By Jeff Pearce
Obituary: Imru Zelleke, Survivor and Diplomat Who Saw Ethiopia Rise
Ethiopia, you have lost your grandfather, and I need you to know it, and I will mourn with you.
I call him your grandfather, because Imru Zelleke is the man who could tell you who you once were, where you came from, and where you are going. In one man was stored the panorama of an ancient nation’s greatness and tragedy, and all the hopes and aspirations of a country struggling to claim its rightful place in a world of cell phones and satellites, hard pavement competing with green ambas and forests, and democracy still trying to hold back fascism.
Imru Zelleke was 99 years old. He was at various times of his life a diplomat, a businessman, a banker, an activist, and of course, a father, a grandfather, and a friend. He is survived by his two daughters, Adey and Saba, and a wonderful collection of proud grandchildren and great grandchildren.
While he stoically handled a spate of the usual health concerns for such an advanced age, I am told that he suffered a bad fall a couple of weeks ago, which took a toll on his condition.
His life unfolded against a backdrop of significant political milestones and revolutionary upheaval—an upheaval, in fact, that robbed him of his home for many years. And yet he turned exile into an example of how to live on your own terms and values.
To me, Imru Zelleke was Ethiopia. Think about the world he was born into in 1923, one that exists now only in black and white and sepia photographs. Empress Zewditu was on the throne then. The great rases of that bygone age rode through the dusty, unpaved streets of the capital on mules with their attendants jogging alongside. Forget having the Internet, you were connected to the outside world by thick, ink-smudged newspapers and a telegraph wire, and maybe once in a while, you’d see a single biplane in the sky. Imru saw virtually the entire reign of Haile Selassie, whom he was related to through his mother, and he served as the emperor’s ambassador.
As a boy, Imru stood on the second floor of his family home in 1937 and watched as Italian Fascists went from hut to hut, setting them on fire and burning the occupants alive, beating people to death as they tried to flee. He was our last witness to the Graziani Massacre. The very next day, he was taken with his mother and sisters to the Danane concentration camp in what was then Italian Somaliland.
There were about 6,500 prisoners at Danane, and about half of them died from disease, starvation and neglect. There is no marker today for Danane, no plaque to let others know of what happened there. I can tell you that for years, I could hardly find any outside confirmation that it ever existed at all until I purchased on Ebay two photographs. They were postcards, captioned in Italian and German. Think about that. The Europeans put out a postcard for a concentration camp.
It is thanks to witnesses and survivors like Imru that we can confirm what took place at Danane, because the West—while caring a lot about concentration camps and genocides in Europe—still has to finish its homework on what colonizers did to Africa.
Imru worked in the camp’s infirmary. He wrote in his memoir, “There, I saw more death and human agony than for the rest of my whole life.” But he lived. He was still young when released, so despite what he had lost, he focused on what he could build.
When you read his memoir, A Journey, you’re struck by his relentless curiosity and appetite for intellectual stimulation. He set about learning and listened to conversations about philosophy in the camp. He wrote that during the colonial period, he’d meet with friends in the Mercato of Addis Ababa, and “discussions were always passionate and interesting, ranging widely from politics, art, music, literature, history and science. There were plenty of books, and strangely enough, there was a lot of international literature translated into Italian that we could purchase.” He was also a jazz fan.
After the Liberation, he served as a private secretary to the Duke of Harar, who treated him like a brother. After some time, he moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and got to know the Emperor better on a personal basis. Whenever I asked Imru about Haile Selassie, his response inevitably started with or included the phrase, “He was a man.” He saw the emperor as a flawed, complex human being like the rest of us, and that was the thing about Imru which I believe made him an excellent statesman—he endeavored, as George Orwell put it, to see things as they are. And that principle naturally extended to seeing people as they truly are.
