Blood and tears in Garden of Eden – I

Entebbe airport, just over 30 km from Kampala, is quite small and unremarkable, except that it is associated with one of the most remarkable peacetime hostage rescue missions in history.  The old terminal building, only a hundred meters or so from the new one, is no longer in use but it stands as a silent witness to the sensational events that followed.

(Daily Times, 2nd January 2013)

The Great Lakes region of Africa, encompassing Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the adjoining parts of Kenya, Congo and Tanzania, is known for its natural beauty.  Uganda, Rwanda and northeast Congo, the area in and around the Rwenzori Mountains, also called the Mountains of the Moon, have to be among the most beautiful in the world, a virtual Garden of Eden.  But in the last few decades this region has witnessed violence and bloodshed at a level unknown elsewhere.

While few know or care about this region of Africa, it would be hard to find anyone who lived through the 1970s and has not heard of President Idi Amin of Uganda.  It says something about the power of the gun that a man such as he could become first an army chief and then a head of state.  It is a sad commentary on our political acumen as well as our humanity that many in the Third World and even in Uganda admired him (as they did his good friend Muammar Gaddafi of Libya) for no better reason than his anti-colonial and anti-western antics. 

After the UK broke off diplomatic relations with Uganda in 1977, Radio Uganda referred to the president by his enhanced title: “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE”.  The last title, Idi Amin had explained, stood for “Conqueror of the British Empire”.

In 1972, after he had a dream, or so he claimed, he decided to expel the 35,000 Asians of Uganda (mostly of Indian and Pakistani origin) in the space of three months, wreaking havoc not just with the lives of thousands of people but also with the Ugandan economy.  Idi Amin’s rule proved short-lived, compared to that of many of his African and other Third World counterparts. Carried away by his own rhetoric, he had thrown caution to the winds and made far too many internal and external enemies.

One important landmark in Kampala is the Lubiri Palace, former residence of the Kabaka, the King of Buganda, one of the five major kingdoms in pre-colonial Uganda.  It was burned in 1966 when, in the Battle of Mengo Hill, troops led by General Idi Amin attacked the palace because the titular king had got on the wrong side of President Milton Obote. 

The burned and vandalized palace, in reality nothing more than a large mansion on a hill overlooking much of the city, has now been restored.  The guided tour gives the visitor some history and a stroll around the beautiful lawns, where one can see the hulk of the limousine of the Kabaka, Mutesa II, and the underground parking area where his outnumbered and outgunned defenders were packed like cattle before being shot. Mutesa II was able to escape to UK where he died in 1969.

In 1971, President Milton Obote himself had to flee after he was overthrown by his protégé, Idi Amin Dada. In 1979-80, Obote staged a comeback after Kampala was occupied by Tanzanian forces.  This was in retaliation for the invasion and annexation of Tanzania’s northern Kagera region by Idi Amin’s army with the help of Libyan troops and tanks. 

It was now the turn of “Field Marshal” Idi Amin, “Conqueror of the British Empire”, to flee for dear life.  He found sanctuary along with his many wives in Saudi Arabia (via Libya) where he died in 2003.  Obote was overthrown for a second time, fleeing again to Tanzania and then to Zambia where he died in 2005.

Idi Amin’s brutal reign of terror cost anywhere between 100,000 to 500,000 Ugandan lives, including judges, vice chancellors, senior clergy and high officials, anyone who crossed the megalomaniac dictator or was perceived to have done so.

Idi Amin’s flight and Obote’s restoration brought little joy to the unfortunate people of Uganda.  Getting rid of Obote through a guerrilla war cost an estimated 100,000 lives and up to half a million more may have died in the economic upheaval. The man who led the “liberation” war was Yoweri Museveni.  Having installed himself as president in 1986, Museveni “the saviour” shows no sign of going. 

Although Uganda under Museveni has been able to avoid the kind of violence witnessed in neighbouring Rwanda and Congo, the north of the country has been ravaged by the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), originally known as the Uganda People’s Democratic Christian Army.  LRA is led by Joseph Kony, who proclaims himself the spokesperson of God and a spirit medium. Kony’s specialty is recruiting child soldiers. Since 1987, he is believed to have kidnapped between 60,000 and 100,000 children from villages and turned them into soldiers (boys) or sex slaves (girls).  The upheaval caused by the LRA has displaced around 2 million people throughout central Africa.

Entebbe airport, just over 30 km from Kampala, is quite small and unremarkable, except that it is associated with one of the most remarkable peacetime hostage rescue missions in history.  On 27 June 1976, a group of Palestinians and some German revolutionary affiliates hijacked an Air France plane with 248 passengers to Entebbe airport.  The plane was en route from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens, where the hijackers boarded it.  At Entebbe, the hijackers released all passengers except the 100 or so Israeli and Jewish passengers and threatened to kill them.

This old terminal building, only a hundred meters or so from the new one, is no longer in use but it stands as a silent witness to the sensational events that followed.  Entebbe was chosen by the hijackers as they had expected, and received, sympathetic assistance from President Idi Amin and his military.

Israel launched a rescue operation on 4 July, when Israeli transport planes carried 100 commandos over 4,000 km to Uganda for the rescue operation. The operation itself lasted 90 minutes and resulted in the rescue of 102 hostages.  All the hijackers, three hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed, and thirty Soviet-built MiG-17s and MiG-21s of the Ugandan air force were destroyed.  Against these Ugandan losses, which dealt a lethal blow to Idi Amin’s prestige, only one Israeli commando was killed and five were injured.

Entebbe airport is now abuzz with activity of a very different kind, one related to international peacekeeping. The majority of passengers arriving and departing are UN military and civilian officers, drawn from all over the world, running the large UN operation in the world’s youngest country of South Sudan.

By Razi Azmi

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2 Responses to Blood and tears in Garden of Eden – I

  1. Kamath says:

    You deserve a hearty round of applause for restating the history of tragedies in Africa. I am sure you would agree with me that it is necessary and important to retell darker side of human history, to jog one’s memory and also to inform The Uninformed.
    One of these days, you may find time to tell us about your Tibetan travel too!

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Your article reminded me of my own family’s ordeal. How they had to leave Kampala with nothing, put on a plane and sent to UK. I always wondered why the Saudi’s gave him refuge. Good article. Thanks

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