Princess Aida Desta (NC 1945)


Imprisoned for 14 years in a fetid cell, Princess Aida Desta was a woman of remarkable courage.

Princess Aida was the eldest granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. After the occupation of Ethiopia by Italy in 1936, she accompanied her mother, siblings and grandparents into exile in the UK: her father would be captured and executed some months later.

Princess Aida studied history at Newnham, matriculating in 1945. After her graduation she served as a UN Commissioner, representing migrants. She returned to Ethiopia, married, and with her husband began working to raise the living standards of the region. She focused on hospitals and orphanages: UN Representative Margaret Anstee, who had known Aida at Newnham, visited and was struck by the enormity of the challenge and Aida’s dedication.

In 1974, Princess Aida was seized in her palace by revolutionaries of the Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia: her husband had already escaped. Facing down the soldiers, she told them, ‘The lion has gone out of his cage. He has escaped you and you are looking at the lioness.’

With the other women of the imperial family, she was incarcerated for 14 years, under appalling conditions. Observers expected that the women would be locked in a single cell until they died.

Outside, Ethiopia suffered first the Civil War and then the famine of the 1980s. Their mental and physical health suffered terribly. Newnham alumnae sent food parcels and necessities. Years of campaigning by friends and human rights organisations had little effect on the Military Government.

Finally, in 1988, the women were unexpectedly released into exile in the USA, and later were able to return to Ethiopia. Princess Aida Desta died aged 85.