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Last Ethiopian Emperor Laid to Rest

November 5, 2000

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) _ Bells tolled and thousands of Ethiopians wailed and applauded Sunday as Haile Selassie, their last emperor, was finally laid to rest 25 years after his mysterious death.

As leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church stood by, resplendent in their colorful robes, elderly veterans of Ethiopia’s 1936-41 struggle against Italian occupation carried the coffin _ draped in the nation’s red, green and gold flag _ up the steps of Trinity Cathedral. The emperor’s family, friends and associates embraced at their first public gathering since 1974, when he was overthrown by Marxist military officers.

A crypt had been waiting at the cathedral since Haile Selassie’s remains were discovered under a concrete slab on the grounds of his former palace in 1992 _ 17 years after he died under house arrest.

Officially, his death at age 83 was due to complications from a prostate condition. The Haile Selassie I Foundation, which had worked for eight years to give the emperor a suitable burial, claims he was assassinated. During a trial that seeks to bring members of the 1974-91 regime of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam to justice for the killings of dissidents and monarchy loyalists, two of the emperor’s personal servants testified that he was killed on a night they were ordered out of his room.

Haile Selassie, who assumed the throne in 1930, was the last in a line of emperors who forged the modern Ethiopian state out of an ancient land of feuding chieftains. To his supporters, his rule was a time of peace and stability during which modern education was introduced in the oldest independent state in Africa. Critics say he was too slow in reforming a feudal society.

Sisay Taddese, a 19-year-old student who was kicking a soccer ball around with friends as the funeral cortege passed between Bahta Taika church _ where Haile Selassie’s remains had laid since 1992 _ and Meskel, the city’s main square, said he believed the emperor was ``a responsible leader who ran a benevolent government.″

Since the 1974 revolution that ousted him dissolved into terror, Ethiopians have suffered a series of wrenching events. A cataclysmic 1984-85 famine devastated the nation and the 1991 ouster of Mengistu by another group of rebels sent the nation of 62 million reeling once again.

While the funeral could be seen as the end of an era, the nation remains one of the world’s 10 poorest countries and has yet to formally end a two-year border war with neighboring Eritrea.

The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which grew out of the rebel movement that ousted Mengistu, made no formal statement about Haile Selassie until last week, when it called him ``a tyrant and oppressor of the masses.″

Although the foundation issued an open invitation to the government to attend the funeral, no one official showed up, and state-run broadcast media _ the only ones operating in this Horn of Africa nation _ did not mention the event.

Randi Ronning Balsvik, a history professor at Norway’s Tromso University and an Ethiopian specialist, said Meles’ government had ``played it all very safely″ by allowing the funeral to take place, yet making clear its position on Haile Selassie’s legacy.

In town for an international conference on Ethiopian studies, she said she felt she had ``really observed a moment in history.″

Although many people too young to have lived through them express nostalgia for the days of the last emperor ``when life was orderly and prices didn’t rise all the time,″ in the words of 21-year-old student Addesalem Tesfaye, there is little sense here of a serious movement to reinstate the monarchy.

``We want to rehabilitate his name, but not only his name, that of Ethiopia as well, and our own history,″ said Wolde-Semait Gebre-Wold, who was a senior official under the emperor and an organizer of the funeral. He said the foundation was seeking funds to set up scholarships in honor of the emperor who introduced formal education to the country.

The heir apparent, Crown Prince Hermias, died in the United States last year. His nephew, Haile Selassie’s favorite grandson, Bede Mariam Makonnen, spoke fondly before a crowd of a few thousand in Meskel Square of how his grandfather would read newspapers to him at night in the palace, but he did not call for a return to royalty.

But the late emperor was not only important to Ethiopians. Hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans embraced him as their living god and head of the Rastafarian religious movement. Dozens, wearing red, gold and green caps covering their dreadlocks, attended the funeral.

Just a month ago, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians swarmed Meskel Square to celebrate another Haile _ Haile Gebreselassie, the legendary long-distance runner and Sydney Olympics gold medalist in the 10,000 meters.

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