So, it’s August 1986, I’m supposedly being interviewed at Entebbe Airport for “Attempting to enter Uganda without a valid travel document, to wit, a passport.”. In actual fact I’m sitting there with Bill and two of my local team, who are taking it in turns to negotiate on my behalf, scratching their heads, making phone calls and looking very worried on our behalf. Not a good look.
It went on for hours, it was exceedingly boring. Then, when I thought I was bored enough, it suddenly became rather, I’m hovering on using the word “exciting” but I think I’ll stick with “worrying”. We were to be taken to Entebbe Police Station and held overnight before being interviewed by, I kid you not, Interpol in the capital, Kampala. I wasn’t actually too worried about any of the implications of all this, just the thought of spending a night in a Ugandan Police Station. Forget anything you ever thought you knew about jail, police, police custody, we’re talking a poverty-stricken war zone where even in good times the conditions would have been slightly worse than appalling. After decades of government mismanagement, wars, police executions (that’s executions of police officers) and so on, there was nowhere in the entire country that was fit to live, least of all a police station. This is it on a good day:
My guys were alternately, doing their best to assure me that they would be working flat out to sort things out whilst looking so decidedly worried that I started to think that I should feel that way, too. We were handed over to a policeman, armed obviously, and led away to an old banger of a “taxi” that served as their official transport, I seem to remember it was a 1960s Ford Anglia. To say it had seen better days would just be having a laugh, it was beyond belief that it would travel at thirty miles an hour, much less have a hope in hell of ever stopping, if it did.
Sam and Fred sheepishly said their goodbyes and off we went. I’m not quite sure how to describe Entebbe Police Station or, indeed, the part of it to which we were taken. Suffice to say, the highest offices of State in Uganda were little better than tumble-down, shell-shattered ruins, sometimes brushed clean of dust and debris, sometimes not. There always seemed to be a bloke with a bucket of dirty water and a wet mop which would be used to mix the dust into a fine grinding paste and spread it around the invariably painted concrete floor. It gave an impression of civilisation, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
As the Ford Anglia pulled up at the rear of the building, a level below the roadside frontage, I could see the look of horror on Bill’s face and, probably for the hundredth time in the last 24 hours, I patted him on the shoulder, urged him not to worry and assured him that everything would be sorted out and it would all be fine. I genuinely believed that to be true, as well, though I had scant basis for such optimism, frankly.
Like most buildings it was made of colonial vintage concrete which had once been painted white but which ends up covered in the fine red clay dust that covers literally everything, inside and out. Natuarally, it had bars on those few windows that existed and a big steel warehouse door. This was clearly the tradesman’s entrance to the storeroom, as confirmed when we were led into the almost pitch black interior. Candles were lit, there may even have been a Tilley lamp, and I could see wooden shelving, in aisles with a few meagre supplies stacked on them. I was surprisingly cheered when I realised some of this was canned foodstuffs, big catering size ones but food nonetheless. We weren’t going to starve.
We were led to the back of the room and I can’t remember what was actually on the floor, in the way of makeshift bedding but I remember thinking that this was the last place on earth I was actually going to lay down, unless at gunpoint – which of course, I was. The policeman were all very graceful, smiling, apologetic, clearly embarrassed, determined to make us as comfortable as they could, given the lack of resources at their disposal. That was comforting. They didn’t seem like the kind that would take us out and put us up against the wall in the dead of night. Some would. They had a smattering of English between them, not much. We sat on the floor and wondered what came next.
We were left alone, in candlelight and I spent my time trying to keep Bill’s spirits up, poor guy. This was a different universe for him and he wanted to get back on the spaceship and set a course for home. Didn’t we all. A couple of hours later, and I’ve never been more grateful to see anyone in my life, the cavalry arrived. It was Capt. Joe Roy and one of his crew. The first we knew of it was the sound of raised voices coming from outside the building, lots of shouting, then the door opened and Joe strode in. He was beside himself with apologies, on behalf of his country, his people, his police service, etc. He had heard that we’d been taken here and came straight away, he was taking us to the “Airport Hotel” for the night. He’d spoken to the Chief of Police, taken personal responsibility for our detention and promised to deliver us to Interpol the following morning. I imagine a little lubricant greased the palms so as to assist a smooth passage of the terms but it’s impolite to ask, so I didn’t.
