Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy?

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 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?


  1. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and for witnessing what Oromos and Oromos friends are facing in Ethiopia.

  2. Wow what a touching story thank you for sharing with us I'm glad u guys are safe n back to a beautiful country noting like American in this world oromia shall bee free one day if good will .....

  3. The truth is coming after long path walk, we are coming to end journy of struggle

  4. Thank you so much for this personal account! You are the angle for the Oromo people. You have, atleast, witnessed the situation under which Oromo people are living from your own persoanl experience and the terror situation that the minority regime in Ethiopia is intensifying. We can say TPLF government is a terrorist gov't that wants to remain on power forever at any cost, that wants to put the majority live under reign of terror, as you have exactly witnessed. TPLF is bove everything - above the law/rule, above the people; it is the maker & braker, is the killer. They havebthe right to do whatever they want to. The right to displace Oromo farmers from their ancestoral land and sell it to foreign investers as their own personal property under the disguies of 'development'. They think that their power is eternal, however, the peoples' power will teach them the way it did in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience. Why ethiopians think you are a spy when you arrive? There has been some incident some "fernji's" while working for NGO there true identity was else. Ethiopian politics is way much complicated than you think. Anyways that is good you had the experiences and return safe .

  6. I am glad Jen and Josh got out safe. I am also glad you now know what the Oromo people have endured in the last 24 years. That was a year ago. The situation in Ambo and many other places in Oromia are worse now. The regime is arresting, torturing, and killing people indiscriminately. Please contact your representatives and speak on their behalf. You are in a free country and nothing to fear now.

    Thank you

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