Hannah Yilma was a proud African and a true Ethiopian patriot, and now that her country is finally charting a new course it is hoped that Ethiopians will embrace her legacy and contribution.

By Shannon Ebrahim (IOL News/The Global Eye) |

JOHANNESBURG―There are people who leave indelible footprints on our lives, and some even help to change the course of history. The most admirable are those who do so without ever seeking the limelight. I dedicate this week’s Global Eye column to a woman who has inspired me for much of my adult life, who in many ways was a political mentor, and who died tragically a month ago.

She was Hannah Yilma, an Ethiopian legend whose story has the makings of a Hollywood movie. In her retirement from the UN as a former spokesperson for UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, she became an institution in Pretoria – within the diplomatic corps, government circles, and among organizations committed to social upliftment.

Hannah Yilma came from the Ethiopian intelligentsia, her grandfather having been a renowned Oromo oral historian, and her father having served as the finance minister and foreign minister to the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I.

Haile Selassie was the 225th emperor of a 3000-year-old Ethiopian dynasty, and while presiding over a monarchy earned the respect of the anti-colonial African leaders such as Kenneth Kaunda and Jomo Kenyatta, as he convened the first meeting of the OAU in 1963.

When Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Selassie in an exceedingly bloody coup in 1974, his henchmen assassinated the emperor and most of the cabinet at the time, save for Yilma Deressa, Hannah’s father.

He was spared as he had been instrumental in the formation of the modern Ethiopian military, and the rank and file would not have accepted his killing. Instead he was imprisoned and died of cancer five years later.

Mengistu headed the military junta, or the Derg, which ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist until 1991. The worst period of brutal repression became known as the Ethiopian Red Terror, and by the end of Mengistu’s reign it is estimated that up to 2million Ethiopians were killed.

It was from this brutal dictatorship that Hannah Yilma and some of her closest family members escaped in the early hours of one morning after the coup.

A handful of relatives and young children hid in the long grass on a deserted air strip on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, while a small light aircraft flew into Ethiopia under the radar from Nairobi.

Continue reading this story at IOL News
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