Two Strange Hours at Entebbe in 1972

By Henry Regehr  July 30, 2020

In July 1972, our Lufthansa 737-100 flew out of Nairobi airport after a long anxiety-producing delay. Kenyan officials had been checking all women for excessive jewelry to prevent gold and money from leaving the country. Fear had gripped the Asian community of East Africa when Idi Amin, in neighbouring Uganda, had begun imprisoning and killing Asians in deadly earnest. The East Asians of Kenya, the backbone of Kenyan business, had also felt the grip of prejudice as their businesses were confiscated by the Kenyatta regime.

Our family of four, including our ten and fourteen-year-old children, were happy to finally get through the ordeal and begin the direct flight to Munich, Germany.  Strangely, within 30 minutes, unexpectedly and without explanation, it was announced that we would be landing at Idi Amin’s Entebbe airport in blood-soaked Uganda.

The four of us had just spent two adventurous weeks touring the rural areas of Kenya where I was studying mission and hospital stations. My business partner and I had been chosen to assist a large mission organization select personnel for their outlying mission and hospital positions and I wanted to understand the issues faced by the expats sent to Kenya. It seemed a rare opportunity to introduce our children to new cultures. We all wanted to broaden our horizons and so, at our own expense, we arranged the two-week trip to East Africa with stops in London and Rome on the way there and visits to Geneva and Munich on the return trip. These two weeks in Kenya and its wild Northern Frontier District had certainly been  broadening experiences for all of us.

With Bruce as our pilot, the single engine Cessna aircraft had taken off from the small Wilson Airport in Nairobi. We followed the dramatically beautiful Great Rift Valley at an altitude of one thousand feet seeing the ragged cliffs of the Rift immediately outside our windows at their best. In the Valley were miniature volcanic hills, green pastures, deserts, forests, and family huts surrounded by thorn bushes to keep wild animals out and their domestic animals safe. Flying over Lake Nakuru and we saw thousands of flamingos beneath us, disturbed by the noise of the Cessna, take to the air in a massive cloud of pink feathers. Bruce, a former USAF fighter pilot, landed on a sandy airstrip, coming to a stop just shy of the drop into the Rift Valley. As we emerged from the six-seater we were met by spear-carrying tribesmen, with their chief, in traditional dress.   The Turkana chief, in his ochre colored robe, traditional weapons, and bracelets, volunteered that if he had known we were coming he would have killed a goat for a feast.

After a visit with the staff and a night’s sleep we traveled on to the next airfield where Bruce had to buzz the airstrip to clear it of goats before finding it safe to land. As we circled for another run at the field, he told us that a few short weeks before there had been a bloody battle on this strip involving rival family clans and that nine bodies had then been removed from the scene. On this plateau we were welcomed by a kind, elderly mission couple and young Turkana women in their typical richly beaded finery. We were invited to meet the children of the outdoor school that was run by trained North American teachers. The children were happy to show us their projects and then sing for us under the hot African sun.

At the next stop, a hospital station, I was asked to accompany the administrator, together with a locally trained male Kenyan nurse on a trip to deliver the body of a local chief who had just died in the hospital. We were to take the body back to his tribal village for burial. His two adult sons had come to accompany their father’s body. At first, they had refused to pay the small account for their father’s care at the hospital and it took several awkward hours for the issue to be settled. Finally, the body, wrapped in a blanket, was unceremoniously pressed into the back of the Land Rover and the five of us settled in for the drive through the trackless bush country, crossing dry riverbeds, and weaving around stunted bushes. We finally arrived at a settlement of several round mud huts surrounded by a familiar thick row of dried thorn bushes. The two sons had asked the driver to stop at one point on the trip when they had seen members of their family clan herding goats and camels. They apparently wanted the men to come to the village immediately to “help with the women”. It sounded ominous to me when the nurse translated the story. They had refused.

At the village, news of the chief’s death spread instantly among his five wives and within minutes it became clear to me why the men had decided to stay with the animals. The screaming and the rushing about were frightening. One young woman, the newest wife, took her small child between her knees and held a huge knife over her head as though to do harm to the infant. Men immediately came running and held the distraught mother’s arms and the child fell, screaming, to the ground.

When the women finally settled, the men took the body of the old man from the Land Rover and the Turkana nurse told the administrator and me, in hushed tones, that we should quickly be on our way. The terrible wailing started again as we drove off. On the way back to the hospital, the nurse was able to describe the cultural background for what we had just experienced. Among the many customs he described he said that the five widows, with their children, would all be passed on as wives to brothers of the chief.  They had a very uncertain future.

During this dramatic scene, a heavy thunder cloud had passed a short distance from the village and a brilliant multicolored arc of a rainbow appeared in a broad expanse across the dark, threatening sky. I suggested that this was a sign of hope amid the tragedy we had just witnessed but the nurse corrected me. The rainbow, he said, was seen by the local people as an ominous sign of trouble.

At Entebbe, the Lufthansa 737 landed without incident but with no explanation. After a time of silence and tension, we were all ordered to leave the plane and escorted, with armed soldiers accompanying us, into the new Entebbe terminal building. There were no seats in the terminal, but the high-end shops were open. No one had the required local currency nor were we in any mood to buy souvenirs.  A tense silence enveloped the passengers interrupted only by soft, anxious whispering. The South Asian passengers were visibly frightened. No one explained the situation except for a rumour that circulated that the plane was being refueled. That seemed strange since the 737 had been refueled in Nairobi. Otherwise there was no announcement and the whole scene was shrouded in mystery.

A strained two hours later we were commanded to board the plane once again. In silence we went outside and were led by an official through two rows of stern soldiers in full battle dress, shoulder to shoulder, guns at the ready. The passageway they left us was so narrow we almost brushed against their rifles. As quickly as our anxiety allowed, we found our way onto the aircraft and to our seats. We settled in for the long flight to Munich, wondering what had just happened. 

A possible explanation came four years later. On June 27, 1976, with Idi Amin’s collaboration, Air France Flight 139 was hijacked, with bloody violence, by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, supported by the German Revolutionary Guards. The pilot was forced to fly to Entebbe where all the passengers were held hostage in the old terminal building. Non-Israelis were released through negotiations with Idi Amin by European experts, but the Israelis were only freed several frightening weeks later by a truly daring rescue mission directed from Israel. That was the famous “90 Minutes at Entebbe”.

Was our experience of 1972 a trial run for that later terrible event?

We have never found an answer to the question.

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