Joe spirited us away on his white charger, a smart 4×4 of some make or other, and took us back to the airport where we spent a half-decent night on the flea-infested bed, in the mosquito and cockroach ridden space that passed for a room in the “Airport Hotel”. The “Hotel” was actually just a few rooms on an upper floor of the terminal building, dispel any illusions the word “Hotel” may impart. To us, it felt like the Park Lane Hilton. In the morning we had a light breakfast, actual food: fruit, pastries and coffee which Joe joined us for and then, good as his word to the police, he took us back to his car and we drove the forty miles back to Kampala. Joe could shed no light on what was going on, why there seemed to be such importance given to our “case” or who might be pulling the strings and, at this point, I hadn’t begun to suspect the truth. He parked outside a large building of four or five stories, in the middle of Kampala, not far from the Speke Hotel, once a symbol of national pride but, by the time I stayed there, in ’82 I think it was, a faded symbol of a once glorious colonial time. Whisky was served to me back then in a CocaCola bottle, the original style, and a wide brimmed stainless steel water jug was presented to me, as if as a challenge, to see how much of it I could get through the narrow neck of the Coke bottle, rather than in my lap. They’d run out of glasses. I had soup there four days running. Each day the menu gave it a glowing and appetising title – Cream of Mushroom, Pea and Ham, Parsley and something or other. Each time, it was exactly the same, lumpy cornflour and water with the faintest possible taste of vegetable broth. I think the lumps were intended to give it substance.
Joe led us upstairs a couple of floors and handed us over to one of the “Interpol” “detectives”. I’m sorry, I just can’t take either of those words seriously, in the current context. I mean, this was an absolute joke. A Bic biro was a prized treasure, for gods sake, you never lent yours to anyone and paper was a luxury commodity – this was meant to be an office of Interpol?!? They did have a telex machine (as did anyone that needed to communicate with the outside world in a land where telephones were more often office decoration than a functional communications device) so it’s not impossible that they had a method of communicating with foreign police forces. Joe wished us well and left us in the care of these bemused but friendly fellows. We were assigned to one officer who spoke a little English and who smiled a lot, offered us tea and seemed to be concerned for our welfare.
It was to be another tedious period of boredom, sitting on our hands, waiting, waiting, always waiting…. Eventually, after hours of this, our guardian came to us concerned to know if we had anything with us to eat? We shrugged and indicated we had nothing but, yes, we were hungry. Incredibly, he advised us that there was an eating place just down the road (I think he referred to it as a restaurant) and suggested we go on down there and get our own lunch. He would remain there but we should come back as soon as we’d finished eating….
I looked at Bill and he at me, we shrugged and left the building. So, here we were, international criminals under investigation by Interpol and we’d been sent out onto the city streets unaccompanied and seemingly with no concern that we might flee.
Bill seized the moment, “Let’s make a run for it!”, he exclaimed, “What’s to stop us?”, tugging at my arm. “Let’s get some lunch”, I said calmly and we carried on walking down to where, sure enough, there was a large cafe of sorts. While we were standing in the queue, I explained to Bill, “It’s about 200km to the border with Kenya, it’s an eight hour drive over one of the worst roads you’ve ever seen. There are armed police and army roadblocks every few miles on every road around Kampala. We have a minor problem with our passports, we don’t have any, so we’re not going to get into Kenya, either. On top of that, Joe has given his word that we’d toe the line and he’d be in big trouble if we were to do a runner. We’re not armed bank robbers. Let’s keep calm and let my guys do their thing. What do you want to eat?” I finished.
We were sat at a table outside having just started eating when I spotted our guardian Interpol man, running down the road and into the area of the cafe, his eyes darting everywhere, clearly hoping for a glimpse of us. I didn’t catch his eye but I saw him pull up short when he spotted us and, as nonchalantly as he could possibly muster, he pulled up a chair at a distant table and sat facing us. I waved, mischievously, and he signalled, gesturing back not to get up, carry on with your lunch, he’d wait. I shared the joke with Bill and we chuckled. Obviously his boss must have enquired where his two charges were and was probably none too pleased when he was advised we’d been sent out to get our lunch! International desperadoes loose on the streets of the capital, he’d never live it down.
Once we’d finished eating, we collected our guardian and walked back up the hill and back upstairs to the boring office corridor where we’d been parked for most of the day. Next thing I know, the Deputy Consul from the British High Commission arrives, up the stairs to our corridor and approaches us, full of apologies and deeply concerned for our well-being. “Have you brought passports?” I asked, pointedly, my face hopefully expressing my contempt for his sudden concern. “Err, no, he responded, we still have some checks to complete.” “What friggin checks!?” I demanded, “We’re here, under Interpol custody all for the lack of a ruddy passport which you have every power to issue right here, right now!”. “It’s not that simple”, he tried to convince me, “matters have escalated, procedures to be followed, I’m in touch with the Foreign Office in London, your wife has been camped in their offices for the last 24 hours, insisting we help you!”. Good for her! I thought, and probably said. It was amazingly comforting news to know that word had got back home and that Paula was fighting our corner, too. “You’re going to have to spend another night in custody, I’m afraid, and then in the morning you’ll be taken to the Magistrates Court where you will be tried for immigration offences. Don’t worry, I’ll see you again tomorrow, I’m sure everything will be fine….”
