It was July 5, 1976, and I was nursing a glass of beer in a Kampala bar while writing up my diary. George had moved to the counter to catch the news on the radio. He returned looking both anxious and puzzled. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said “but apparently Israel has just invaded Uganda!”. “No, I don’t believe it! Do you?” We agreed that he must have misheard but thought perhaps we’d better buy a newspaper. “Newspaper? No, we have no newspapers” said the newsagent sadly. No newsprint, see.” Uganda under Idi Amin was a strange place, even for experienced backpackers like ourselves. After the expulsion of the Asians the economy had collapsed. But benefitting from a thriving blackmarket for dollars we could live well, and we had found the Ugandans gracious and welcoming and the country magnificent.
We agreed to stick to our plans to spend our last day in the country visiting a famous botanical garden. “It’s in a place called Entebbe”. Said George. “Not far from here. We should be able to get a bus”.
Early the next morning, en route to the bus station, I decided to make the most of the (to us) very cheap international phone calls and call my parents. It was a strange conversation. My mother answered and sounded shocked, rather than pleased, to hear my voice. “Are you all right?” she asked, then despite my reassurance that we were having a wonderful time, launched into a monologue about how if we needed money she could send some. That was so completely against character that I was lost for words and after a few platitudes our four minutes were up. We continued to the bus station, pausing at a bookshop to buy a copy of Alberto Moravia’s novel The Woman of Rome which was displayed in the window.
Kampala was running out of petrol. We had no idea why. Cars were abandoned by the side of the road; some were being pushed towards the long queue of cars which stretched from the petrol station. We reached the bus depot and asked about buses to Entebbe. The place was full of soldiers carrying machine guns and everyone was strangely on edge. There were no buses because there was no petrol, we were told. There was no petrol because Kenya had closed the land border with Uganda. “Entebbe? Why are you going to Entebbe?” asked a young soldier. Our explanation about the botanical garden now sounded unconvincing. “Passports?”. We showed him our passports. “American…” he said looking at George. “You’re American?”. “Yes”. “Come this way”.
We followed him into a small compound where sat a bus that was going no-where. It had no wheels. A beggar dressed in filthy rags was lying on the ground looking up at a soldier with an expression which I had only seen acted in movies, so was slow to interpret: abject fear. Then I saw why. The soldier was carrying a long whip, and as we were led into the bus he started lashing the man. He didn’t cry out. He just lay there, staring up at his assailant through that mask of terror.
The seriousness of our situation was plain; the reason it was serious was explained. A hijacked Air France plane had been stormed by Israeli paratroopers at Entebbe Airport the day before. At least 20 Ugandan soldiers had been killed. Later, in revenge, an elderly British-Israeli woman, Dora Bloch, had been murdered after being taken to hospital. Israel’s ally, the USA, was pointing an accusing finger at the Ugandan government for harbouring the Palestinian terrorists. Britain was equally unpopular. No wonder the soldiers were suspicious of two white people heading for Entebbe with the most implausible motive. The more we protested our innocence, the more we convinced them that we were spies. “You must wait here until my senior officer can interrogate you”. A teenage soldier guarded us. He fondled his machine gun, and every so often raised it to see what we looked at through the sights. That’s where Alberto Moravia came in handy. When George finished a page he tore it out and handed it to me. It was a distraction from the all-pervading fear that our hotel room would be searched. The day before we had made several photocopies of a letter home describing our time in Uganda – mostly complimentary, but truthfully negative about Idi Amin’s effect on the country and ordinary people. This was laid out on our bed waiting for the hard-to-find envelopes so we could send it to various friends.
After three hours the soldier reappeared and beckoned George to the door of the bus. “Oh my God” was my immediate thought “They’re going to shoot him!” After a brief discussion George returned suppressing a smile. “This gentleman says that his superior officer has no petrol so can’t come and interrogate us. He requests that we go to the police station and turn ourselves in.” The soldier described the route we must take and drew a little map.
At our hotel we hastily packed our rucksacks and walked, not to the police station but the railway station. There was a train to Nairobi that evening (in those days there was a through train). Our hearts were pounding as we approached the Kenyan border. Would the train be searched? Had our disappearance been noticed? As the only white passengers we were easy to find. We passed through uneventfully.
In Nairobi we went to the British Council to catch up on newspapers. The first one we saw was the Daily Express. “Get them out alive!” screamed the headline. “They” were the British expats remaining in Uganda whose lives were considered in danger following the Entebbe raid. Months later, when I returned home, my mother put our strange phone conversation into context. “I was listening to the 9 o’clock news: ‘Hopes are fading for the safety of the Britons remaining in Uganda…’ . Then the phone went and the operator said ‘I have a call for you from Kampala’. So of course I assumed you were being held hostage and were about to ask for money.”
Ignorance is bliss? Not always.