When Gemechu Alemu Lama, 21, and Tigist Kebede, 18, flew into South Africa for the Confederation of African Athletics African Senior Championships in Durban in 2016, Ethiopian supporters welcomed them at the airport with the Oromo flag. Their teammates were not impressed.
But the trouble really started for the pair when they crossed their arms during the championships, alluding to the brutal – and government-sanctioned – treatment of the Oromo people by police in Ethiopia. They had no idea of the consequences the gesture would have. After their pointed act, the team’s management called a meeting. The athletes were ordered to fetch their passports from their rooms.
Lama said it was at this point that they made contact with a prominent Oromo activist, who advised them to flee their hotel because they would be imprisoned when they returned to Ethiopia. The activist helped them and three other young athletes escape. They went into hiding for two months after the tournament before moving to Johannesburg, where they assimilated into a larger Ethiopian community in areas such as Mayfair, near the CBD.
Speaking to New Frame through a translator, Lama, a compact man with tight-fitting clothing, a fresh pair of Nikes and a gold chain with a cross around his neck, said he had come to regret his actions. His career has stalled. “It is painful. For the past two years, I have been deprived of all of those opportunities. I absorb everything and I feel like life is life. It’s better to forget all of this,” he said through a translator. “I am still young and I am connected to this sport. This sport is my dream … I regret [what happened].”
5 November 2018: Lama (right) and Kebede (left) sharing a meal at an Ethiopian restaurant in the Johannesburg suburb of Mayfair.
Kebede, a shy teenager with her braids tied above her head, said she had found it difficult in South Africa with no friends or family. “An even bigger challenge is being alone. I don’t have any relatives here.”
Oromos persecuted and killed
Lama and Kebede are from the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia. Oromo nationalists have been struggling for self-determination for the Oromo people against what they see as Abyssinian colonial rule since the early 1970s. The Oromo Liberation Front, founded in 1973, has been at the forefront of civil discontent against the Ethiopian government, which has repeatedly cracked down against the Oromo people.
In December 2015, in a major crackdown on student protests in the Oromia region, Ethiopian security forces killed 20 students by firing live ammunition into a crowd of demonstrators. Between August 2016 and early 2017, close to 700 people were killed during a six-month state of emergency. But in April 2018, Ethiopia elected Abiy Ahmed, from the Oromia region, as its new prime minister, and along with many reforms and the release of hundreds of political prisoners, he has welcomed back exiled dissidents, including other athletes who have made the same gesture.
Kebede, who runs 400m, and Lama, who runs both 400m and 800m, hope to return to Ethiopia in the coming months. And like Olympic marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa, who crossed his arms as he crossed the finish line at the 2016 Rio Olympics and recently returned to Ethiopia after being in exile, they hope life will return to normal.
Attacked in Johannesburg
“We have spoken to [Lilesa] and he said everything is fine, we can come back,” Lama said. His parents now live in Kenya, having fled Ethiopia fearing for their safety. His brother was killed in the crackdowns. Despite all of this, Lama said he’d rather go back to Ethiopia and rebuild his life and athletics career than continue to live in Johannesburg.
“There are a lot of challenges living in South Africa. You have to work hard to live and to pay rent and to eat and for other necessities. The issue of security as well – I have been attacked twice in Johannesburg, in the Jeppe area,” he said. “They searched and ransacked my pockets. One time it was a gun pointing at me and the other time it was a knife. It is very dangerous. If I resisted, I know I would have been killed. I know many friends who have been killed in South Africa.”
5 November 2018: Kebede (centre) used to run competitively but now works selling sneakers at Small Street Mall in the Johannesburg CBD.
Lama and Kebede both work at an Ethiopian-owned clothing shop in the Johannesburg CBD as shop attendants. Aside from the risk of working in the CBD, the pair said they barely made enough to survive.
Kebede has had difficulty adjusting to life in Johannesburg. She misses her friends and family, and looks forward to running again. “It is a big challenge ... I used to, but I can’t depend on handouts from the community,” she said. “I work and earn R4 000. From that, I have to pay rent, food and other necessities to live.”
Almost homeward bound
Both athletes look forward to going home and moving on with their lives. But there is one last hurdle for Lama, who claimed his passport was confiscated by a home affairs official. Lama refused to bribe the official to speed up his application to renew a temporary asylum permit, which has to be done every three months. Now he can’t travel anywhere – even back home.
“I have talent and I have an organiser for competitions … The opportunities are around, but because of a lack of documentation, nothing is moving forward. But we are surviving. Even though there are a lot of challenges, we are fine … I am happy at least I am surviving,” Lama said. He said he hoped to resolve his passport issue and return to Ethiopia in the coming months.
Kebede said she struggled seeing her friends back home furthering their athletics careers while hers had been stopped in its tracks. “I used to be first class in running. But now my friends who used to admire me, they are running and I am admiring them,” she said.
Abdurahman Jibro, chairman of the Oromo People’s Association, said he would accompany the two athletes when they go back to home affairs and assist them. Home affairs spokesperson Thabo Mokgola said Lama should report the official who asked for a bribe, but has not responded to questions about the athletes’ cases.