I was gobsmacked, I didn’t want to alienate him completely, one needs allies in these situations, even if you can’t choose who they be. I left him in no doubt how poor a show I thought this was by the British Diplomatic Service but I was polite, if not deferential. “I’m now going to take you to the Central Police Station where you’ll be held tonight.” and that’s precisely what he did. I was struggling with this concept, perhaps basing my thinking rather too heavily on those Jason Bourne novels. It just seemed incredible to me that a British Deputy Consul, rather than handing me a passport, literally my passport out of this nightmare, was acting as a prison escort instead. I despised this man, and his ilk and always will.
I’d never even noticed the Central Police Station in Kampala before, it was one of the more creatively styled buildings as shown in this picture. A rather brutal piece of Art Deco. That convex structure in the middle was the facade to the large spiral staircase which is etched in my mind. Led by the Consul into the main lobby, we were handed over to two policemen who led us both down the staircase, two floors, as I recall, toward the “cells”. There was a great deal of noise coming from down below, that got louder as we descended. On the second landing, another policeman guarded a large trestle table on which were piled an assortment of tired looking footwear. As we were led past, the officer remonstrated with our guards, clearly indicating that we were expected to remove our shoes and hand them in. Our guards argued back, protectively, and there were some angry words exchanged but we were led on down with our shoes still on our feet – thank god.
We approached the top of another staircase, leading off the first and were greeted by the most horrific sight. At the bottom of this flight there was a traditional jail gate, heavy iron bars. Projecting through the gaps between the bars were an untold number of outstretched arms. This was where the noise had been coming from. What seemed like a mass of semi-naked humanity was pressed against the bars of the gate, each reaching out, for what, I have no idea. I felt I was looking at the original model for Dante’s Gates of Hell and the thought that we were about to pass through them was, I must confess, a terrifying prospect but pass through them we were indeed going to do.
One of the guards unlocked the gate and pulled it outward, shouting at the inmates behond to get back and threatening them with his police issue truncheon. The sea of noisy, grasping bodies parted slowly and we were ushered inside, rather than led, and as we passed down the remaining steps, into the blackness below, items we had under our arms, in our hands or pockets, disappeared so that we had just the clothes we stood up in when we arrived at the foot of the stairs. Right there and then, I assumed we were about to be violently raped and murdered and that no one would lift a finger to help, or raise the slightest objection. I can’t begin to imagine how terrified Bill must have been.
Out of the throng, one guy stepped forward, took me by the hand as I grabbed hold of Bill’s arm, dragging him along with me, and led us through this crowded huddle of around a hundred souls, some of them with shorts on, most with nothing at all. I had no idea if we were being led to our death or rescued by some comic superhero. I had suspended disbelief about five minutes earlier. The series of rooms and spaces we passed through were impossible to make out, given it was pitch black, apart from the candle our guide held aloft. Did I mention the smell? It was an overpowering stench. A toxic mix of every bodily fluid odour, imaginable. It literally made one wretch and, trust me, I was determined not to vomit for fear of being set upon for showing any sign of weakness.
The man pushed open a door and lifted the candle up higher to illuminate the scene. As I took in the gloomy scene in front of me, I realised what I was looking at. It was a traditional, rectangular prison cell but completely bereft of any furniture or fittings. On the wall opposite, up high, was a small window with no glazing and iron bars set vertically in. I later discovered that the bottom of the window was at ground level with the outside world, saving the rats the effort of having to climb to get in.
The toilet that had once been located in the far right corner, was gone but the half-wall that once provided the user with the smallest of modesty was still present. Covering the floor were various cut up pieces of tired looking foam rubber forming a mattress and seating area for the occupants, of whom there were about a dozen. Our guide removed his flipflops and parked them at the entrance, Bill and I looked at each other and with our eyes, only, agreed that we would decline the hospitality gesture and were keeping our shoes firmly on our feet. Our guide did speak English and he welcomed us into his little tribe who were all equally gracious and welcoming, in their decidedly shabby conditions. As we took a seat on the foam rubber, he went on to explain that this was the VIP cell and that everyone there was a political prisoner, not a common thief or criminal. It’s possible he was telling the truth, it’s equally possible that their crimes were bribery and corruption, neither of which was considered a crime in this part of the world and both of which were commonly used excuses for locking up one’s political opponents. Certainly they were relatively well to do and seemingly educated and, hitherto at least, financially successful.
