Feyisa Lelisa, the silver medalist from Ethiopia, focused international attention on the brutality of the Ethiopian government when he crossed the finish line at the men’s marathon at Rio with his arms crossed over his head. He wanted to declare his solidarity with the Oromo ethnic group, who constitute about one-third of Ethiopia’s population and have long been marginalized by the ruling party—the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Massive demonstrations began in the Oromia region of Ethiopia in November 2015 against a government plan to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, by seizing the land of Oromo farmers. The protests have continued and spread to other parts of Ethiopia, challenging the entire repressive structure of the country. All 547 members of the parliament are from the ruling party, which tightly controls all sectors of society. Dissidents are imprisoned under bogus “anti-terrorism” laws while the regime pits one ethnic group against another to maintain power.
Feyisa knew his life would never be the same after he raised his crossed arms at the Rio Olympics. He said he was afraid he could be killed or imprisoned if he returned to his country, where he has a wife and two children. How likely could this happen? Ethiopian torture survivors in the United States, including elite runners just like Feyisa, say his fear is very real.
In Washington DC, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International, which works with torture survivors from all over the world, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Ethiopians seeking asylum in the United States, some are elite long-distance runners like Feyisa. One of these athletes is Demssew Tsega Abebe, a 28 year-old marathon runner.
Demssew has won over 30 medals in marathons in the United States, France, the Netherlands, Dubai, Italy, Japan, Hungary and China. He has been running since he was 17, and had a good chance of being chosen for the Ethiopian team in Rio. In France, he ran a marathon in two hours, 9 minutes and 44 seconds (2:09: 44), ten seconds faster than Feyisa ran in the Rio marathon.
But Demssew never made it to the Olympics. In December 2015, on his way back from training, he joined thousands of Oromos protesting a government land grab in the town of Sululta, not far from Addis Ababa. He says the government seizes farmers’ land and sells it to foreign companies from China, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, or gives it away to loyal EPRDF members. Demssew’s own father lost eight of his 12 acres of land in 1997, taken by the government to build apartments for government functionaries. After that, his father had to become a day laborer, barely earning enough money to feed his nine children.
Demssew was recognized by security forces during the demonstration and dragged with another runner to the local police station; his face is well-known in Ethiopia because of his athletic success. For two days they hit him with sticks and plastic whips and accused him of encouraging other athletes to oppose the regime. They beat him severely on the heels of his feet, because they knew he was a runner. Demssew could hardly walk when he was released. But he was afraid to go to the hospital, worried he would be identified and sent to prison.
He did not receive any medical care until he arrived in Washington in February, still limping from the injuries on his feet. Like several other Ethiopian elite runners who were tortured by their government, Demssew is applying for asylum in the United States. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 830 Ethiopians were granted asylum in Fiscal Year 2014, more than for any other country except China, Egypt and Syria.
Feyisa Lelisa is a hero to Demssew and other torture survivors from Ethiopia—athletes, pharmacists, doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers, teachers and taxi drivers. They don’t want his famous gesture of defiance to be forgotten, especially by the United States, which provides over $600 million in annual aid to Ethiopia, or by other international donors who could force Ethiopia to stop its abysmal abuse of human rights. The Olympics are over but the killing in Ethiopia goes on.
Andrea Barron directs the Advocacy Program at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International in Washington DC.