Lilesa yearns for peace, fears bloodletting in Ethiopia

Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa (silver) crosses the finish line of the Men's Marathon athletics event at ...
Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa (silver) crosses the finish line of the Men's Marathon athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro on August 21, 2016. Lilesa crossed his arms above his head as he finished the race as a protest against the Ethiopian government's crackdown on political dissent. OLIVIER MORIN / AFP


Ethiopia faces potential tragedy — even ethnic bloodletting — if the international community looks away from repression there, runner Feyisa Lilesa warned.

“We all yearn for peace, but the government continues its attacks. I fear that if the killing does not stop, people could abandon nonviolence in self-defense,” Lilesa said in an op-ed in The Washington Post.

The marathon man made headlines during the Rio Olympics last month when he made a protest signal as he claimed silver in the men’s marathon.

The gesture — crossing his wrists, arms raised above his head — is a symbol of defiance against the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on anti-government protests that started in his home region, Oromo, in November last year.

The defiant gesture is said to represent the handcuffed arms of political prisoners and dissidents in his home country.

– Ethnic strains real: runner -“That country is now operating around a system where elites from only one ethnicity are respected and considered superior,” he explained.

Human Rights Watch estimates the Ethiopian security forces have killed more than 400 people involved in the protests.

“This includes at least 12 people that I know from my home district of Jaldu in Oromia,” Lilesa wrote in The Post.

His is one of the country’s several regions with minority ethnic groups.

The runner made the gesture twice — once while crossing the finish line and again on the medal podium. He said he feared his life would be in peril if he returned home.

“Running is my life,” he said, and “I don’t think that they (Ethiopia) will select me again.”

Ethiopian authorities assured him he would not be punished, but he nevertheless skipped the Olympic team’s flight home. Reports have suggested he may seek political asylum in the United States.

And the United States, the 28-year-old runner said, can press Addis Ababa on human rights.

“Hundreds of my fellow Ethiopians have been killed by security forces only because they peacefully protested against injustice… I want to tell the world what is happening,” said Lilesa, who said he fears he will be killed if he returns home.

Regarded as one of Africa’s most repressive states, Ethiopia is struggling to contain the rare anti-government unrest unleashed by the protest movement, which has spread from Oromo in the center of the country to Amhara in the north.

Lilesa said he would ask the US government to demand an explanation from Ethiopia and to condemn its actions.

– US lawmakers take note –

New Jersey lawmaker Chris Smith and Colorado’s Mike Coffman voiced concern about “the oppressive actions taken by the government of President Mulatu Teshome,” in a statement.

“Unfortunately… moderation has not taken place — if anything, the actions of the government of Ethiopia have intensified in its effort to shut down political opposition and critics in civil society,” the US lawmakers said.

Anthropologist and Ethiopia expert Bonnie Holcomb said the importance of the minority group’s connections to their traditional lands cannot be understated.

“The land is their umbilicus. It is their lifeline, they are part of the land, there is not a separation between human beings and the land,” she told AFP.

“So when you take them off, they have nowhere,” she said.

“Their identity is struck at the heart, so (these demonstrations are) an expression of desperation.”

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