When three journalists from the New York Times traveled to the region to try to understand why the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a relatively unknown group, had lashed out so violently, they were detained by the Ethiopian military, threatened, had all their equipment confiscated, and were finally released without charge five days later.
Because I was contributing reporting to the Times, the Ethiopian government began to pay attention to me as well. I would later discover that my phone had been tapped months earlier, and there were rumors that I was being followed. While I knew I was under some kind of surveillance, I also knew that I had to begin reporting in earnest on the Ogaden, and so I sought out people who had fled that region and had ended up in Addis Ababa.
In Addis, there are several neighborhoods populated by ethnic Somalis, and one was made up almost entirely of internally displaced people from the Ogaden. I started spending time there, meeting secretly in living rooms with cautious, veiled women and angry men, young and old.
They would tell me their stories and show me their scars. One elderly woman even removed her hijab, exposing her shoulder and back, to show me the grotesque, deep scar hidden there. Ten months earlier, she had been stabbed with a bayonet by an Ethiopian soldier. "He asked me to stand up, and I guess I did this too slowly for him," she said, focusing her rheumy, blue-rimmed eyes on mine. "He meant to hit my face."
Every person I interviewed had a similar story. Their villages had been burned. Their men and women had been jailed, tortured, and raped. Many had been killed. One student I spoke with said, "There are only two options for us: Join the rebels or flee."
After a Times piece detailed these accusations, aid workers and officials within the government became more willing to speak about other things that were happening in the Ogaden, but none would comment on the record or meet publicly. They were afraid to jeopardize their operations in the country. The government had effectively cowed not only the civilian population, but also aid groups, the United Nations, and foreign embassies.
In addition to having my phone tapped, I was now sure I was being followed by plainclothes intelligence agents. On several occasions, after I exited a taxi, the driver would be interrogated by police.
One day, two men in civilian clothes identifying themselves as police officers showed up at my house and questioned my cook, a 15-year-old girl who'd just finished the eighth grade and knew nothing about my work. She was shaken by the experience, and I knew things had changed.
I began to consider leaving Ethiopia. My love for the country collided with my ever-increasing fear and disdain for those who were making my life, and the lives of those who knew me, difficult. For the first time in two years of living in this beautiful place, I was afraid to leave my home. The government's goal was intimidation, and it was working.
Everyone around me told me to leave, including the U.S. ambassador, who offered to escort me to the airport. It was not an official expulsion, but there was a real chance that I would be arrested and charged under local laws if I stayed. The next day, I reluctantly bought a ticket and packed my bags.
Early on a Saturday morning, I hailed a taxi to take me to the American Embassy. As we pulled away from my house, I noticed my landlord looking out from his door. He had seen me put luggage into the taxi, and I knew he would immediately call the police with this information.
Earlier that week, I had learned that the man I had lived not 200 yards from for two years, the man I paid my rent to and chatted amiably about America with, was an unofficial government spy. In 2005, he had identified and turned in dozens of neighborhood people he suspected of supporting the opposition party. He even appeared on the state-run TV channel urging the ruling party and the police to more effectively punish the city's young people.
I urged the taxi driver to hurry. At the embassy, I was greeted by the ambassador, who shook my hand and tossed my suitcase into the trunk of his waiting SUV. "I wonder if there'll be any Ethiopian intelligence guys waiting for you at the airport," he said, chuckling.
There were not. Only glassy-eyed airport employees and passengers going about the business of waiting. I boarded the plane, and without any fanfare except my own nervous breathing, flew away from Ethiopia—the country I loved that, in the end, didn't love me back.