By Jonathan Gault
July 23, 2022
EUGENE, Ore. — Seconds after Ethiopia Gudaf Tsegay won his first outdoor world title in the 5,000 meters at the 2022 World Championships in Athletics at Hayward Field, a bearded man in dark blue shorts and a white patterned shirt unbuttoned under his chest ran down the track, Tsegay lifted and fellow Ethiopian fifth-placer Letesenbet Gidey and, after a brief chase, was apprehended by security and taken off the trail.
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It was a weird moment if you haven’t been following what’s been happening in Ethiopia for a year and a half. If so, you may have noticed the red and yellow flag the runway invader carried with him as the flag of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which has been the center of a brutal conflict between the Front of the People’s Liberation of Tigray and the Ethiopian government. . There were a number of Tigray flags in the stands on Saturday night, particularly in the curve near the start of the 5,000m as Tsegay and Gidey (who won the 10,000m earlier in these championships) hail from the region.
The conflict in Tigray began in November 2020 when Tigray forces attacked an Ethiopian military base in the area, after which the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abi Ahmad sent forces in response. According to Human Rights Watch, a number of hospitals, schools, factories and businesses have been damaged or destroyed in the region, with more than 2 million people forced to flee their homes. Some of those who stayed found themselves cut off from basic resources like food and electricity. After the race, the Tigrai_TV account said Gidey’s parents were unable to see her for the past two years.
After Tsegay’s victory, about two dozen protesters marched through the Hayward Field lobby with Tigray flags, posters and shirts reading “FREE TIGRAY” and “TIGRAY IS A COUNTRY” while chanting phrases such as ” Ending the Tigray Genocide”. At the back of that peloton, LetsRun found the man who had stormed the track less than an hour earlier. He said his name is Mearg Mekonen40 years old, and that he is originally from the Tigray region, but now lives in Texas.
Mekonen said he had planned to come see Tsegay and Gidey race tonight but had no plans to race on the track. However, after Tsegay’s win, he said he felt overwhelmed with emotion and had to do something.
“I couldn’t control it,” Mekonen said.
Mekonen said his goal is to raise awareness about what is currently happening in the Tigray region.
“I tried to be a voice for the voiceless,” Mekonen said. “I want people to know that there is genocide going on right now as we speak and people don’t have access to it. We cannot see our family.
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For an athlete like Tsegay or Gidey, speaking out carries a risk not only for himself, but also for his family and loved ones back home, which is one of the reasons why Mekonen said he felt the need to do something.
“Even the athletes can’t see or talk to their family,” Mekonen said. “I try to be a voice for the athletes and for the people.”
Gidey did not speak to the media after the race; Tsegay was asked about her feelings about Mekonen interrupting her celebrations, but was taken away by Ethiopian team staff before she could respond.
Mekonen said he was detained, but not arrested, and was allowed to return to the stadium within an hour; he strolled amid the Tigray protests as the roars of the women’s 4x100m relay final echoed through the stadium.
“They detained me and they were really nice and they asked me why I did that,” Mekonen said. “…They told me not to do it again and they just let me go.”
The conflict in Ethiopia is complex. Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities. Last year the New York Times reported that the Ethiopian Defense Forces “have been accused of committing transgressions, including extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, and attacks on refugees”, while Human Rights Watch reported that the Tigrayan forces executed 49 civilians in the space of two weeks last summer.
As Mekonen was dragged off the track, Tsegay began her victory lap with the red, yellow and green flag of Ethiopia draped around her shoulders. At that time, Mekonen felt mixed emotions.
“It’s different because Ethiopia is starving us right now – us, the people building Ethiopia,” Mekonen said. “There is no Ethiopia without Tigray. It starts from Tigray. The nation we’re building, when they do this to us, it’s horrible. It’s really awful. It hurts. I cannot explain… There is no Ethiopia without Tigray. Ethiopia is Tigray. Tigray is Ethiopia. Now they have surrounded us and starved us.
Full interview with Mearg Mekonen