Human rights work might be compared to preparing for a long race— like a marathon— requiring long,hard, and grueling dedication to a task where the final outcome— often years in the future—remains unknown. At times along the way, the barriers to success appear so large that one can easily get off course and go through periods where the possibility of reaching the ultimate goals looks grim. In the midst of that struggle, something can suddenly emerge from what otherwise appears as darkness, which acts to bring new light, insight and a change of attitude to those who witness it.
For Ethiopians, that unexpected source of new inspiration is Feyissa Lilesa, the Ethiopian winner of the silver medal for the marathon Olympic event held in Brazil on August 21, 2016 His actions have jump started a swell of renewed hope and vigor among Ethiopians who see him as an Ethiopian for all Ethiopians. Feyissa, an Oromo, made a stand against oppression when he crossed his wrists and lifted his arms over his head as he ran across the finish line in Rio. His actions brought international attention to human rights conditions in Ethiopia His expression of protest was the same as that of many other Oromos who had been protesting since November 2015 regarding the land grabs and eviction of tens of thousands of Oromo from their homes and land. More recently the protests had intensified. As they demanded their rights, they symbolized that struggle by crossing their wrists, as if handcuffed, and holding their arms above their head as asign of a peaceful, non-violent protest against injustice and oppression in general. The regime’s security forces had responded with bullets; killing thousand of protestors Oromia and Amhara regions,since November 2015. The victims included children, youth, pregnant women, and the elderly.Disturbing images of their dead bodies flooded the social media, further inciting protests and outrage. In response to Feyissa’s gesture of protest, he has been recognized as a hero of the Oromo people.However, after I had the opportunity to listen to Feyissa Lilesa talk at a press conference held in Washington DC this week and to also personally meet with him, I discovered Feyissa to be clearly and decisively bigger and more complex than his ethnic identity.
His expression of protest was the same as that of many other Oromos who had been protesting since November 2015 regarding the land grabs and eviction of tens of thousands of Oromo from their homes and land. More recently the protests had intensified. As they demanded their rights, they symbolized that struggle by crossing their wrists, as if handcuffed, and holding their arms above their head as asign of a peaceful, non-violent protest against injustice and oppression in general. The regime’s security forces had responded with bullets; killing thousand of protestors Oromia and Amhara regions,since November 2015. The victims included children, youth, pregnant women, and the elderly.Disturbing images of their dead bodies flooded the social media, further inciting protests and outrage. In response to Feyissa’s gesture of protest, he has been recognized as a hero of the Oromo people.However, after I had the opportunity to listen to Feyissa Lilesa talk at a press conference held in Washington DC this week and to also personally meet with him, I discovered Feyissa to be clearly and decisively bigger and more complex than his ethnic identity. His ideas break through the ideological barriers of ethnocentric thinking— views that are promoted and exploited by the current regime of the TPLF-controlled EPRDF as a tool to divide and generosity, to pride instead of humility, or to lies instead of honesty and integrity. When they become part of a family, community, culture, or nation, they can bring destruction.As a member of a minority group— and there are many of us who have been marginalized, discriminated against and cut-off from the mainstream for years— it is not an easy thing to challenge the status quo.The system we have now is based on lies and deception. It fails to uphold the humanity of others. Insuch a system, only the power holders benefit. Morality is gone and to avoid accountability, the manipulation of truth creates an illusion. It makes it almost impossible to correct the system sincethose who stand for truth are crushed. It has pushed the society to the point of ethnic explosion and disintegration— to the killing of each other and to a possible genocide. Life in Ethiopia is not based onthe common good for the people, but is twisted to give in to the whims and ambitions of those with power. It has pushed people to view “the other” as the enemy; again, failing to see the God-given humanity of others. Over the past years and months, Ethiopians have been trying to inform the world about these senseless crimes being committed across Ethiopia on almost a daily basis. The main response has come from human rights groups. This has not only been the case regarding the people of Oromia, but also that of Ethiopians from Gambella to the Somali region, from Afar to Benishangul, from the Amhara region to the people of the South and so on. It is as if the screams of the people were silent, despite efforts to raise awareness.
