My hapless African rebel

A funny thing happened on my way to civil war in Ethiopia -- I met Reagan, and I would never see guerrilla rebels the same way again.


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Nick Wadhams
June 16, 2007 4:00PM (UTC)

My low-boil panic began in January, two weeks before I planned to travel to Ethiopia and write some stories that I fancied would expose the human rights' abuses and true, nasty nature of America's stalwart ally in Africa. I had just quit my job at the Associated Press and moved to Nairobi, Kenya. After eight years of reporting in Russia, Denver and at the United Nations, I wanted to focus on the continent to which most of the world turned a nonchalant eye. I had won a grant with my wife, Zoe, also a journalist, to begin in Ethiopia.

Terrified that we would land in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, without anyone to meet, I pumped everyone I knew for contacts. A fellow journalist passed me the e-mail address of an Ethiopian she once interviewed. She described the man, incongruously named Reagan, an ethnic Somali, as a critic of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's regime.

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My friend had met Reagan in an Addis Ababa cafe, where she had gone to gather quotes for her own story about Ethiopians' dissatisfaction with their government. Nobody in the cafe would talk to her -- they were frightened of a foreign reporter -- until Reagan approached and gladly offered to speak to her. That should have been a sign. But I was desperate. At most, I figured I would get in, get a little advice, get out and never see him again.

It didn't turn out that way. This bizarre man would be my introduction to the miasma of conspiracy and paranoia at the heart of the Ethiopian government's war with its own people. He would reveal to me a rebel group that has been both deadly and comically hapless.

I e-mailed Reagan and explained that I wanted to visit the eastern region of Ogaden, near the border with Somalia, where Reagan was from. I wanted to meet members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The Ogaden is technically a part of Ethiopia, but its people are ethnic Somalis. The Ogaden rebel group wants unity neither with Ethiopia nor Somalia. It wants independence for a barren waste of scrubland, which is said to sit on massive oil reserves but whose dominant inhabitants are camels and the nomads who herd them.

My story had gained a certain urgency when Ethiopia invaded Somalia on Christmas Eve. Some said it was a U.S.-style preemptive strike to head off possible acts of terror, and a repeat of the 1977-78 war, in which Somalia invaded Ethiopia and ended up wrecking its own military in the process.

Prime Minister Meles used the specter of the ONLF as one of his excuses for invading Somalia. Much later, the ONLF demonstrated how active it had become by killing more than 70 people, including several Chinese oil workers, at a facility in Ogaden. But now the rebel group was obscure to me, just one of the many rebel groups harassing Meles' flanks.

Reagan fired off two e-mails in quick succession.

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Subject: welcome

Dear

Welcome please, I really welcome you as much as a human bieng can, the only thing I need from You is that of only you do not mention me, once you arrive in addis ababa you can send a via email explaning where I can find you. Best RGDS Reagan

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Subject: from day to day

Dear, sir Nick

From day to day there is very large news coming from ogaden including here in addis ababa, to day is jan. 17 07, the news even includes that some woredas which the onlf controlls now from two days a go. so please tell me where you are and the exact time and date that we can meet, if that is not possible for you let me correspond it by emails (this is only if you are not coming addis)

N.B. If you are in addis ababa tell me where you are please

Best

Reagan

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A Yahoo! account, some bad grammar and a dollop of intrigue. If only Reagan knew how masterfully he had set the bait for me. His only flaw seemed to be a somewhat hazy grasp of minor details. He sent me many more e-mails asking when I would arrive in Addis Ababa or if I was already there. I attributed his incessant queries to his shoddy English.

After much negotiation and several more e-mails, I arranged my first encounter with Reagan at my Addis Ababa hotel. As I sat in the lobby, a young man came in, looked right at me and went to the front desk. That can't possibly be Reagan, I thought. This guy was tall and dressed in a black business suit. He walked with a man's purposeful gait but his face was that of a child.

The Reagan in my mind had gravitas, like the couple of other Ethiopian intellectuals and dissidents I had interviewed during my first 24 hours in the country. This guy swaggered in the manner of a hungry young seaman loading cannons on the lower decks of a man-of-war.

I heard him ask for me at the desk. The receptionist nodded coolly in my direction.

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The receptionist and I were old pals. We had just squabbled about acquiring a SIM card for my cellphone. In Ethiopia, foreigners can't just go and buy a SIM card. Cellphones are considered potentially dangerous weapons if placed in the wrong hands. In 2005, the government had banned text messages, an edict that remains in effect because Meles says he believes his opponents will use SMS (Short Message Service) to incite genocide.

