The Women’s War

Maaza Mengiste
Maaza Mengiste; illustration by Johnalynn Holland

In a black-and-white photo taken in December 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia stands at ease in a smart khaki military uniform and pith helmet, with a cape draped over his shoulders. Pensive men brandishing rifles remain a respectful distance behind him in dry, rough terrain. Selassie looks as if he could be posing at the end of a hunt. But he has one foot perched nonchalantly on an unexploded bomb, not a lion or leopard.

Hours earlier, Italian warplanes had bombed Dessie, his new headquarters 250 miles north of the capital, Addis Ababa. Once the air raid was over, leaving more than a dozen dead and many wounded, Selassie ordered his men to bring a cache of ordnance that had failed to explode to the grounds of the abandoned Italian consulate. Photographers were invited to record the emperor’s dignified defiance of the military might of a modern European power.

In 1896 Ethiopian forces had repulsed Italian invaders at the Battle of Adwa. Forty years later, the Italians were more difficult to resist; the photo was only a bluff. Selassie and his compatriots would soon be under the heel of Benito Mussolini, whose rapacity and imperial ambitions had led to the invasion of Ethiopia two months earlier. The brutality of the Fascists would be further demonstrated by their use of mustard gas not only on Ethiopian troops but on the civilian population.

Many nations expressed outrage but did little to thwart Mussolini’s assault; more vocal support came from the African diaspora. Since Selassie’s coronation as emperor in 1930, the Conquering Lion of Judah had become, especially for those in the diaspora, the most revered black man in the world. Presiding over one of the two African sovereign nations not yet colonized by European powers (the other being Liberia), Selassie was considered the embodiment and fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that “princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” For black people, the Italo-Ethiopian conflict was unequivocally a race war. “The real facts reveal Mussolini as a barbarian, compared to Haile Selassie,” wrote the pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey as he lamented the grave threat posed to the “ancient sceptre wielded for ages by an historic line of black sovereigns.”

Italy had already shown, in governing its colony in neighboring Eritrea, a ruthlessness toward Africans that was endorsed even by the writer Ferdinando Martini, who, notwithstanding his later signing of the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals in 1925, was considered a Tuscan liberal. In 1891, six years before his appointment as governor of Eritrea, Martini was part of a royal commission charged with overseeing an inquest into the excessive use of whipping and other abuses in the colony. Martini concluded:

One race must replace the other; it’s that or nothing…whether we like it or not, we will…

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