Zerai Deres (Ge'ez ዘርኣይ ደረስ) died in 1937 in Rome, Italy, in public opposition to the rise of fascist power in Italy and her African colonies. His death is considered part of the movement against Italian occupation. Deres was born in Hazega, Eritrea and is considered a folk hero in both Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Ethiopia was a member of the League of Nations when Italy invaded and occupied it (1936 to 1941). It was a clear violation of the Covenant of the League of Nations and an act of aggression for a member State to invade and occupy another member State. The Ethiopians resisted the invasion until the Italians started to use chemical warfare agents like mustard gas. In June 1936, King Haile Selassie I appealed to the League of Nations to take action against the invasion. But it was ignored.
On May 21, 1937, in Rome, Italy was celebrating its fourth anniversary of the proclamation of the Italian Empire. The celebratory parade was attended by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III. Thousands of soldiers from Italy’s African colonies marched during the parade. Among them was a young Eritrean man named Zerai Deres. He was carrying the sword to salute the King, the Führer, and Il Duce, at the grandstand. As the parade marched past the Vittorio Emanuele, he saw Lion of Judah Monument. That Monument was taken from Ethiopia by the Italians as a war booty. Zerai's shock was too great for him, and he drew his sword and with it he slew five fascist guards, as well as wounding others, before he was killed on the spot in a hail of gunshots.
In popular culture
- The orphan prince character Zerai Djonn in "Raziel's Shadow" (2013) by Joseph Robert Lewis, which is set in a fantasy kingdom similar to ancient Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum, is partly inspired by Zerai Deres.
- Pateman, Roy “Eritrea: even the stones are burning”, The Red Sea Press, 1998. p.59
- Imperial Monuments of Ethiopia
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