Running from a nightmare

Running from a nightmare
Hiko Tonosa forges clear of the field in the Senior Men’s event during the Irish Life Health National Championships in November. For years, Tonosa feared a return to Ethiopia as he is a member of the marginalised Oroma race, the largest ethnic, but persecuted group in his homeland. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

When was in jail, Hiko Tonosa had one request for the officers who would beat him with large wooden sticks.

Hit me anywhere, he’d say, except the legs.

He could deal with a bashed-up arm, or bruises and scars across his face or body. But his legs? He needed them for running.

Then and now, the sport has meant everything. A way to make a living, an escape that kept him alive.

Maybe you know the 24-year-old’s story. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’ll stop reading now and go about your day, and down the line, if you see him running for Ireland, maybe you’ll wonder what’s become of this country of ours, and scoff to your friend that this lad’s not really Irish.

Or maybe that’s not your style. Maybe it never has been. Maybe you’re willing to walk a mile in his shoes.

Because how else to understand what it’s like to be held captive for months because you took part in a peaceful protest?

Or to know the pain of hearing your best friend has been shot dead for marching against injustice?

Or how it feels to go three years without seeing your family, knowing it’s the only way you won’t end up in jail – or dead.

“It is very difficult,” says Tonosa. “You love your Mom. I love my Mom. But the last time I saw her was January 2017.”

Tonosa grew up in Shashamane, 150 miles from Addis Ababa. Like most in that region, he is Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and one that has long been marginalised by the coalition government — an 2015 Amnesty International reported systematic and widespread attacks against the Oromo simply based on ethnicity.

As a youngster, he never saw himself living abroad. In school Tonosa was a soccer fanatic, but after a teacher spotted his talent he was pushed to enter a 1500m race. Tonosa won that and a new dream was born: to become a professional runner.

By the age of 20 he made that a reality, earning a scholarship to live and train in Japan where, in 2016, he competed in many of the famed Ekiden races.

It was a meagre existence, and Tonosa’s talent was often held back by injuries, but he lowered his 5000m best that year to 13:31.09, not far off world-class.

He returned to Ethiopia at the end of 2016 at a time when unrest was boiling over. Months earlier, the plight of the Oromo was brought to the attention of the sporting world by Feyisa Lilesa, who, as he reached the finish to win silver in the Olympic marathon in Rio, crossed his arms above his head, a symbol of defiance used by anti-government protestors.

The tensions traced their roots to a protest in April 2014 against a plan that sought to expand the territorial limits of Addis Ababa into neighbouring Oromo villages. Similar protests occurred in November 2015, after which the Ethiopian government used overwhelming force to crush Oromo dissent, killing over 1,000 protestors and arresting several thousand in the years that followed, according to Human Rights Watch.

After witnessing the injustice on his return from Japan, Tonosa joined his friends on the streets. “We protested about the young people that were killed, saying to the police, ‘don’t kill Oromo students,’” he says.

Tonosa was arrested and spent almost three months in prison, a fate his brother faced for several years. “It was because I (did) not support that government,” he says. “They just (left) us there.”

He was released after signing a form to state he would provide information to the government “if something is happening around where I live” and, that summer, he tried to rebuild his running career.

With assistance from a Canadian agent, he secured a spot in two professional races in Ireland in July 2017, the Morton Games and Cork City Sports, paying his own airfare and hoping to earn it back in prize money. On the morning of the Morton Games, he received a call from home about his best friend, a fellow athlete.

“They killed him on the street,” says Tonosa.

He still toed the line that night, but with his mind in disarray he was well off his best, clocking 13:52.72 for 5000m. A week later in Cork he fared better, finishing third over 3000m in 7:52.03. His plan then was still to go back home, until another phone call stopped him in his tracks.

“They said: ‘Don’t come back. If you come back maybe they will kill you or arrest you,’” he recalls. “I asked if there is any newspaper (story) about me. ‘Yes, they are waiting and they are looking for you.’ That’s why I stayed.”

Tuesday morning, the national indoor arena in Abbotstown, and Tonosa sits on a high jump mat with his coach, Feidhlim Kelly.

He has just completed his last session before this weekend’s national indoor championships and he’s talking tactics with the 36-year-old Dubliner.

Midway through the conversation, Tonosa takes a look around at the group: more than a dozen high-level distance runners from various clubs, training together under the umbrella of the Dublin Track Club.

“This is like Ethiopia,” he says, before thanking Kelly for setting up such a group.

Tonosa first reached out to Kelly in mid-December after seeing a video of the Dublin Track Club athletes chugging along in training: single file, strongest athletes out front, the way it is in Ethiopia.

When a Facebook message pinged through from Tonosa, Kelly told him he had an open-door policy for those wanting to experience the environment, where the heavy burden of high-volume training is lightened by relentless roasting; where work gets done but a laugh is still had over post-workout brunches — friendships forming that will likely last a lifetime.

“He’s a breath of fresh air,” says Kelly. “The lads love him. He’s been a great addition.”

