Forcefully detained by heavily armed Ethiopian government officials without explanation, University of Wisconsin sophomore Rory Linnane and senior Brett Hebert were finally released and deported after three emotionally trying days.
Linnane and Hebert worked as volunteers with the nonprofit, student-run organization Learning Enterprises and traveled to Ethiopia to teach English to children.
On the morning of July 9, three armed men outside Linnane’s host house did not strike her as unusual, until they grabbed her arm and informed her in broken English she would not be going to school that day.
Despite Linnane and other non-UW students’ efforts to resist, the men forcefully removed their cell phones and passports before picking the girls up and putting them in a car.
“We were kicking and screaming and trying to get out and they just shoved us in the back,” Linnane said.
Meanwhile, in a neighboring village, Hebert and his roommates were dealing with a similar situation.
Once at the police station, Hebert and his roommate were held in a back room without explanation.
It became apparent to Hebert this was not a routine operation once other LE volunteers who had been stationed around the country began to show up even more confused and emotional than themselves.
Expecting the rights guaranteed to them in the United States, both Linnane and Hebert said the predominant emotions they felt were frustration and anger.
After brief questioning, the group was taken back to their respective homes to pack their belongings and embark for the capital city of Addis Ababa, where they hoped to get some answers.
After hours crammed into a hot van alongside armed guards, the group was forced to spend the night in a rundown hotel without adequate food or water.
“I had taken my malaria pill because we were in a malaria zone, but you’re not supposed to take it on an empty stomach, so I spent the whole night vomiting into a hole in the ground overflowing with sewage,” Linnane said.
The next day, the group was driven to the capital where they spent the entire day in immigration, not the American Embassy as they had been told.
Following individual interrogation, the group was informed they did not have the right visas and had to leave the country immediately.
“They told us if we couldn’t afford to change our flights, we would have to stay in jail until our original flight out,” Linnane said. “Mine wasn’t for another month.”
After spending the entire next day locked in a backroom at the airport, the door to the room was thrown open and “white people” began to file in, according to Hebert.
“They were like, ‘We are the American embassy, we are here to help you,'” Linnane said. “It was an epic moment.”
Three days had passed since the students were taken.
According to Katrina Shankland, LE’s director of programming, LE notified the American Embassy the day they were taken and spent the next three searching the country for them.
Before this, however, the American Embassy was unaware of the group’s presence in the country, according to Hebert.
Linnane added despite the wealth of information LE provided, she felt there was still more they could have done to adequately prepare her to deal with such a situation.
While no official reason for deportation has been given, Hebert said the american ambassador led him to believe the students were suspected of teaching a political agenda and with a democratic election coming up next year, this was not a risk the Ethiopian government wanted to take.
“We were told by the ambassador that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been briefed on the situation,” Hebert added.
Though nothing of this sort has happened on an LE trip before, the organization has cancelled its programs in the past due to security concerns. An intensive review process is currently underway regarding the program’s presence in Ethiopia, according to Shankland.