Bill and I were both dying for a pee but we agreed that, for the time being, we had no desire to venture outside that door once more, if we could possibly avoid it. Being white in a friendly black country has always had its benefits, in my experience, a certain embarrassing deference does indeed pave roads not otherwise available. This was no different. From the police officers who escorted us down into hell, the terrifying mob outside and now this gentle bunch of warm and generous men, it was clear, we were the closest thing to celebrities that this place had seen in a long time. Bob Astles, Amin’s sidekick, being our only known predecessor.
We got to talking with our hosts. Several of them had been held for many months on remand while they were awaiting a court hearing. They explained how things worked inside. Here’s what the authorities provided: Nothing. No water to drink, no sanitation, no bathrooms, no food, no bedding, no clothing, nothing, absolutely zero. If you had no-one on the outside to bring you supplies, then you had to beg, barter or steal – good luck with that last one in here.
Just then some women appeared with a variety of aluminium saucepans and a gas camping stove and started to heat up some food they had prepared at home. They set up the stove in the middle of the room, pushing aside the highly flammable scraps of foam rubber “mattresses” and got to work. Our new friends made sure we were served first and I didn’t dare bother to enquire what it was that I was about to put in my mouth. At least I couldn’t see it and it tasted amazingly good, considering, though I fear that was mainly the just knowing that at least we wouldn’t starve. I hoped we wouldn’t be here for many months or, frankly, too many days.
People came and went freely in and out of our cell. They would stand up and walk barefooted across the floor covering of foam rubber bedding, replacing their flip-flops from the pile by the door, and venture outside to who knows where. When they returned, they would dutifully take them off again, at the door, and walk across the bedding to take their allotted place.
Our meal finished, the women departed, an invisible signal indicated it was time to “turn out the lights” and turn in. Each one of our compatriots seemed to have a reserved space so we watched them settle down and then crawled into the remaining vacant spaces, which didn’t really seem big enough for an entire body, even a small one. We were clearly going to be cosy. I didn’t have quite enough width to accommodate my arms by my side, so I layed with my arms outstetched over my head. A decision I came to regret the next morning, as they had clearly been a beacon to every stray mosquito in Kampala, there being nothing to stop them flying through the bars to our window. I was bitten rotten up and down the length of both arms. It must have looked very much like this scene from an African prison:
An hour or so into our repose, neither Bill nor I could hold our bladders any longer. I reached over to our host and shook him gently by the arm, apologising profusely for disturbing him but explaining that we both needed to use the toilet. The “WC” as it’s commonly known in this part of the world, you might be surprised to learn. He was very understanding and got out his candle so he could show us the way. We followed him, trying our best to pick our way through the sleeping bodies without walking on anyone or inadvertently kicking them with our hard shoes. This of course was made all the more difficult because we were walking on foam rubber and wobbling a lot. We made it to the door without too many casualties and ventured out into the pitch black just following the candle our host held aloft.
We were in a corridor that had a very slight fall to it. With each step along it, that stench became more and more intolerable. Then I realised I was splashing in some shallow puddle or something. We continued for about forty or fifty feet and then our host pushed open another door and raised his candle higher, gesturing to us to “enter”. Frankly, my stomach was complaining bitterly and it was all I could do to keep it’s contents down where they belonged.
We peered inside, then we looked at each other, we looked down at our shoes and we both burst out laughing aloud – our host quickly “Shhhhh”d us. We realised the liquid we had been splashing in was over the tops of our shoes. We were three inches deep in sewage. We put our hands to our mouths and giggled inanely. The room we were looking at was exactly like the one we’d just left. It too had the toilet removed from the far right hand corner. In lieu, if you’d pardon the pun, the entire room had become the toilet. It was swimming six inches deep in urine and faeces. The splashing we had experienced was the excess fluid that had escaped into the corridor which, helpfully, ran slightly uphill keeping the raw sewage reasonably contained at the far end as it rose up the slope. The joke that had us both in fits, was the fact that we’d been impressed by the hygeine on display by our hosts, dutifully removing their flipflops at the entrance when in fact their feet must have been bathed in this foul liquid and trodden all over that bedding, many, many times over. We never exchanged one word, we just shared identical thoughts.
Standing side by side in the doorway, we peed as far as we could into the room, as young boys do in pissing contests. In our case, we were just trying to avoid the splash-back!
Still giggling, we made our way back to our communal cell, thought about taking off our shoes and immediately thought better of it. What, after all, was the point?
