At the 18th World Athletics Championships being held at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, United States (July 15–24, 2022), Ethiopia leads the table, second only to the United States.
Of the four gold medals that helped place Ethiopia in this spot, three were earned by Tigrayan women Letesenbet Gidey (10K), Gotytom Gebreslase (Marathon), and Gudaf Tsegay (5K). These victories, amazing in their own right, become an incredible feat when we take into account the challenging context of the Tigrayan athletes who raised the Ethiopian flag in victory.
Winning Gold in the Face of Genocide
On November 4th of 2020, Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, declared war on the Tigray region. In the subsequent weeks and months, Ethiopian forces supported by domestic and international allies, including from neighbouring Eritrea, devastated the Tigrayan people. Ethiopian troops and their allies massacred civilians, weaponised sexual violence on an industrial scale, ethnically cleansed more than a million people and occupied Tigrayan territories, looted and destroyed public and private infrastructure and goods.
At the start of the war, the Ethiopian regime cut off basic services to Tigray, including banking, and telecommunications, as well as imposing a near-total blockade, prohibiting humanitarian access. Along with the deliberate destruction of Tigrayan livelihoods during the war, this blockade has served to engineer a humanitarian crisis forcing millions into severe famine.
This video recently shared on social media, of a three-month-old Tigrayan infant, weighing 1.8 kg, offers a rare look into rampant famine hidden behind a media and communications blackout. The Tigrayan health-care system, forced into total collapse due to the blockade on essential goods including medicine and fuel for generators, is unable to cope with the complex needs of this infant. It is within this deliberately created “Hell on earth” that the immediate families of the gold medal-winning athletes heard the news of their victory.
In separate interviews, the parents of Letesenbet Gidey and the mother of Gotytom Gebreslase shared that they had not spoken to their children for months and had only heard of their victory secondhand, days after their victories. In spite of this enforced separation and the uncertainty of their own existence, these families only had words of encouragement and hope for their daughters.
In response to Gotyetom’s saying that she would have loved to share her joy with her parents, her mother responded:
I have a message for my daughter. I am happy, so happy. I heard you said that your parents will be happy, so know that we are happy. We heard that you won! Be strong my daughter, there will be peace, the sun will rise, parents will meet with their children. We will meet. Be strong, we are okay.Weyzero Berheytu Kassa
Such is the indomitable spirit and resilience of the Tigrayan people.
A Victory for “Ethiopianness”?
Meanwhile, in the rest of Ethiopia, victory at the World Championships has incited a euphoric celebration of “Ethiopianness.” The extent of the excitement and desire to “own” this victory is encapsulated by a group of artists who have re-recorded a song to mark the occasion.
For many in the Tigrayan community, however, this jubilation is not only superficial but an outright travesty in contrast to the deafening silence of most Ethiopians in the face of the violence and humanitarian crisis unleashed in Tigray over the last 20 months. The same musicians who have re-produced an old song celebrating athletics would never consider re-recording songs about famine to raise awareness or funds to alleviate the suffering of the immediate families of the athletes they are ostensibly honouring.
Even more sinister is the effort to claim the victories of Tigrayan athletes as a vindication of the values of the same “Ethiopianness“, which has been used to galvanise and justify a full-fledged genocidal attack against Tigray. The videos below show Ethiopians in Addis Ababa – including World and Olympic champion athlete Haile Gebreselassie – and in the diaspora celebrating the “Ethiopian” victory against Tigray in November 2020. There was no sense at that time that the people in Tigray were owed any consideration as fellow Ethiopians.
Instead, in the name of “Ethiopianness,” Tigrayans were ethnically profiled and targeted across Ethiopia. Tens of thousands have been detained without cause and are being held indefinitely in internment camps across the country. Those imprisoned have included military and security officials who had served their country honourably for decades, academics, professionals, and even athletes. Ethiopia even withdrew support from Dr Tedros Adhanom for his second term as Director of the World Health Organisation and launched a campaign to vilify the most-high profile Tigrayan in the world today.
“This question is not good for us”
Following her 5K win, a journalist asks Gudaf about the “guy who ran out with a Tigray flag”. Her joyous smile fades, and her face is filled with what seems like anxiety and sorrow. The man beside her, presumably a member of the Ethiopian team curtly responds: “this question is not good for us” before physically ushering her away.
This is a telling reply. A member of the Ethiopian team pushing a world champion athlete away from the cameras in complete disregard to the optics reveals the extent to which the Ethiopian government will go to silence and control Tigrayan voices. Gudaf being so blatantly prohibited from freely articulating her feelings in the moments following her victory replicates the experience of Tigrayans in the almost two years since the onset of the war. Not only have Tigrayans in Ethiopia been terrorised into silence, but Tigrayans in the diaspora have also been constantly gaslit, threatened, bullied, and mocked all in the name of “Ethiopianness.” Campaigns across the world and on social media denied human rights violations, declared Hands off Ethiopia and labelled all Tigrayans and allies as paid agents.
“The guy who ran out with a Tigray flag” – Mearg Mekonen
Mearg Mekonen and other Tigrayans who attended the race were thankfully beyond the coercion of Ethiopian authorities. The mixed emotions displayed here by Mearg reveal both his pure joy in his compatriot’s victory and the overwhelming responsibility to use this opportunity to advocate for his people.
For Tigrayans, who have been collectively targetted as enemies of the prevailing ideology (Ethiopianness) domestically and who have no formal representation to motivate commensurate response internationally, even the World Athletics Championship is an opportunity to draw the world’s attention to the genocide that it seems all too ready to forget.