How Did Two African Runners Disappear From Jerusalem's Marathon?

The two young Ethiopian women did everything they could to avoid attracting unnecessary attention at the Jerusalem marathon, which took place a little over a week ago.

Ilan Goldman
Ilan Goldman
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Ilan Goldman
Ilan Goldman

When the members of the Ethiopian delegation at the Jerusalem marathon were asked to gather for a group photo, Malet Mekonen and Mahalat Zalika did everything they could to avoid the camera’s lens: they walked off to the side, they hunched behind the golden body covers they were given by the races’ organizers, and tried to hide their faces. When they realized there was no escaping the camera, they joined the group, but stood well behind the others.

The two young Ethiopian women did everything they could to eschew attracting unnecessary attention at the Jerusalem marathon, which took place a little over a week ago.

This strange behavior from Mekonen and Zalika continued right before the start of the race as well. The two young women kept their distance from the rest of the Ethiopian delegation, and whispered to one another a great deal before the race started. Attempts to identify them were in vain: Their participant numbers, pinned to their shirts, had already been distorted.

What can be said for sure, is that the thinner of the girls, the one with the tight, curly hair, was not wearing running shoes. Instead, she wore pink, dilapidated walking shoes, which didn’t look as if they’d survive a 5 kilometer run, let alone a marathon. Her friend did not appear to be a seasoned marathoner, to put it politely, despite the professional-looking gear she was sporting at the starting line. According to the marathon’s organizers and athletic agents, the two athletes that ran off during the marathon behaved normally, and appeared ready to run.

But that was only the beginning: shortly after the opening gun, Mekonen and Zalika slowed their pace, and veered off to the right side of the road. Though they began at a pace of roughly 4 minutes per kilometer, they quickly slowed down to 6 minutes per kilometer, and then even slower. On Rupin Road, only a few hundred meters past the starting point, the two young women had already been swallowed up by the marathon’s large crowd. No one seemed to wonder why two “seasoned Ethiopian runners” were not running at their natural place – at the front. No one noticed that under their running gear they were wearing plain blue t-shirts. Why focus on the clothing? Because in contrast to Makonen and Zalika, their fellow Ethiopian delegates showed up to the race wearing only thin runners' tank-tops.

Their decisive move was made about 3.2 kilometers from the starting point. The runners began to veer to the right of the trail, and after one of the turns toward Hebrew University, they were gone. Apparently, they made their way into the forest, and picked up bags that had been hidden for some time.

The picture of Mekonen and Zalika breaking off from the main group is the last photographic evidence of the two young women. All other photos taken after this point depict only their east-African rivals, and the rest of the marathon runners.

Mekonen and Zalika’s disappearance was discovered only hours later, as they failed to cross the finish line. Police suspect that the escape was planned ahead of time, and the current working assumption is that the two young women have made their way to southern Tel Aviv. Their passports are still being held by the race’s organizers.

This is not the first time Ethiopian runners have come to compete in Israel, and subsequently disappeared as if swallowed by the earth. Ahmad Hussein, three-time champion of the Tiberias marathon during the 1990’s did it 15 years ago. He died a decade ago, when he was only 31-years-old. He succumbed to complications of a lung infection. It is said that he spent his last days in Jerusalem, where he worked as a janitor and a Shabbat goy at a Yeshiva. He tried his hand at dealing with the authorities when he applied for refugee status, but he died penniless, without health insurance, as his wife and children remained in Ethiopia.

In 2003 history repeated itself, as four Ethiopian athletes got on the bus to Jerusalem after the Tiberias marathon, instead of their flight to Addis Ababa. Most of them reappeared at running events, after receiving refugee status from the United Nations.

“That’s what happens when you don’t know who you’re working with,” said Rahamim Gesha, an Israeli running coach, who also serves as the Ethiopian delegation’s agent. “That’s what happens when you give visas without any stipulations.” Gesha knows a thing or two about fleeing athletes. Three years ago, an Ethiopian runner he brought to Israel disappeared, and has yet to be found, despite a police investigation. According to Gesha, “there were rumors that the girls were going to run away. There were warnings.” Gesha also said that “As far as I could tell, they came with improper equipment.”

