Uganda - The Road to Kampala, by Peter Liver (1972)

"Liver, you’re off to Uganda." Where? Actually after a shaky pass in the BOAC geography test (Osaka confused with Lusaka) my grasp of location had improved. Fare calculation courses had done that. Wasn’t it the place up-country from Kenya, over the Rift Valley, where any stick placed in the ground would grow?

The king had been called “Freddie” but now the President, a big man with a big hat, who had been a sergeant major in the King’s African Rifles, was Idi Amin Dada.

Five of our class of BOAC senior trainees were being despatched to help with a little local difficulty. This was caused by the plan to expel all the Ugandan Asians with British passports and seize their property. Looking back, it was a brave decision of the Heath government to accept all those who wanted to come to the UK and accord them refugee status.

Of 50 countries asked to help, only Canada responded positively. An airlift to the UK was in the works. The VC10 touched down at Entebbe with beautiful Lake Victoria lapping at both ends of the runway. Before long we were installed 40 kilometres up the road in the Kampala International Hotel. This had been until very recently the Apollo, named after the now exiled president Apollo Milton Obote. There we awaited developments as the UK government negotiated and sought to get Idi Amin to see reason. Geoffrey Rippon had the hard task of coming to Uganda to talk to “Big Daddy”.

The foreign press corps soon arrived, Sandy Gall and the war photographer Don McCullin among them. The bar became much busier. After Biafra and Vietnam, Don McCullin was only too happy to photograph the attractive Canadian immigration girls who had taken up residence around the pool.

In the event the correspondents were rounded up and expelled before the Asians. The British High Commissioner soon followed, accused of masterminding anti Amin ‘propaganda’.

As preparations for an airlift of some 30,000 Asians got under way, BOAC joined forces with British Caledonian, Donaldson International, Dan Air, and East African Airways to arrange the formidable task of bringing them all to Stansted.

My colleagues found themselves selling tickets on the roof of the Bank of Uganda where the passengers were allowed just enough Ugandan shillings to make the purchase, the rest of their money being confiscated before they received their exit permit. The cash was stuffed in a BOAC cabin bag and seat control maintained on a blackboard.

I found myself back at Entebbe airport, living in a bachelor bungalow with a houseboy and an old VW Beetle. The operations office was a garden shed shipped out from home and erected in the car park. At night its one strip light was a magnet for thousands of lake flies.

One particular night the passengers on the scheduled VC10 were stranded when the captain in Nairobi decided not to land in the tense country and overflew us. Many could not leave the airport as their exit permits had been stamped. George, our catering man, rose to the occasion and took over the departure lounge restaurant, sending staff weaving away through the villages to obtain eggs, and made omelettes for the hungry refugees throughout most of the night.

That same lounge was to be the unhappy place of detention for the Israeli hostages taken by the PLO from an Air France flight in 1976. I returned in equally tense times in May 2003 to see the blackened ruin of this old terminal building standing just as the Israeli troops left it after their famous raid.

After another night duty I decided to take the faithful VW to have lunch with my colleagues at Kampala’s Speke hotel. By this time the army was jumpy about a Tanzanian invasion and there were roadblocks of sullen soldiery.

We were urged always to wear uniform and carry passports. I was soon flagged down by one group gathered at a banana leaf hut checkpoint and was told to get out of the car. “Open the bonnet!” I was instructed. The catch on a VW Beetle is in the glove compartment and took me a while to find. Much irritation and fingering of new Russian supplied, Libyan funded, Kalashnikovs.

“Where’s the engine?” the sergeant grunted as he gazed at the empty luggage compartment, worried that his troops had been quicker than usual and stolen it already. “Round the back, I think”, I croaked.

Satisfied that the VW did have an engine, they frisked me and curtly told me to go. But the car would not start. A sweat on the brow moment. There was nothing for it but to grab my BOAC hat from the back seat, assume a confidence I did not feel and call “Right lads, four of you, quickly now, round the back and PUSH!”

It worked. Soon I was puttering away with half the unit 500 yards from their post standing absently in the dust. I came back home by another route.

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