This account of events that took place in early May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience.
As the authors note in their first post in their series about the Oromo student protests, they are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers. In their first post in the series, Ambo Protests: A Personal Account, Jen and Josh describe in gripping detail what they saw and heard from April 25 to May 1: Students and others in the town of Ambo began to protest against the Ethiopian government’s “master plan” to expand the territory of Addis Ababa and annex lands belonging to the state of Oromia.
Federal police hunted down Jen and Josh’s two young neighbors, who were university students, and shot and killed them in their own home, far away from the student protests. Jen and Josh decided to flee, witnessing hundreds of demonstrators packed into the prison at the Ambo police compound, many showing signs of having been beaten. With the intervention of the U.S. Embassy, the Ambo police authorities allowed Jen and Josh to leave. This post takes up their story from there.
After the protests and violence in Ambo, we fled to the capital city of Addis Ababa and stayed at a little hotel called Yilma. Immediately, we started telling everyone about what happened in Ambo. We called and texted our friends, we talked to anyone at the hotel that would listen, and we posted things on Facebook. If we tell everyone about the protesters in Ambo being imprisoned and killed, surely it will stop, we reasoned.
The next day, two strange men – one tall with dark skin, the other short with lighter skin – struck up a conversation with us in the hotel restaurant.
“We’re from Minnesota, here to visit our family in Wollega,” they said.
“Oh, we’re from St. Paul!” we replied, excited.
“Oh, we’re from St. Paul, too!” they said, pulling out a fake-looking Minnesota driver’s license.
The address said Worthington, not St. Paul.
“How long have you lived in St. Paul?’ we asked.
“Yes.” the tall man said, nervously.
“I mean…how long have you lived in St. Paul?” we said, slower.
“Just 2 weeks.”
“And you’re already back in Ethiopia. And you just drove through Ambo, past all the protests and the police, to visit your family in Wollega?” we asked, thinking about the single paved road that heads west through Ambo.
“Yes.” he replied.
“You must be very brave,” we said, thinking about how the road was closed due to the violence.
“Why?” he asked, baiting us with a stoic face.
We froze, afraid to speak further. At that moment, after 20 months in Ethiopia, we finally understood why so many people in Oromia are afraid of spies. When we first arrived in Ambo, people thought WE were C.I.A. spies, which we found amusing…spies who couldn’t even speak the language? If we had been spies, we certainly weren’t very good at our job. But now, the tables were turned.
The two men began following us around the hotel area, sitting next to us whenever possible, walking slowly past our table, then returning slowly past our table – sometimes up to 10 times per hour. A different man followed us to a restaurant about a mile from the hotel, then sat at the closest table to ours, rudely joining a young couple’s romantic dinner.
For the next three days, we stopped telling people about the protests and the imprisonments and the killings in Ambo. We were afraid that the two men would be listening. We were afraid that someone was monitoring our communications on the government-controlled cell phone service and the government-controlled internet. Were we just paranoid? Were we really being monitored? Maybe we had just integrated too much, to the point where we had become Oromo, afraid of government spies and afraid of speaking out and being put in jail. While being ferenji (foreigners) gave us some level of protection, thoughts of the Swedish journalists thrown into an Ethiopian jail in 2011 lingered in the backs of our minds. The journalists “were only doing their jobs, and human rights group Amnesty International said the journalists had been prosecuted for doing legitimate work.” Did we seem just as suspicious to the government as those Swedish journalists? We didn’t want to find out.
Peace Corps gave all the volunteers strict instructions NOT to blog or post on Facebook about the protests or killings across Oromia. It is just too dangerous to say anything about the Ethiopian government, they pointed out.
That’s when we decided to leave Ethiopia. For us, staying in Ambo, not ruffling any feathers, was not an option. How could we go back and pretend that our neighbors, students, and and fellow residents didn’t die or didn’t end up in prison?
To read more from the authors, or to share your appreciation, please visit their blog,Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience.
More posts about the crisis in Ethiopia:
Ambo Protests: A Personal Account (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)