Feyisa Lilesa, Marathoner in Exile, Finds Refuge in Arizona


The Ethiopian government has said that Lilesa could return home safely and would be considered a hero, but he does not believe this. He lists reasons for his suspicions, and they are personal: His brother-in-law, Tokkuma Mulisa, who is in his early 20s, has been imprisoned for about a year and reportedly tortured, and his health remains uncertain. His younger brother, Aduna, also a runner, was beaten and detained by the Ethiopian military in October.

Aduna Lilesa, 22, said he was training in Burayu, outside the capital, Addis Ababa, on Oct. 16 when soldiers approached him. They hit him in the head with the butt of a rifle, kicked him and threatened to shoot him, he said, while demanding information about Feyisa.

Fearing for his life, a gun pointed at him, Aduna said he lied and told the soldiers what he thought they wanted to hear about his brother: “He is a terrorist; he is no good.”

Since the Olympics, Aduna said, his wife has been suspended from her job with Ethiopian government radio. He is living with Feyisa in Flagstaff until mid-March, when he will return home to his wife and young son. “It is not safe, but my family is there,” Aduna Lilesa said. “If I live here, they will be confused.”

Unease extends, too, to the Ethiopian running community.

When Feyisa Lilesa runs the London Marathon, one of his primary challengers figures to be Kenenisa Bekele, a three-time Olympic champion on the track and a fellow Oromo who is considered by many the greatest distance runner of all time. The two runners were never close and tension between them increased last September in Berlin, where Bekele ran the second-fastest marathon time ever.

Before that race, Bekele said in an interview with Canadian Running Magazine, speaking in English, which is not his first language, that “anyone have right to protest anything” but “you need to maybe choose how to protest and solve things.”

Asked specifically about Lilesa’s Olympic protest, Bekele said it was better to get an answer from him. Asked about other Ethiopian runners who have made similar crossed-arm gestures, Bekele said that sport should be separate from politics, that everyone had a right to protest in Ethiopia and that the government was trying to “solve things in a democratic way.”

Bekele has received some criticism for not being more forceful in his remarks, and on social media in Ethiopia there is a split between supporters of the two runners. “Many people are being killed,” Lilesa said of Bekele. “How can you say that’s democratic? I’m very angry when he says that.”

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