Buying a cellphone in Ethiopia requires that you pay someone in a position of authority to get one for you. That meant getting a hotel staffer to go wait in line for a couple of hours at the local telecommunications office.

"How long you are staying in Ethiopia?" the receptionist had asked me earlier that day.

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"Not sure. Maybe a few weeks."

"OK, so when you leave, you give us SIM card, right?"

"Umm ... why? I'm buying the SIM card."

"Yes, but when you leave Ethiopia you don't need SIM card anymore. It shut down after three weeks if you not use. So you give us."

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"I'll sell it to you, but I'm not just going to give you something I paid $50 for."

"But you are leaving Ethiopia. You no use SIM card anymore. You give us."

The man approached me and smiled. Reagan. I looked him over. He was young, around 30, terribly thin, with buck teeth that emerged when he smiled as if his lips were retreating in fear of being torn to ribbons. His black hair was close-cropped but thick. His suit and faux-leather shoes suggested that he did not live in poverty.

Reagan was also extremely jittery, so much so that his eyes looked ready to roll back in his head. This was not just from the common fear nurtured by the Ethiopian police state. Those teeth of his bore the rusty stains of habitual use of khat, a leafy stimulant that, when chewed, creates a mildly transcendental state you might think you'd get after chugging 35 cups of coffee. Because it was about 3 p.m., just the time for khat, I gathered that he was well within its thrall.

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Reagan shook my hand and suggested that we leave the hotel. It was frequented by foreigners and the Ethiopian security apparatus might be listening. A more private place was just around the corner. "Around the corner" is different for a nomad than for your average American. An hourlong walk later, we arrived at the Lalibella, a new hotel whose decorators had managed to evoke 1970s-era Soviet apartment block chic. We chose a corner table and sat down. Reagan ordered a gargantuan plate of spaghetti but picked at it like a man who had long ago become accustomed to very small meals.

I laid out my plan to visit the Ogaden and I asked Reagan if he could recommend any important towns to pass through. At this point, I believed that my journey would only be a matter of hiring a car and a translator, and wandering into town, tape recorder and camera in hand.

Reagan suggested a town called Kebri Dehar. It was located in the heart of an area loyal to the Ogaden rebels and was populated almost entirely by Somalis. Kebri Dehar is said to be rich in oil and Ethiopia is in no mood to give it up.

Reagan led me to believe that Kebri Dehar was a shit hole among shit holes, a place of secrecy and intrigue: spies spying on spies, U.S. troops in the area riding out into the desert on camelback and blasting goats whose teats were tied in rags that could conceal bombs. Veiled ladies of legendary beauty. Secret Ethiopian prisons where CIA and FBI agents have interrogated terrorism suspects.

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Reagan said ONLF rebels had recently shot down a couple of planes near Kebri Dehar. He boasted that he had family there. Not only would he be able to put me in touch with the ONLF, but he would, through his clan ties, be able to guarantee my safe passage.

The town itself is controlled and dominated by the Ethiopian army. But beyond its limits, this is a no-go zone for anyone from the wrong tribe. Reagan said we would need a well-connected guide. I would not be able to show up and do man-on-the-street interviews. Everyone would be terrified of speaking to us. And there were no hotels. But never fear. He had family there. They would know people who could put us in touch with the Ogaden rebels. His clan ties would guarantee our safe passage.

There was one more thing. When we got to Kebri Dehar, to avoid detection by Ethiopian security moles, we had to pretend we were there to see camels. Somalis love their camels. Wealth is determined by one's ownership of camels. People eat camel meat and drink camel milk. We could, Reagan said, just claim to be there to check 'em out.

This didn't sound too far-fetched. Everywhere I went in Ethiopia, I had to fabricate some new identity to thwart the police if they asked too many questions about what I was doing. I was alternately a missionary, a teacher on vacation or a representative of the "National Endowment for Development." A contact in the West told me that I could explain away the interview subjects filing in and out of my hotel room by pretending that I had come to investigate schistosomiasis, a parasite found in ponds and creeks that can cause disease.

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As I sat in the hotel with Reagan, there was something about the moment -- his stories, his earnestness -- that made me think Kebri Dehar held the key to my Ethiopia investigation. So I agreed: I would go to Jijiga, the regional capital of eastern Ethiopia, and join up with Reagan a few days later.

My first view of Jijiga was from a distance, along the road that snakes out along the Marda Pass to the west. The city of 250,000 looked tiny, and I was filled with dread. I was going to spend four days in this city, with one paved road bisecting its middle?

