight on my back,” he explained, “that a lot of people were going through the same thing, the same pain.”
But he said he was still scared to leave his room. Even worse: He had no idea what threats his family faced back home.
“Even at the beginning, I never really had any fear or worries about myself,” Lilesa said. “My fear and concern was always for my family.
“They were very sad because they didn’t want to lose me; they didn’t want to be separated. ‘How do you leave us behind? Why didn’t you consult with us?’ [My wife] was sad and emotional, but she understands why I have to do this because she understands the problems in the country.”
One day after the Olympics concluded, a government spokesman spoke publicly for the first time, promising Lilesa a hero’s welcome and ensuring him that he “will not face any problems for his political stance.”
“I don’t believe any of it,” Lilesa said Monday.
He pointed out that the day of his race, a local state-run television station called him a “terrorist messenger.”
“So which one should I believe? The government saying I’m a messenger for terrorists? Or the government saying I’m a hero?” he said. “How do I believe these people?”
Lilesa said his family in Ethiopia had not received any threats or intimidation. He remains in regular contact with them, but they’re careful about what they say, for fear that authorities are monitoring their communication.
In Rio de Janeiro, it wasn’t long before the large network of Oromo sympathizers began helping and started to work on Lilesa’s visa application. In the meantime, he said, he was cautious when he left his hotel. Occasionally, Brazilians would spot him on the street and recognize his face. They spoke a different language, but they still flashed the familiar “X” symbol with their arms.
Lilesa was granted a temporary visa to the United States for “individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement.” He expects to be in Washington only temporarily and wants to explore a more permanent training base at a high-altitude destination, likely in the Southwest.
“I have not had the time to explore fully the options that maybe [are] available to me, since my visa was approved only a few days ago,” he said. “I love my people and my country. I don’t want to live in exile. I hope to go home soon once change comes to Ethiopia.”
A crowd-funding campaign initially sought to raise $10,000 last month. It reached that goal in an hour and in three weeks has raised nearly $162,000. Lilesa hasn’t needed to access that money yet, he said.
Already he feels his gesture has made a difference, sparking conversations from Addis Ababa to Washington, where elected officials have debated Congressional action. At the Paralympics last weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Ethiopian runner Tamiru Demisse won silver in a 1,500-meter race for the visually impaired and similarly formed the “X” symbol as he crossed the finish line and again on the medal stand.
For now, with his future uncertain, Lilesa will run. He’ll run to raise awareness and run to shine a light on the Oromo people. He’ll continue to run representing a country he loves, even if he feels he can’t safely return there anytime soon.
“I am not conflicted at all,” Lilesa said. “My protest is against the government. I don’t have any problem with the people of Ethiopia. I represent the people, not the government.”