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In any dictionary under the heading of loyalty (n. the quality or state of being loyal), you should find a photo of Aida Desta.

Aida? Who?

No, she’s not the fictional heroine from Verdi’s opera of the same name, but an Ethiopian princess, who has all the same qualities of compassion and loyalty.

Born in 1927, Aida was the daughter of the heroic Ras (Prince) Desta Damtew, who was killed by the Italians on February 27, 1937, and Emperor Haile Selassie’s eldest daughter, Princess Tenagne Worq. Her mother later would remarry Ras Andargatchew Messai. Aida, the beautiful and talented princess, who had attended Clarendon in north Wales and Cambrdige, returned to Ethiopia and would marry Ras Mengesha Seyum.

They would have seven children — Rupta (Rebecca), Mikhail (Michael), Yohannes (John), Stephanos (Stephen), Seyum, Jalyce and Menen.

Mengesha Seyum was a hands-on-engineer, who rose to the rank of minister of public works and communications and governor of his own province of Tigre in northern Ethiopia.

The family life was idyllic.

Mengesha Seyum and Aida , although their marriage was arranged as all others within the royal family at the time, was an enduring one.

“When we were growing up, they were really an admired couple and because of that we felt very secure in our upbringing,” said Prince Stephanos (Stephen Mengesha) in 1990. “Since the revolution (of 1974-75), my mother and father have been separated for 16 years and they are still married.”

Of course, Aida earlier had her share of troubles.

In early 1963, when the world believed the Emperor had slipped off to Britain in an effort to settle Ethiopia’s claim on the Ogaden against Somalia, he actually flew to Zurich, Switzerland to be with his beloved Aida, who lay critically ill with a brain aneurysm.

Before leaving Addis Ababa, the Emperor cabled President John F. Kennedy to help arrange a vital operation for the princess in the U.S.

Aida Desta, who would turn 36 on Palm Sunday, 1963, would recover with only a slight facial affliction, but the bond between she and her then 70-year-old grandfather would remain intact and grown even stronger. Her son, Stephanos, was 10 at the time.

Ten years later, the Emperor’s reign was coming to an end. Most of his family members were dead or dying and even his successor, his eldest son, Asfa Wossen, had suffered a severe stroke. The Crown Prince had a tendency towards obesity and was a diabetic.

However, one thing for certain was when the Emperor died, all of Ethiopia’s problems would live on.

In September 1974, Aida Desta watched from her expansive Palace compound in Makale, where her husband, Mengesha Seyum governed Tigre, as the official Ethiopian helicopter approached like some massive mutant butterfly.

“They said to my father, ‘You’re wanted at an emergency conference (in Addis).’ Immediately, 500 local militia people surrounded the helicopter and my father’s men told these officials from Addis to either leave or they’d burn the helicopter. So the helicopter left without my father,” explained Prince Stephanos.

Mengesha Seyum knew he had to make a monumental decision.

So did Aida Desta.

“I’m leaving and if you want to leave with me, that’s fine,” said the governor general.

However, his 46-year-old wife knew her sisters, Ruth, Sofia, and Sebla, and her mother, Tenagne Worq, would be danger in Addis and she felt a heart-tugging loyalty to her grandfather, the Emperor.

“We could leave for the Sudan,” he said.

“No,” answered Aida. “I’ve been a loyal member of the Royal Family. Now it looks like they’re going to jail and the Emperor is going to be deposed. I’m not going to give up, I’m going to be with my sisters and my mother. You go, I’ll stay.”

She remained with her young daughter, Menen, in Makale.

Her husband and their son, Seyum, and two cousins, Alene and Mulugeta, began their long trek to freedom on Sunday, September 7, 1974.

On Sept. 12, a vile dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and his coterie of thugs deposed the Emperor.

A number of Aida’s children, including Stephanos, were barred from returning to their homeland.

A week after Mengesha Seyum and Seyum left for safer places, the government officials returned to Makale, demanding to see Tigre’s leader.

“My husband is sick with the flu and can’t be disturbed, he’s sleeping,” she said.

They later wanted to see Mengesha Seyum in person. This time his wife admitted he no longer was in Makale.

“That’s when they rounded her up and I think that’s the first time she’d been roughed up,” remembers Prince Stephanos. “They took her to the local airport along with my sister and some other cousins to board a military plane to fly to Addis. As my mother was boarding the plane, a military woman tried to search her. This had never happened to my mother before; being searched, and she felt humiliated.

“So the woman tells my mother to take off her shoes. My mother refused to take off her shoes; so she started hitting the woman with her arm and her watch fell off. She was upset by the search and my mother then took off her shoe and started hitting the woman on the head. They jostled her and put her on the plane.”

Security at the Addis airport was extremely tight with the military Derg wheeling out a whole array of hardware, including jeeps and tanks in anticipation of Mengesha Seyum’s arrival.

As Aida, the sophisticated Cambridge graduate with the fine features, stepped from the military plane, her eyes swept the tarmac and she excitedly said: “The lion has gone out of his cage. He has escaped you and you’re looking at the lioness. I won’t bite you.”

It was a moment, forever, frozen in time.

However, the worst was yet to come for the Emperor’s daughter and granddaughters.

The Lioness of Ethiopia, Aida Desta, had seen her world crumble.

Her beloved grandfather had been murdered; her husband and children were scattered throughout the world; and she and her mother and sisters left the comfort of house detention in the now-nationalized Duke of Harar’s palace for Akaki Prison, the Hell Hole, known as the End of the World.

Dressed in black because most were in mourning for family members, who had been executed, the princesses existed in the damp nine-by-12-foot concrete cell, sleeping on mattresses, with its one window with no glass and a single door.

Actually, it was a makeshift storage room, next to the prison’s ill-equipped clinic without any proper washroom facilities and no shower.

However, the most annoying intrusion into their previously insulated lifestyle was a small light bulb.

It had to be on 24 hours a day.

It was on for 14 years.

It was another form of torture.

Prince Stephanos pleaded with the Canadian government in Ottawa to intervene and prevent his relatives from rotting in the despicable Hell Hole. There was only silence and double-talk.

Finally, almost without warning, the princesses were tossed out on the Addis streets, without a penny, in 1988.

Stephanos’ father had escaped into Eritrea and then on to Sudan where the Tigrean Governor General would eventually escape a would-be assassin’s bullet.

The family, or what was left off it, would eventually reunite for Christmas 1994 in Fairfax, Va.

As for Prince Stephanos, he would become a successful Canadian businessman; Mengesha Seyum would become a parliamentarian in the Ethiopian legislature; and Aida Desta would remain the Lioness of Ethiopia.

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