As he crossed the finish line to win the silver medal in the Olympic marathon, Feyisa Lilesa crossed his forearms above his head in an “X,” a gesture of protest that resonated back home in Ethiopia. Lilesa said it was a risk. “If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me,” he said after the race.
The situation in Ethiopia is likely not familiar to much of the rest of the world—at least, it wasn’t until Lilesa called attention to it on the biggest sporting stage of all. Ethiopia’s political stability and economic growth have obscured—or maybe exacerbated—some old ethnic faultlines. Protesters of the Oromo ethnic group, to which Lilesa belongs and is the country’s largest, claim that the halls of power are dominated by the much smaller Tigrayan ethnic group, which, they say, gives its kinsmen preferential treatment.
Growing protests by the Oromo have been met by violent government crackdowns—a June report from Human Rights Watch said that 400 people had been killed, thousands injured, and tens of thousands arrested since November 2015. Since the crackdowns started, Oromos have been using the “X” gesture as a symbol and a form of silent protest.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe,” Lilesa said. “My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.”
Lilesa said he would call his wife and two children back in Ethiopia, but feared they may have already been arrested. He did not know if he would be able to return home.
“If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me. If I am not killed maybe they will put me in prison. [If ] they [do] not put me in prison they will block me at airport,” he said.
“I have got a decision. Maybe I move to another country.”
In an interview with LetsRun.com, Lilesa said he had considered Kenya or the United States if it’s not safe for him in Ethiopia.