Belay Zeleke was born in 1896 in the Wollo province of Ethiopia. At a very young age in a mysterious situation, Belay Zeleke killed his uncle which prompted him to flee his village and live as a fugitive for 15 years. In his solitary life, Belay Zeleke learned to be courageous and decisive.
In 1935 when Italy invaded Ethiopia, Belay Zeleke played a significant and heroic role to defend the country. Like the many patriotic Ethiopians, Belay Zeleke felt the need to defend his country and led an insurgency movement against the occupation in the Gojam province. Soon, he became known for being remorseless among Italian generals and they fought him as hard as they could. Not only did he defeat the Italian army that was sent to destroy him, he also took into custody the army’s general and executed him by hanging. After driving the Italian army out of the Gojam and some parts of the Wollo provinces, he put himself in charge of these particular regions much to the delight of the population. His courageous heroism inspired thousands of Ethiopians to resist the occupation and many wanted to be like him.
The Ethiopian patriots liberated Addis Ababa on 6 May 1941 and this victory officially ended Italian occupation. Fascist Italy's attempts to colonize Ethiopia came to an abrupt end. The exiled Emperor Haileselassie returned to Addis Ababa from Europe.
The contributions made by Belay Zeleke to the struggle and ultimately to the victory of Ethiopia against the colonialist aggression of Fascist Italy were enormous. Throughout Ethiopia, particularly in Addis Ababa, signs of Italian presence in the past remain intact to date. Yet unlike most of the different parts of Ethiopia, there are no physical signs of Italian invasion in the province of Gojam. It is believed that Belay Zeleke never let the Italian troops camp anywhere near the Gojam province let alone build construction, depriving them of leaving a legacy of any sort.
Upon the Emperor’s victorious return to Ethiopia in 1941, Belay Zeleke was put in charge of a small region in Gojam when he had assumed a higher rank to be able to play a much bigger role in reconstructing and administering the region. He declined the appointment and chose to live life as an outlaw in protest. Soon he was caught and sent to jail accused of being a threat to the monarchy. After making unsuccessful attempts to break out of jail, the patriot Belay Zeleke was then brutally executed by hanging.
In a heartbreaking error of judgment, an Ethiopian hero, who gave the country freedom, was given death in return.