Jijiga is not the type of place where white people just stroll the streets. In much of Ethiopia, you attract attention as a foreigner, but mostly from curious kids. Here, the suspicion is deeper. You feel watched. It's the kind of place where people ask a lot of questions about you. The Somalia war all of a sudden felt a lot closer.

So perhaps it was no surprise that my suspicions about Reagan deepened. I decided to do a little digging into his past. He claimed to have worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross as a translator. Yet no one with the ICRC knew him. Same with the Ethiopian Red Cross.

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My local contact -- I'll call him Berhanu -- was worried too. Berhanu was a man I had met through a source in Addis Ababa. A former teacher, he had reason to be fearful -- he'd received his share of death threats, and so had all his friends. A buddy of his had just bowed out of the race for Parliament after someone stuck a gun to his head and told him if he didn't bow out he'd be killed.

After much discussion with our local friends, I decided on a plan for Reagan's arrival. I would meet Reagan at my hotel and chat with him briefly in the lobby while Berhanu and one of his cohorts sussed him out while sitting nonchalantly nearby. If Berhanu gave me the go-ahead (to be conveyed by the casual pulling of his right ear), we would decamp to a local restaurant, where the one-time aspiring parliamentarian would be waiting.

It was all set up. The parliamentarian waited in the restaurant. He was terrified, but we tried to reassure him. I went to the hotel on my own. Berhanu was in place. I waited.

My cellphone rang. It was Reagan.

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"Hello!"

Whenever we spoke on the phone, Reagan never said, "Hello Nick!" It was always just "Hello!" as if he was not quite sure who exactly he was speaking to.

"Reagan! Where are you?"

"I am at the hotel."

I scanned the lobby and looked toward the front desk.

"Where in the hotel are you?"

"I am in the lobby."

"I'm in the lobby and I don't see you."

Silence on the other end.

"The Bade Hotel? You're in the lobby of the Bade Hotel?" I said.

"Bade Hotel? Not Bade Hotel! Lalibella Hotel!"

Lalibella Hotel, I thought. There was no Lalibella hotel in Jijiga. Where the hell was Reagan? The only Lalibella Hotel that I knew of was back in Addis Ababa, a two-day drive away.

"Reagan, are you in Addis?"

"Yes, in Addis, at Lalibella, where we met first time."

"Reagan, I'm in Jijiga. I was supposed to meet you tonight at the Bade Hotel in Jijiga."

"You are in Jijiga?" I could hear the panic in his voice. What would this mean for him? The prospect of this American and his money, lost forever. "I call you back."

Frankly, everyone on my end of the line was very much relieved when I told them the news. Reagan had screwed up. He would not bring us to Kebri Dehar.

Reagan, however, was not so willing to let go. He called the next day to say that he was leaving Addis immediately. I was unsure why exactly he wanted to go, though I began to suspect that he'd seen the whole thing as a way to get a free ride to visit his family. He swore it wasn't the money.

By this point I was so shaken by my experience in Jijiga, and by my Jijiga contacts' suspicion of Reagan, that I wanted to be done with him. Reagan might be a good guy, but it was time to move on.

On the phone, I told Reagan that yes, indeed, I was still planning to go to Kebri Dehar, but I could not take him with me. I told him I realized that this was a little late in the game, but I didn't know who he was. None of his references checked out.

That's when Reagan got nasty. He told me that he had already called ahead to his pals in Kebri Dehar.

"Reagan, I still want to go to Kebri Dehar, but I don't trust you, so I'm going to go without you," I said.

"What?"

"I just don't trust you, Reagan. No one in Jijiga had heard of you. I didn't know what to do. I had to make a decision."

"Now you don't understand something. You don't understand something, Mr. Nick."

"What do you mean? What don't I understand?"

"Everyone in Kebri Dehar think you come with me. When I not there when you come Kebri Dehar, they wonder. They not talk to you."

"Well, I'll just have to try my luck, Reagan.

"No. You no understand. I in Addis Ababa. I cannot guarantee your safety in Addis."

"What's that supposed to mean, Reagan? Are you saying I'm in danger if I go there?"

"Not saying danger or no danger. I say only I no guarantee your safety because I in Addis."

I was flustered. Reagan continued lecturing me. "Why you not honest with Reagan from the start? Why you not just say, 'Reagan I not need your services now?' That's fine. But you, Mr. Nick, you don't do that. You say, 'I don't trust you.' You not honest with me. So now I think we no longer talk. I don't call you. We don't talk anymore."

