Feyisa Lilesa Speaks Out Against Oppressive Ethiopian Regime

Feyisa Lilesa Speaks Out Against Oppressive Ethiopian Regime

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Feyisa Lilesa, an Ethiopian of the Oromo people, won silver in the Men’s Marathon with a time of 2:09:54, just over a minute short of gold.

As Lilesa crossed the finish line, he raised his arms above his head and crossed them at the wrists to form an X. This seemingly small gesture is meant to invoke a handcuffed man and symbolizes non-violent resistance. For this act of defiance, Lilesa may never see his wife or son again.

Ethiopia is ruled by an authoritative regime. The Oromo ethnic group represents 40% of the population, but Oromos have been marginalized and shunned from the government. In November of 2015, the government intensified security measures against Oromo protesters who were angered by the government’s selling of their land to investors. In the protests hundreds lost their lives and thousands were injured.

Lilesa explained why he risked so much through this non-verbal statement: “The Ethiopian government is killing, imprisoning and oppressing its own people. The situation in Oromia, Amhara and Gambella region is deeply concerning at the moment…I’m an Oromo, I grew up in Oromia, so I understand the suffering of my people very well. So far the government has opened fire on peaceful protesters who are asking for their rights and more than 1,000 people have been killed. Others have been forced into exile and been slaughtered in the deserts of Libya. Many more have become food for fish in the Mediterranean sea.”

When he crossed the finish line the only Ethiopian television station carrying the race cut out, denying his fans the chance to revel in their hero’s accomplishment. Lilesa faces certainty of arrest if he returns home.  He stays committed to his cause despite the fact that he may not see his family in the near future. As he remarked, Lilesa believes,  “[His children] face the same fate and destiny as all other children in Ethiopia.” Lilesa expresses immense concern for his family, and goes on to explain his predicament “what I’m thinking about today is not so much bringing them here [to the U.S.], but [how] change will come to Ethiopia so I can go home to my family.”Lilesa follows in a long tradition of athletes speaking out in the face of injustice. He believes that the venue of a sporting event has the potential to transcend mere competition, “I’m an athlete… [and being such] has allowed me to be the voice of my people.” Lilesa hopes to inspire in the same way that Jackie Robinson did when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and just as Muhammad Ali did when he objected to fighting in the Vietnam War.

Lilesa follows in a long tradition of athletes speaking out in the face of injustice. He believes that the venue of a sporting event has the potential to transcend mere competition, “I’m an athlete… [and being such] has allowed me to be the voice of my people.” Lilesa hopes to inspire in the same way that Jackie Robinson did when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and just as Muhammad Ali did when he objected to fighting in the Vietnam War.



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