Biography of Belay Zeleke | Childhood, Italo-Ethiopian War, Rebellion, & Death

Biography of Belay Zeleke

January 29, 2023

Belay Zeleke, also known as Abba Koster by his horse name, was an Ethiopian patriot who is widely remembered for his courageous efforts in defending his country from the invading Italian forces during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.  Owing to his dedication to the cause of Ethiopian independence, Belay Zeleke is now celebrated as a national hero. He is now an iconic figure in the history of Ethiopia, having epitomized the spirit of Ethiopian independence during the Italian occupation. He fought valiantly in the war against the Italian forces and became a symbol of resistance, inspiring the entire country with his courage. Belay, in particular, led the Arbegnoch resistance movement in Gojjam against the fascist Italians.

Childhood and Early Life

Belay Zeleke in his early life

Belay Zeleke was born in Bechena, Gojjam, between 1896 and 1912, with the exact date uncertain. He was the son of Lij Eyasu‘s devoted and close servant, Zeleke Lakew. His father was himself a successful and respected military leader, which no doubt influenced Belay’s own passion for serving his country. In contrast, Taytu Asane, the mother of Belay, was a native of Amhara Sayint in Wollo, Amhara Region.

Belay’s life was shaped by a mysterious event that occurred when he was young. When Lij Eyasu‘s regime was overthrown, Belay’s family was compelled to leave their home and seek safety in Chaqata, then Lamchan, in different regions of the nation. There, his father, Zeleke, killed a man. When the local authorities came to capture Zeleke, he wasn’t willing to surrender. Following this, soldiers arrived and surrounded the house. After an exchange of gunfire, Zeleke was injured and taken away. The authorities then killed him and hanged his body, with even Belay Zeleke in attendance.

This experience had a profound effect on Belay’s life. Belay was forever changed by the experience of seeing his father killed. Belay left the area with his family and planned to avenge his father’s death. Accordingly, Belay began his life as a bandit and slowly started to build a reputation. This gave him a form of power and drive that enabled him to become a successful commander during wartime.

Belay Zeleke’s Involvement in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War

Belay Zeleke with his soldiers

When the imperialist regime of Italy was invading Ethiopia, Belay mobilized a coalition of warriors and unified them into an organized resistance against the invaders. His resistance started with just a small group of allies and expanded exponentially.

Belay started his fight by recruiting and training a small group of fighters from his village. He began his attack with a daring attack on a convoy of the Italian army. This surprise attack resulted in the deaths of many Italian soldiers and a significant amount of weapons and ammunition for Belay’s forces. Following this, Belay led a series of successful attacks on Italian troops in the area. Especially, Belay was pivotal in leading successful rebellions in Gojjam, Shewa, and Wollo.

Owing to his successful campaigns, many gave Belay traditional titles like Qegnazmach, Dejazmach, Fitawrari, and Ras. However, he was content with the name his mother had given him: Belay. After successful years of rebellious activity, Ethiopia got its liberation in 1941 from the oppressive forces of the Italians with the help of British forces.

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After the independence in 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie I gave Belay the title of Dejazmach as a reward. Moreover, the emperor appointed Belay the governor of Bichena. However, Belay’s power didn’t last long as he entered into conflict with his superiors. As a result, Belay’s relationship with the emperor deteriorated quickly. After some unsuccessful attempts to settle the conflict, Haile Selassie sent an army to arrest him. Nevertheless, Belay resisted by arming them with various weapons. After losing many soldiers, the Emperor sent a delegation to Belay with the assurance that he would be pardoned. However, after Belay submitted, he was brought before a court and given a death sentence, which was later commuted to life in prison.


Death of Belay Zeleke

Belay made an attempt to escape after serving some time in jail. Unfortunately, his escape attempt failed, and he was given an even harsher punishment for breaking out. On January 12, 1945, Belay was executed by hanging in Teklehaymanot Square in Addis Ababa.

Legacy of Belay Zeleke

the statue of Belay Zeleke

The legacy of Belay Zeleke continues to inspire people today as a symbol of bravery and tenacity in the face of oppressive regimes. He is revered across the nation as one of its greatest heroes, remembered for his selflessness and tireless efforts to free his people from tyranny and oppression. To this day, Ethiopian students learn about him with admiration.

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Written by Sophonias Woldu

Sophonias Woldu is an Ethiopian author with an outstanding skill for crafting unique and captivating articles that explore different aspects of life. He had an inquisitive mind from a young age and was always fascinated by the power of language and words. He writes articles about philosophy, theology, his native Ethiopia, and basically anything and everything else. Before embarking on a writing career, he had already begun a successful career in the electromechanical engineering field, having earned his degree from Addis Ababa Science and Technology University. In addition to being a prolific writer, Sophonias is also a public speaker and tech enthusiast who believes in harnessing technology to improve the lives of Ethiopians. Currently, Sophonias writes articles for on a part-time basis.

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