That was fine with me. I still planned to go to Kebri Dehar, but I didn't want to tell Reagan. I figured the only thing to do was to tell a lie in e-mail.

Subject: kd

Hello Reagan,

I just wanted to let you know that i have decided not to go to kebri dehar because it seems too dangerous given the current situation. if i had taken you with me, perhaps i would have been safe. but now i am worried that i will not be safe, so i am not going to go. Again, I am sorry for the confusion. i am going to spend some more time around here and then return to Addis Ababa in a few days.

I hope you are well, and warm regards,

Nick

Reagan responded with a rambling and angry e-mail. He lectured me ("I am not saying that you are not journalist, journalist must be journalist only") and then divulged a shocker. "We are in a war for freedom and we never stop it untill we success for how long it takes. We are the origin of the owners of the region named Ogadenia or Ogaden we never allow to someone else. But I want to close up my this letter that going out of from your own decission, and every person has his own secrets. Therefore, If you pass me and meet me well if not, I even Do not care about my mother and fother for the sake of the goals and objectives of my organization."

I read the e-mail again. In my hunt for the Ogaden rebels, had I overlooked the possibility that Reagan himself was a member? And in my paranoia, had I just told him to take a hike? I had attributed his grasp of the details about the ONLF to braggadocio and fluency with the Internet. But did he know about these things firsthand?

At this point, I did something I still feel mildly ashamed of. I got back in touch with Reagan and asked, despite the fact that I no longer trusted him, whether he would mind putting me in touch with the ONLF leadership. A response arrived quickly. But not from Reagan. It was from a man purporting to be a leader of the ONLF itself.

Subject: You request to talk with ONLF Chiefs/heads/leader

Mr. Nick/Nickolas Wadhamas

According the meeting between you sir Reagan Dawale who is the leader of Politis of the ONLf organization, he was mentioned that you Nick want talk with ONLF heads/chiefs, or leader, Dawale is the leader of our orgnization and was much happy to talk with you, and he was told us me the chairman as well as The deputy we have expecting that you will active in the area that you were mentioned to go, but you have cancelled and we did not understand why? We also understand that you met with Dawale at Meridian hotel, then Lalibela taking lunch, we have never heard such journalist like that, we appricitae gathering information about the fact of the region is one issue, and talking to us is also one issue, it is choice either you gather the information or you talk to us.

We have no problem of talking to any journalist.

We warn not only you but to every journalist coming to the Ogadenia not to lie about the facts

A Mohammed

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Now I was really getting paranoid. ONLF rebels had once strung a police chief from a tree and killed several administrators in cold blood. They were known for torching aid convoys that passed through their territory. What was I to make of their suspicion about my choice of hotels? Their warning "not to lie about the facts"? What would happen to me? I decided to play along. I apologized for my miscommunication with Reagan.

Subject: Re: You request to talk with ONLF Chiefs/heads/leader

Mr. Mohammed,

I am still very interested in bringing international attention to your organization. I did not know Reagan's exact role in it -- he never told me. But I would very much like to talk to you and him if possible to bring out the facts about the Ogaden region. I have no desire to lie about the facts. I believe talking to me is in your interest because I can bring you attention and publicity if you so desire it.

Thank you and I hope you are very well.

Nick

This rapprochement was followed by several e-mails that gave me the distinct impression that these guys were imposters or simply amateurs in the rebel business. Mr. Mohammed said he would only meet me after I made an appearance on CNN or the BBC to report the plight of the Ogaden's people.

I told them that this would be rather difficult. And soon enough, it became clear that the ONLF leadership would not agree to meet with me. The mysterious Mr. Mohammed told me to content myself with Reagan. No one else would be available. A response from Reagan followed.

Subject: w r looking

Dear sir

We are looking an appropriate answer, for the last message of the Chairman. According to our discussion we agree Me the Deputy and The Chairman to see some avtivities in the world media, then the interview may held with one of us according to our security.

N.B. I am told that I did not tell you that I role as Political Leader of ONLF, but by email I was told to [your colleague] and I thought that she was told you, I execuse you that.

thank you

Reagan

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I told Reagan that if he doubted me, he could Google my name to see that I was an established reporter. Next came an e-mail from one "Admiral Osman."

subject: Good lucky

Dear Respected Reporter

In side of ethiopia Reagan is the best, You can interview him, according to our discussion on behalf of the Organization of ONLF, Reagan is now currently On that Issue, beside that he is chenious than all of the others including me.