Kelly has been around the sport for 20 years. Lives it, breathes it, cares too much about it for his own good. He’s spent time in Australia being mentored by world-class coach Nic Bideau; he’s spent time in Kenya, learning from the best; he’s trained with Mo Farah, lived with Usain Bolt, and over the years he’s got to know many great East African runners. As such, he knows how they’re often viewed in this part of the world.

But here’s the thing about racism: its most potent form is the subtle kind, like in the gross generalisation that East African athletes are money-hungry mercenaries, destroying the sport’s popularity with their lack of personalities; or the blame attributed to them for the apparent inability of white, western audiences to connect with their stories.

The first step in tearing that way is to actually listen to them. “People say travel gets rid of racism but so does sport,” says Kelly. “It really does connect people and make them realise, ‘you know what? We’re all the f***ing same.’”

Kelly knows some in Ireland will resent an Ethiopian-born athlete winning €500 at their local road race, but in Tonosa he sees an athlete who has become part of the fabric of Irish society: “He’s not looking for a free life,” says Kelly. “He’s looking to make his own life.”

Three times a week the group will gather, 12 or 15 or 20 athletes, all working together. Kelly will pick different locations around Dublin for various sessions and in the few months he’s known Tonosa, he’s yet to hear a complaint — unlike the reaction of some home-grown athletes.

“There are people who make a drama out of getting to training,” he says. “If you were going to watch Man United or Tyson Fury or the half-time show with Shakira and J-Lo, you’re not going to complain about getting a bus or having to walk. It’s not a big deal if you actually want to be somewhere, and Hiko wants to make it happen.”

For Tonosa, hardship was once a way of life. When he arrived in Ireland he knew two phrases in English: What’s your name? How are you?

“It was so difficult,” he says.

Once he decided he couldn’t return to Ethiopia, he sought asylum and was placed in Direct Provision, first in Baleskin in North County Dublin, then Hatch Hall in the city centre.

After an employee at the asylum-seeking centre realised he was a runner, he put him in touch with Eddie McDonagh, the long-time coach at Dundrum South Dublin (DSD), who did years of charity work in Ethiopia and previously helped an athlete in a similar situation, Wishu Gebrselassie.

McDonagh coached Tonosa for more than two years and pulled every string he could to expedite his asylum claim.

At DSD Tonosa was a popular figure, particularly among young athletes who he’d often help warm up with Ethiopian-style drills.

“He created a social network around him,” says DSD coach Donal Hennigan.

“He’s a very nice, likeable fella, very genuine and very committed. He wants to get to Olympics, he wants to be a top athlete.”

Last summer Tonosa became the first asylum seeker to win a national senior title, sprinting to victory over 5,000m in Santry, but his form went walkabout later in the year. In his previous group he was so superior that he often had to run alone, but he knew that to mix it with heavyweights, you can’t just spar with middleweights.

With the Dublin Track Club he puts in 90 miles a week alongside many of Ireland’s best. “They’re lovely, lovely guys and when you do it with a group, you improve everything,” he says.

Rather than push the envelope, Kelly has been conservative with his training, citing an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is given a manager’s job and asks his staff: “Could you, um, work any harder?”

“I could be doing that and pushing him harder but I’m holding him back, making sure that we get the volume up because he’s a human being — he gets tired and has a tight hamstring sometimes. I know that by under-training him and doing the volume, he’s going to run well because he has wheels. He’s tough.”

How good can he be?

“He should be one of the dominant forces in Irish athletics in the distance ranks,” says Kelly. “He’s definitely able to run under 13:20 for 5K and in a year or two, especially with the (Nike Vaporfly) shoes, he could run an Irish record in the marathon. But he can also bring a lot of people on and that is what he’s into. He’s not just about himself.”

Tonosa started 2020 with victory in the Raheny 5-mile in a blazing 22:40. Tomorrow he’ll be one of the favourites for the national indoor 3000m and in the weeks ahead, he has something even bigger to look forward to: his Irish passport.

He hopes to meet his family in the coming months but he’s still wary of returning to Ethiopia. Things have improved since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, took power in April 2018, but Tonosa has heard too many stories to believe the problems are all in the past.

“They are dying still,” he says of the Oromo. “The students are being arrested and there are a lot of universities closed. A lot of the same people are (in power) and involved in corruption.”

As such, his future will be forged in Ireland. These days Tonosa is no longer in Direct Provision and he now lives in basic rented accommodation on Adelaide Road, Dublin 2. Over the past three years he has taken multiple English courses and down the line, he’d love to study sports science and work as a coach.

In the meantime he has his own performance goals. The Olympic standard is a longshot but the European Championships in August look well within reach. If he can make it to Paris for that, there’d be no prouder athlete pulling on an Irish singlet.

“He wants to run for Ireland, and not just because it is handy,” says Hennigan. “Hiko appreciates that there’s a lot of people rooting for him here and he doesn’t want to let them down. He’s got a real sense of belonging.”

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