Doctors Catherine and Reg Hamlin became close friends to the family of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor. In 1974, the provisional military government of Socialist Ethiopia (the Dergue) overthrew the royal family. Ethiopia became a Marxist one-party state, with many political opponents executed or arrested without a trial.
The emperor’s daughter, Princess Tenangnework, and her daughters – Ida, Sybil, Ruth and Sofia – were imprisoned. Although Catherine was not allowed to see the princesses face-to-face, it didn’t stop her from maintaining their friendship. Every Sunday Catherine would take home-baked cakes, biscuits and books to the prison. In Catherine’s book, Hospital by the River, she describes how “the food would be placed on a long trestle table to be inspected. Occasionally a soldier would poke his bayonet into a cake if he happened to be suspicious.”
Princess Sybil began sneaking notes in the food containers they returned, and Catherine would return notes hidden with the food. Catherine describes how she “soon felt that I knew these friends well enough through corresponding with them so often. Sybil occasionally managed to smuggle out longer letters. Usually they were cheerful…but in one letter, six years into their internment, Sybil asked me to pray for her as she was losing faith.”
The Princesses endured fifteen years of internment before they were released. When Sybil came to visit Catherine, it was an emotional reunion filled with many tears. Sybil was incredibly grateful for Catherine’s ongoing friendship and the risks she took in smuggling notes and items to them during their imprisonment. Catherine fondly recalls the first afternoon tea they shared following Sybil’s release:
“Over the years, Sybil had got used to the cakes that I had taken to her in prison…when I served one of her favourites, we both laughed with delight at the simple pleasure of taking afternoon tea together in freedom.”
Author: Felicity Duong, intern at the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation