(Repeats to additional subscribers)
By Sally Hayden and Tristan Martin
LONDON, Aug 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When marathon
silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line at the Rio
Olympics, he crossed his arms above his head in an “X”, a sign
of protest against the Ethiopian government’s treatment of his
people, the ethnic Oromo.
The champion runner did not return home after the Olympics,
fearing for his safety even though the government said he would
not be punished.
“[I knew] I would be jailed or killed if not, I would
[never be allowed] out of that country and allowed to
participate in any international competition or race at all,”
Lilesa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I am quite sure those things would happen to me,” he said
in a Skype interview from Rio where he has been staying since
Monday when the rest of his team mates returned to Ethiopia.
The Oromiya region, home to more than 25 million Oromos, has
been riven by unrest for months over land rights and allegations
of human rights violations.
Lilesa, 26, is one of thousands of Ethiopians estimated by
activists to have left the country amid a security crackdown on
demonstrations sparked by a conflict over land use policies.
Human Rights Watch estimated 400 demonstrators were killed
by security forces between November and June during protests
triggered by government plans to include some parts of Oromiya
within the capital Addis Ababa’s limits.
Up to 100 were shot in a single weekend in August when
security forces also shut down the internet for 48 hours,
according to activists.
Thousands more have been arrested, including the prominent
Oromo activist Bekele Gerba, who was taken from his home in
The government, which disputes the death toll and says the
protests are being staged illegally, stoked by rebel groups and
overseas-based dissidents, did not respond to several requests
by the Thomson Reuters Foundation for a comment.
FEAR OF REPRISALS
Lilesa’s fear of being jailed upon his return home reflects
the experiences of other Ethiopians who have spoken out against
In the Greek capital Athens 26-year-old Muaz Mahmud Ayimoo
is staying in a cramped apartment with five other Oromo friends
who are traveling with him.
A student from Haro Dumal city in Oromiya, Ayimoo was
arrested by authorities and imprisoned for a month last
November after he attended several non-violent protests along
with fellow students.
Conditions for those detained were wretched and abuse was
regular, Ayimoo said.
“They used to take us out one by one, torture us with
electricity and beat us badly,” he told the Thomson Reuters
Ayimoo’s family in Ethiopia paid a bribe for his release,
later selling everything they had to get him to Europe.
“I can’t go back because I would lose my life,” he said.
Those in Athens are the lucky ones: Ayimoo’s wife and baby
girl drowned in April after the boat they were on crossing the
Mediterranean from Libya sank, killing hundreds, according to
“I could hear the screaming of my baby as I fell I couldn’t
save my family,” he said.
Other Ethiopians now following the unrest from abroad
include the journalists of the Oromia Media Network, a dissident
satellite TV channel broadcasting into Ethiopia in the Oromo
language from Minneapolis in the United States, a city home to
around 40,000 Oromo.
“We became part of the whole protester story,” said Jawar
Mohammed, executive director of the network, which he said is
watched by more than 11 million people in the Middle East and
Africa at peak times.
Mohammed also regularly posts updates on his Facebook page,
with more than 800,000 followers, about the unrest in his
Abel Wabella, 30, an activist who wrote for Zone9, a blog
which focused on social and civic issues in Ethiopia, was
imprisoned between April 2014 and October 2015 in what critics
say was an attack on press freedom.
“I think the government is not ready for real reform the
people are demanding right now The people are tired of their
false promises and will escalate their resistance,” he said.
(Reporting by Sally Hayden and Tristan Martin, Editing by Paola
Totaro and Astrid Zweynert; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights
and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)