Therefore, Meeting with Reagan means Meeting of me or the Deputy

However, start with reagan. I hope for both you good lucky. We Understand that you can report it while you are in ethiopia, but when you are abroad of ethiopia please do not ignore to report.

Thanks

Admiral Osman

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An e-mail from Reagan followed.

Subject: hullooooooo

Dear Nick

I am in Moyale at the border of ethiopia and kenya I will back To addis, then I will communicate you once I arrive, I am sure that with the allowance of god I will be in addis before feb. 12 2007.

Also while I was travelling yesterday I have seen to my neck eyes a small village which was like foljeh

Best rgds

Reagan

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I never got to Kebri Dehar. I arrived at the airport in the city of Dire Dawa to go there, only to be told that the flight had been canceled. "Not enough planes," said a taxi driver. I didn't ask how he knew.

I was disappointed I couldn't penetrate the Ogaden rebel group. It occurred to me that if Reagan was part of its leadership, the group was in more trouble than I had thought. Could the notorious ONLF be a bunch of hapless publicity grabbers, capable of the occasional raid but no serious threat to Prime Minister Meles?

Sadly, I wouldn't find out. Reagan had disappeared and wasn't answering e-mails. None of his rebel comrades were, either. And I had run out of time. My wife, Zoe, and I had to move on to another story.

One night, back in Nairobi, I was watching "24" when the phone rang. It was him. "Reagan, where are you?" I asked. A feeling of incredulity rose to the surface, and a certain trepidation.

"I am in Nairobi."

This was trouble. Nairobi. It was now entirely conceivable that he would ask for a place to stay. Or a dinner invite. What's the etiquette of inviting rebels over for dinner? What are the legal ramifications?

"Reagan, what are you doing in Nairobi?"

"I am under arrest."

"Where?"

"I am at airport detention facility and then I claim refugee status."

A few days later, Reagan called to say he'd been released. I arranged to meet him at a cafe far, far away from my house. As I bought a newspaper outside the cafe, I heard him call my name.

I turned around and there was Reagan. It seemed strange that this was only the second time we had met face to face.

He looked horrible, and no longer like an anxious seafarer. Reagan, younger than 30, looked like he was about 50. He was now not just thin, but cadaverously so. His collarbones jutted out, wispy arms dangling at his sides. He was unshaven, with a too big, dirty baseball cap on his head. His long fingernails were lined with grime. He wore jeans loose around his waist and a dirty black vest over a dirty black T-shirt. He smiled those rusty teeth. He looked like a ghoul.

The waitress eyed him scornfully. It occurred to me that she thought I had taken pity on a bum and brought him in for a free meal.

We had a long talk over lunch. Reagan wanted only rice, which he ate with a spoon that seemed too big for his mouth. He explained with pride that he didn't need to eat much. He'd won his own father's love only after surviving a two-week march through the Somali desert drinking only camel milk as a young boy. I asked whether he had any family. Reagan told me his wife had given birth to a baby boy, but the child had died too young for him to feel all that sad. Reagan asked for some change as we parted. I gave him a couple of bucks.

In the weeks that followed, Reagan bugged me incessantly on the phone. As usual, he "flashed" me. This is a common tactic in East Africa for people who don't have the money to spend on phone calls. They call you and hang up before you can answer. You call back.

As I had come to realize by now, Reagan was a poor flasher. Usually he would flash me so many times and so quickly that, when I tried to call, his phone would be busy because he was trying to flash me again.

"Reagan, what's up?" I asked one day.

This was a cruel little delight of mine. Reagan had no idea what "What's up?" meant. Every time, he would answer, "What?"

"How are you, Reagan. What can I do for you?"

He sounded like an adolescent girl bursting to tell a secret. Could I give him my credit card number? Apparently, Reagan had been playing some sort of game online and had recently received an e-mail announcing that he'd won some money. All they needed was a credit card.

"Do you think this is real?" he asked me.

"How much did they say you won, Reagan?" I asked.

He lowered his voice. I imagined him putting his hand over his mouth and looking around warily for eavesdroppers. "One point one M," he whispered. "How can I claim it?"

I paused, smiled at his innocence, and then frowned. There seemed no choice but to crush his faint hopes.

"Reagan," I said, "I think it's a scam."


Nick Wadhams

Nick Wadhams is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has covered Iraq, Russia, the United Nations, and the video-game industry for the Associated Press. His trip to Ethiopia was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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