A strong hand planted stiffly on my shoulder and sent shivers through my body, freezing every muscle as I stood on my host family’s front lawn in Ethiopia. I slowly turned as my eyes traveled up a large arm and over to the other arm, which was grasping an AK-47. I looked up at his face as he glanced back at two other armed men and his lips parted into a grin.
At this point I was halfway through a two-month summer trip to teach English in Haramaya, Ethiopia, through Learning Enterprises, a nonprofit student-run organization. Fourteen volunteers and a student program coordinator were staying with host families in eastern Ethiopia.
I was on my way to school with two other volunteers July 9 when I was stopped by the three armed men on my lawn. We later learned they worked for the Ethiopian National Intelligence Agency.
“You need to come with me to the police station for questioning, all of you,” the man who stopped me said.
“Why?” I demanded.
No response. Oh, right, I thought, authorities in Ethiopia don’t respond to that question. I learned it was dangerous to question their government. Any time I tried to discuss politics in a public place I was quickly hushed. As an American citizen on Ethiopian soil, I had no more rights than the Ethiopian people. A couple minutes after my foolish “why” question, we were flailing and yelling for help while the men shoved us into the back of a car.
Not knowing who was taking me or where I was going, the tears came abruptly like a kid in a grocery store who suddenly looks up to find she has lost her mother. My remaining dignity left with the breath stuttering out through my quivering mouth. I cried tears heavy with the universal fear felt by humans deprived of basic human rights. At that moment I felt perhaps the greatest connection with the Ethiopian people as I was forced to face what they struggle against every day.
In the next town over, we pulled into the police station where more volunteers from our program were waiting. We sat in the police office where we were watched fidgeting for hours before they told us that we were missing “a document” required for teaching in Ethiopia—a document to be discussed with officials in the capital 10 hours west, Addis Ababa. Commanded to pack all of our things for the trip to Addis, we concluded we probably wouldn’t be coming back to the town we had grown to call home.
Back at my host family’s house, trying to keep my eyes dry enough to pack my bags, I avoided looking anyone in the eyes. My efforts became futile when I opened the front pocket of my pack and found all the gifts I had planned to give my host family.
“Why are you crying?” the men asked me, laughing from behind their AK-47s.
“This is my family,” I whispered. “You are taking me from my family.”
Giving words to my emotions solidified them into a burning anger that replaced my fear and sadness. I thought of my students who waited hours on end for the chance to get into 50 minutes of class,before going home to help their family scrape up a living. They were certainly waiting at school for us now. And here was their government, ignorant and self-important, carting away free teachers and guarding us with 10 armed men in case we tried anything.
We drove all day toward Addis. In the morning we began requests for lunch that went unsatisfied, and in the afternoon we tried for dinner. Finally they gave in and we pulled over to a roadside shop. An official went to the shop and came back with a small pack of crackers for us all to split.
We kept driving into the night until we stopped at a hotel, still hours out of Addis. We were in a malaria zone. We asked to get our bug nets but were denied access to our bags.. You’re not supposed to take malaria medication on an empty stomach, but I was getting bitten. I took my pill and just minutes later was keeling over. I spent the night without sleep, weak and dehydrated in the sticky lowland heat, dry-heaving over a hole in the ground overflowing with sewage, guarded by armed men with unknown objectives. The next morning we made it to the capital.
In Addis they took us straight to immigration. Again we were kept hungry, though this time we were advised to enjoy the “mental food” offered by the view from our holding room. Despite our waning energy, we kept our spirits up with songs, games and stories. Immigration officials interviewed us each individually. The officials gave each of us a different reason about what we were doing wrong in the country. My favorite was that we were “overknowledging” our students by challenging them in the classroom.
While we waited as a group during the interviews, we decided that no matter what happened, our primary goals were to stick together and to contact the U.S. embassy. We wrote the embassy’s number on skin covered by clothes and on small pieces of paper that we hoped we would be able to pass off to someone.
By the last few interviews, the officials became consistent in telling us that we had the wrong type of visa. Although airport staff told us to get tourist visas, these officials thought we needed business visas. That night they told us we had to leave the country the following day. If we had the cash on us to change our flights, we could do so; otherwise it was Ethiopian jail until our original flights left, which was a month later for me. We did not believe we had enough cash for all of us, but our goal to stick together remained intact.
We spent that night under tight guard at a government hotel where we were still unable to contact the embassy, and the next day they drove us to the airport where we were held in a back room. After waiting all day, later that evening my blank stare at the wall was interrupted when a team of men entered the room and stated, “We are from the U.S. embassy. We are here to help you.” I bolted from my chair and smothered them in hugs and tears. The next hour was a flurry of phone calls home, information release forms and random expressions of glee.
A few hours later we were all on flights home, lessons learned. When traveling abroad it is important to be knowledgeable about the country and its government. While we were never given an official reason for our deportation, many of us believe it had to do with the ethnicity of the students we were teaching: Oromo.
Every Oromo person I talked to felt that the government actively oppresses the Oromo ethnic group as a means of maintaining power. The ruling party of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, has proven it will go to great lengths to protect its power. After the 2005 national elections threatened the party’s majority in parliament, Ethiopians accused the party of intimidation at the polls and forging ballots. Hundreds were injured, killed or arrested.
In a country with such a paranoid and forceful government, we could have foreseen some trouble with serving the Oromo people without any sort of clearance from higher up. We also should have gone to the U.S. embassy as a group for information about risks and instruction on safety.
When you go to another country, you don’t take your rights with you. As romantic and adventurous as it sounds to spontaneously pack up and travel the globe, when you don’t do your homework, reality can be harsh.