Addis Ababa: An Excerpt from the Ethiopian Intercept

Here is a another sample from The Ethiopian Intercept. Ross Brannan, travelling on a Canadian passport, is on his way to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. He mission: identify the traitor J. Andrew Marsden for a CIA team. Their job: capture and interrogate him and bring him home if necessary.

Saturday, 18 February 1978: In Flight to Ethiopia

The flight from Nairobi was uneventful until, just before we landed, an announcement from the pilot: "We regret all passengers will be required to disembark at Addis Ababa. The airline will provide passengers scheduled to fly on to Bombay with overnight lodging."

"Bloody hell, not again," fumed the Englishman next to me. "My travel agent warned me about this. They do this all the time." He told me the Ethiopian government often takes planes out of service to ferry troops to the Ogaden front. The war seemed closer.

While waiting at the airport in Nairobi, I noticed Sergeant King and Corporal Machado wandering around in civilian clothes, trying to be inconspicuous. Avoided their eyes, they did the same. I wondered if Wilson was aware of their presence, Barker probably arranged it on his own initiative. Several of my fellow passengers looked vaguely suspicious. Fortunately, no one seemed to pay me any particular attention. Clean-shaven for a change, except for a light mustache, I was dressed in a tan tropical weight business suit, even had a tie on. Hoped the disguise wouldn't be necessary.

Familiar Ethiopian countryside passed below. The landscape mostly brown, mixed with green patches, small villages and farms, and the occasional road. The airliner descended to Addis Ababa airport, a mountain loomed to the left, the final approach, and soon we were on the ground.

*  *  *

The airport hummed with activity, but not normal airport activity. Armed guards and sullen soldiers filled the arrival area along with the usual tourist herd. Shabbily dressed officials whisked passengers through customs and immigration with a cursory glance, unusual efficiency for Ethiopia. They seemed anxious to move us out soon as possible. The Ethiopians had a war to fight.

The stench of stale urine mixed with cheap cigarette smoke welcomed us to the main lobby. Incomprehensible utterings emanated from loudspeakers. The place was a nightmare, people milled about, pushing, talking, and shouting. Vendors screeched, offering their wares. Porters tagged along and tried to grab suitcases.

The prospect of a hectic taxi ride in from the airport was worrisome. If, for some reason, bad guys were waiting for me, might be dangerous to travel alone.

An airline bus stood outside the terminal ready to transfer Bombay passengers to their complementary hotel accommodations. It struck me as another unusual efficiency for Ethiopia, especially in these times.

Why not? A quick clean trip into town, they’ll never know.

A young Ethiopian blocked my way to the modern Mercedes-Benz bus. "May I be your guide? I am student…" With a quick sidestep, I brushed past him and boarded with the other passengers.

Inside the vehicle, an officious young man in an airline uniform curtly informed me, "Bus for Bombay passenger only." Knew what to do, a crisp five-dollar bill secured a seat. Some things never change.

*  *  *

Ethiopia had once been my home. The two years at Kagnew Station in Asmara my best duty, bar none. At that time, the U.S. ran a so-called communications relay station. The post was in reality, a sophisticated intelligence collection facility. Those days were gone forever, a communist leaning military junta now held power. The Eritreans in Asmara were trying to break away from the central government. The situation didn't look good for them.

Along the road into the city we passed boys with a herd of sheep, a girl balanced a water jug on her head, and several men carried spears. Ethiopia seemed timeless with traditions unchanged for hundreds of years. Reality intruded on the peaceful scene, a convoy of olive drab military vehicles roared by, headed towards the airport.

The bus entered a large traffic circle: cars, taxis, trucks, busses, and motorcycles chaotically moved around in all directions. Pedestrians, donkeys, goats, and a camel added to the confusion.

The man from the airline announced, "Mr., you next."

*  *  *

The Blue Nile Hotel turned out to be a basic establishment in the heart of the city, one that catered to budget tourists and thrifty business travelers. An obvious choice for a frugal Canadian named McGregor. I remembered the hotel from an earlier trip to Addis, but never stayed there, preferring a cheaper place a few blocks away.

Outside the entrance, a squad, ten soldiers armed with U.S. made M-1 carbines, stood guard. A tall sergeant inspected my papers and pretended to be able to read. A dollar bill ensured his literacy. Inside, the desk clerk failed to find my name on the reservations list. Once more, a greenback did the trick.

I commented in a casual manner, "A lot of troops around. Are we safe here?"

"Many soldiers today," responded the clerk. "All hotels have many soldiers. They come today. Many soldiers."

Not wanting to seem too curious and draw unwanted attention, I asked no more questions. I followed the porter, a grey haired older man with high cheekbones and dark bronze skin, up the stairs to my room. He didn't bother with the elevator. It never worked during my brief stay. A dollar tip elicited a polite response in perfect English.

"Thank you, sir, and welcome to Addis Ababa. If we may be of assistance at any time, please let me know."

"You speak English very well."

"Thank you, sir. I studied at the University of California for four years."

Started to reply but paused with an obvious question on my lips.

"Until the troubles, I was a professor at Haile Selassie University, now…" he didn't finish, bowed slightly, and left.

I was tempted to speak with him some more, but he might work for the secret police. The ruling Marxist military committee, the Deng, recently installed a brutal totalitarian régime that left the country in near chaos. I needed to stay focused on the task-at-hand.

The small room included a private bath with a western style toilet and a moldy shower. A placard informed guests, hot water was available from six until ten in the evening. Flicked the bathroom light switch — no bulb. Checked the threadbare sheets, which were sort-of clean — no sign of bed bugs. The room decor consisted of well-worn carpet, cracked-plaster, peeling paint, and a bullet hole in the window glass. A small black and white television offered Marxist propaganda and military music on both channels. Decided to take a nap and wait for someone to contact me.

Although the story and places are fictional, the Ethiopian military did interrupt civilian flights to ferry troops to the front line during the Ogaden War.  Several of the small incidents and interactions related in the story are based upon the experiences of friends and acquaintances who served in Ethiopia for the US military.

If you wish to find out more about the Army Security Agency in Ethiopia, please check out the Kagnew Station page on Wikipedia