Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa took his defiance on the running field to Washington DC on Tuesday (Sept. 13), calling the United States and world’s attention to the wave of violent protests that has engulfed his home country.
In his first press conference, almost a week since he came to the United States, the Olympic silver medalist painted a gloomy picture of a country in distress and warned of a looming “ethnic conflict” in Ethiopia. The government, he said, was using the “power of the gun” to silence Oromo protesters, who have been demanding economic, political and land reforms since November last year.
When he crossed his arms at the finish line at the Rio Olympics, he said he wanted the world to “finally see and hear the cry of my people.” More than 500 people, mostly from the Oromo and Amhara communities, have been killed in largely peaceful protests, according to human rights organizations.
The news conference was also attended by some members of the US Congress, who said they were “concerned” about the protests in Ethiopia. Congressman Chris Smith from New Jersey’s 4th congressional district also announced the introduction of a House Resolution supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia. Smith said that once passed, the resolution will be a “strong statement of policy” that will see funding to the Ethiopian government conditioned to the respect for the rule of law and human rights.
In a separate news conference at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, Lilesa highlighted the psychological and personal toll of the current protests. The government’s violent response to the demonstrations, he said, affected him, his family and close friends. He also spoke about his friend Kebede Fayissa, who was killed when the Qilinto prison, located at the outskirts of Addis Ababa, caught fire.
Asked if he would run for the US as an athlete given the chance, Lilesa responded in the negative. “I love my country,” he said. “What I am asking for is freedom and I look back to going to my country once there’s freedom.”
Feyisa said that he regularly communicates with his family, but refused to acknowledge that they faced dangers that were any different from what other Ethiopians were confronting
In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Lilesa said he had received no contact from the Ethiopian government and had no plans to initiate any with them. He conditioned the government to release all prisoners before he can have any talks with them.
At the end of the press conference, Lilesa, speaking with a soft tone, emphasized why the protest was symbolic for and amongst all Ethiopians. “People are saying from now on we want to live in peace, we are tired of getting killed, we don’t want to be in prison, we don’t want to be forced into exile, we want to decide on our resources and shape the destiny of our country,” he said. “We’ve had enough.”