Other questions arise from the conversation with Gesha: were the two Ethiopian girls who ran away from Jerusalem even runners? From information that has been uncovered throughout this ordeal, it seems that Mekonen and Zalika had no connection at all to the running world. “They had no official, recorded results,” clarified Gesha. “I didn’t see results from them, not even for a 5 or 10 kilometer run. I’m surprised the organizers even brought them.” After checking with the International Association of Athletics Federations, it seems that Gesha is correct – there are no official results under either of the young women’s’ names.

Jack Cohen, General Secretary of the Israeli Athletic Association, responsible for bringing in foreign runners for the Tiberias marathon, said that he would not have brought Mekonen and Zalika to Israel, especially not after the embarrassing cases in the past. “We’re very careful,” says Cohen. “We verify through agents and local associations who just who these athletes are. I personally check the world rank of every athlete, and if he’s not listed, he’s not brought to Tiberias. We get stricter from year to year.”

Cohen’s remarks aren’t exactly accurate. Every year, some Ethiopian and Kenyan runners who are not qualified to make the IAAF’s world rankings are included in the Tiberias marathon. What do they do in those cases? “I have my methods,” says Cohen, but he would not elaborate. “After years of dealing with foreign runners, I know people in Kenya and Ethiopia who can vouch for the runners’ training.”

Officials at the Israeli Athletic Association also claim that east-African runners that do not present credentials have to arrange their own visas and entry permits. This is in contrast with seasoned runners, whose stays in Israel are paid for by the organizing committee for the Tiberias marathon. Despite strict checks it is impossible to guarantee that even “proven” runners won’t disappear when push comes to shove. “The risk is always there,” says Gesha.

So what prompted those in charge of the marathon to choose Mekonen and Zalika? An official directly connected to bringing the two young women to Israel said that there were concerns regarding them, and even some problematic elements, but insisted that “we brought them after all of the appropriate checks.”

According to that same official, checks were made with the Ethiopian Athletic Association as well, which confirmed that the two runners’ identities. According to the official, it is possible that the two girls’ documents were forged, and staunchly denies that the two young women were brought in per the personal recommendation of any athletic agents. As in previous years, the marathon’s organizers demanded a deposit of NIS 20,000 from each eastern-African runner that was invited to participate.

The Jerusalem municipality’s spokesperson responded to the incident. “The Jerusalem municipality conducted a thorough check with the IAAF of all of the elite runners that arrived. It is important to note that the IAAF does not list runners’ names on its website. Also, the municipality consulted with the Israeli Athletic Association, and decided to include only runners who had been active over the last three years. According to the Interior Ministry’s demands, every elite runner invited to participate in the Jerusalem marathon must leave a deposit. In the case of every runner, official forms from the Ethiopian Athletics Association were received, confirming their identities,” read a statement from the municipality.

Elmiyahu Paloro, an Israeli running coach with connections in Ethiopia, said that the chances the young women received all the necessary clearances is almost zero. “The Ethiopian Athletic Association would not authorize two women that no one has ever heard of. The association grants permits to the highest-level athletes only, and it’s unclear as to where Mekonen and Zalika’s permits came from. I say – 1 million percent – that no such forms were printed, and their permits were forgeries.”

Paloro believes that the fault lies with the agent that deceived the organizers regarding the Ethiopians. According to Paloro, the girls’ actions brought a great deal of embarrassment to the rest of the Ethiopian delegation. “The winner of the marathon, Abrham Kabeto, is even frightened to return to Israel. At the moment he is in Ethiopia, helping me to understand just what happened here.”

Some believe that Mekonen and Zalika received assistance from within the Israeli running community. An official who spoke to Haaretz said that in previous cases, suspicions arose, and some believed that one of the runners who ran off into Israel was the brother of Haile Satayin, an Israeli-Ethiopian marathon champion. Others claim that Israeli running agents have encouraged east-African runners to stay in Israel, and offered to help them achieve refugee status. These are just rumors, however.

“I don’t know what these two got in their heads,” said Gesha, “that one day they’d return to Ethiopia rich? In the end, they’ll be caught, the police have their pictures.”

He does not intend to stop bringing Ethiopian runners to Israel, even though he says the business is not very lucrative (the agent usually receives 15% of the prize money). “So one runner ran off, no big deal. It’s not the end of the world,” he said.

People running past a street performer at an entrance of the Old City, as they take part in the international Jerusalem Marathon on March 1, 2013. About 20,000 people took part in the annual event.Credit: Reuters

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