He went all over the world as a diplomat, working at legations in London, Paris and Bonn, seeing the first years of the United Nations in New York, serving as ambassador to Ghana and Sweden. He met the good and the great, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sylvia Pankhurst and her young son Richard. Dr Charles Martin—Hakim Workneh Eshate—was his father’s close cousin and family friend. And that in itself is amazing if you know about Workneh Eshate’s life and legendary accomplishments.
Imru watched as the power struggles among imperial courtiers virtually paralyzed the government, and when the Derg took over, he knew he had to flee for his life. He escaped to Kenya, later moving to the United States. He had a fluid writing style, and here is how part of his memoir opens, not with the start of his life, but his second time fleeing barbarians who had already slaughtered 62 officials, many of them Imru’s relatives and friends:
“I hadn’t been arrested yet, but I was sure that I would be detained sooner or later. So I decided to leave the country. There was no point in going to jail and to an unknown fate. I had sold some of my belongings and moved to the Ghion Hotel. The massacre meant that the time to depart had arrived… It was during a long and sleepless night in a jail in Kenya that I promised myself to write these memoirs.”
Now that is one hell of a way to end the Preface to your life story! And we are richer for him writing down those recollections and telling us how things actually happened in that era. I am always impatient with those today who weren’t even alive during that era, yet want to indulge their “Marxist nostalgia,” and often I tell them, Go get Imru Zelleke’s book. Learn the truth. Learn what you lost.
I know little about Imru’s post-Derg life except that he went into business and always kept an eye on affairs in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. He was active on Facebook, and I found it amazing that in his nineties, he could summon the outrage of a young firebrand, condemning the massacres and ethnic cleansing of Amhara going on well before hardly anyone else was taking notice.
And in writing this about his passing, I realize that the theme of his whole life, at least as I humbly interpret it, was about standing up for civilization.
Yes, of course, he cared about preserving the legacy of certain aspects of Ethiopian civilization, but I also think he appreciated modernity and reform that could make a difference in people’s ordinary lives. Having seen human beings at their worst, their sadism and depravity, it was in his nature to gravitate to a career in diplomacy where people try to work out their differences with talking and compromise, rather than settle them with a gun or a blade or a bomb. Dig into his memoir, and you find a number of anecdotes where he just flat-out tells the truth of what he thinks—not always the best course for a diplomat, but always the path for an individual who wants to live an honest, authentic life.
When I was writing Prevail, in which his recollections were invaluable, we ended up talking almost every week for a couple of years. It was ironic that I only had the chance to meet him in person just once at his daughter Adey’s home. As I walked into the room, he stood in a fine suit and had a warm smile of recognition, and I felt as if I was indeed greeting an old friend. We spoke randomly since then, the calls fewer and spaced further apart, but only a few months ago, he called to thank me for the activism I was doing. And truth to tell, I had wondered for a long time what he would make of it. To have his validation meant the world to me.
His was a voice that offers a useful warning and encouragement. “We must build our new Ethiopia on solid bases, on our common history and common heritage,” he wrote in A Journey, published in 2016. “We are civilized people of the first order, our tradition, cultures and values are universal. Our people are talented, and our land fertile and rich. Let’s make the Ethiopian renaissance with a national spirit and rejuvenating outlook, instead of indulging in endless willy-nilly political deals that promise an uncertain future. In 2005 when more than two million people demonstrated openly in Addis Ababa and later when 26 million voted peacefully without a single incident, they voted as Ethiopians and nothing else. We should stand with them and work unremittingly to liberate them from the nefarious TPLF dictatorship.”
It is a rare thing to have not only a clear, unvarnished perspective on the past but to keep hope alive and have shrewd foresight for what is to come. It is a pity that Imru Zelleke didn’t live to see Ethiopia completely liberated once and for all as he envisioned, but he knew that beautiful day was around the corner. He knew it had to be inevitable because no man can work as a diplomat, can make post after post on Facebook, calling attention to injustice, without believing that the better sides of human nature will prevail.
I dedicated my book, Gifts of Africa, to him, calling him the greatest African I know. He has set the bar high for anyone else to share that honor.