Yet, as Ethiopians see their family members dying at the hands of the TPLF/EPRDF, they ask; whyare we being ignored? Why is our pain unnoticed as we lose our families? It is like someone having anoperation without enough medication to block the pain; but yet, not enough strength to scream out sothe doctor will stop. This is what Ethiopians have felt.Since last November, day after day, many young Oromo have come out to protest, crossing their wristsand lifting their arms together, but many of them never returned home. Feyissa’s friends were amongthem, one of them burned in the recent prison fire. Suddenly, Feyissa’s voice broke through the silenceand stunned the world. The darkness surrounding the terror against Ethiopians was exposed in the light. The symbol he madewhen he crossed his wrists and raised his arms as he crossed the finish line to win a silver medal,brought many Ethiopians to tears, including me. His bravery showed the oppression of Ethiopians tothe world and exposed the truth about the system of ethnic-based apartheid. His act of courage gaverenewed hope. When he crossed the finish line and publicly said he did it for all the people of Ethiopia, not only forone group, he shook the foundation of the hate-building ethnic divisive policies of the TPLF/EPRDF.He refused to blindly accept the limitations and deceitfulness of an ethnic-based identity, seductivelyimposed on many of us by the TPLF/EPRDF as a means for them to stay in power. He shows himselfto be a man freed from the manipulation of the TPLF. It gave me hope that this young man could playa big role to bring unity to the people, many of whom are held captive to TPLF ideology and rule. Heshowed he was free to embrace the humanity of others— a God-given principle.
He became a hero to almost every Ethiopian, regardless of ethnicity or other differences. Meeting himin Washington DC for the first time this week, gave me an opportunity to find out what kind of personhe was and I found him to be a genuine, humble, friendly and caring man of courage, integrity andprinciple— a person of faith. He will be faced with the challenge of differing ideological viewpoints. The TPLF/EPRDF will want toforce him back to their narrow definition of an Oromo in order to weaken his influence and the inspirationfor the struggle he has offered. But yet, who defines him? Who defines any of us? When that definitionleads to the dehumanization or disregard of others, we can know that it is not how God intends us to be. The TPLF/EPRDF has given Ethiopians defined identifies to separate us. Those identities includethe promotion of grievances that never get resolved, corrected or forgiven. For the last 25 years, peoplehave been accepting the identities given to them without enough questioning. We must struggle againstideas that are not based on God-given truth. Perhaps Feyissa and others like him, can bridge the gapbetween the people. As people begin to seek resolution to their differences; it will open up new avenuesto dialogue, reconciliation, cooperation and systemic justice, equality and freedom for all people.
Feyissa’s example has now been followed by others who took similar stands in races. Ebisa Ejigu crossed his arms when he was in the Quebec City Marathon in Canada. Tamiru Demissie, a visually impaired Paralympic silver medal winner in the 1,500meter run in Rio, also crossed his arms as he ran over the finish line. Another Ethiopian Kassa Yemer the martial art crossed his arms after he won the Gold in South Korea, on n September 7, 2016. These are national heroes; but even more so, they are models of courage, boldness and principle who get what it means to be a human being. At such a time as this, Ethiopia needs more of this kind of men and women. The New Ethiopia we areseeking will require people with the moral strength to break out of the mold— people who can see allhuman beings as worthy of dignity and respect.May God strengthen and inspire Feyissa, Ebisa, Kassa, Tamiru and others like them, to act as bridgesand models to others, encouraging them to discard someone else’s flawed definition of their identityand nationality, pushed on them in order to keep Ethiopians under control and from seeing each otheras one people.May God free us from ideas, attitudes, and actions that are wrong, hurtful or destructive; especially thosethat keep us chained to oppression and block us from valuing each other.
Please do not hesitate to email me if you have comments to: Obang@solidaritymovement.org