After an interminably restless flea and mosquito infested night, the rising sun elbowed its way through the bars of our little window as dawn broke around 6am, as it always does on the Equator. I had been listening to the grunts and farts of our cell companions for the previous few hours and hoping I wouldn’t succumb to the toxicity of the resultant olfactory environment, the stench. I’m told that the body odour of white people is as offensive to black people as ours is to them, I have no idea of the voracity of that claim but it is certainly, distinctly different and it is probably that difference that makes it appear to be so prominent, especially when you are pressed nose to armpit, face to backside in such close proximity. It’s a night I would dearly like to forget.
Neither of us could quite bring ourselves to face another visit to the latrine unless bladders were literally in danger of bursting so we both controlled ourselves with a discipline I have never managed before or since. We passed the time chatting with our companions, listening to their stories of political intrigue and betrayal and nodding vigorously at the injustice of it all, without ever questioning what frightening level of corruption they might possibly have engaged in. Somehow, it seemed churlish, and rather foolish, to raise such issues, given the circumstances.
Eventually, someone relayed a message into our cell that we were being summoned and we rose to begin the disconcerting journey we would have to take, through the huddled throng, in the darkened area outside in the main area of this dungeon jail. We shook hands with our companions and heartily thanked them for the hospitality they had shown us, miserable as it inevitably was but the generosity was unmistakable.
We were escorted through the loud, bustling, semi-naked multitude, a genuine curiosity to these poor and wretched people, many of whom had never been up close and personal with a white man before. The jail gate with it’s heavy iron bars was pulled open and we began the climb up the various flights of stairs. Although we had absolutely no idea what awaited us, the mere fact that the din and the smell was receding with every step we climbed, gave us a euphoric sense of impending freedom.
Back in the main lobby of the Central Police Station, we were greeted by the Deputy Consul. He appeared genuinely contrite at his failure to intervene in our proceedings the previous day and extremely concerned for our well-being. I was acutely aware that I stunk to high heaven. That no part of my body had seen water for some 72 hours and that I had just spend the last 15 or so hours, lying on urine soaked bedding, shaking many hands with urine and faecal contamination. He reached out his own hand, to shake mine. If it were anyone else, I would have declined and excused myself for the very reasons I’ve mentioned. In his case, I complied willingly, hoping desperately that I would at least be passing on the disgusting aroma and, hopefully, a rather virulent infection.
Once again he had come to transport us to the next phase in our humiliation. This time, he was taking us to the Courtroom where we were to stand trial in front of the Magistrate. The Court itself, like most things in Uganda in those days, bore a striking resemblance to their equivalent back home in the UK but in an extremely dilapidated and dirty condition. The dark wood panelling, the lack of electric lighting and the limited windows gave the room a distinctly Dickensian feel which seemed entirely appropriate.
On our way into the courtroom, and with more arrayed at the back of the court, we witnessed a throng of local newspaper reporters and TV crews that were assembled. Just as Fred had warned me, they wanted to make this a show trial and we were to be made an example of. We took up seats at the very front of the court, directly facing the Magistrate who sat high up on her seat behind the bench. Facing her, and some way below, was the Clerk of The Court, with his back to us. Away to our right and some rows behind us, was the dock. I don’t recall a separate witness box but that may be because no witnesses were ever called in any of the proceedings that we ourselves, were witness to.
These proceedings all followed an identical pattern. First, a blinking, confused prisoner was led up the stairs, in handcuffs, from the holding room below. One by one, they appeared, looking around the room with a frightened, rabbit-in-headlights demeanour. As this was happening, the Clerk of the Court was reading out the charges, in English, in a softly spoken voice that I, no more than six feet away, struggled to hear clearly. The Magistrate spoke in an almost identical murmour ,in passing further detention sentences. Imagine the plight of the poor prisoner, most of whom spoke no English, and who had missed most of the introduction on his way to the dock, who was then (in some cases) asked how he pleaded. Most of them didn’t understand that simple question. In all cases, once pleadings were dealt with, the Prosecuting attorney would advise the Magistrate that they hadn’t yet completed their investigations and they requested a further adjournment. In all cases this was granted and further remand approved. This meant further confinement on remand for each poor prisoner, for reasons they seemingly knew not and, as they were each led back down to the holding cell, anxiously looking around for explanations or divine intervention, my heart went out to them in a depth of feeling it’s difficult to describe. I now had first hand experience of the conditions they were being held in and, frankly, you’d be guilty of animal cruelty in this country, if nothing else.
Eventually, it was our turn. We were the only defendants in court that day who had legal representation though quite who he was or what he knew of our case, was a total mystery. As I’d told Bill, the brief was to say nothing unless spoken to, to be humble and polite if we were, and to exhibit the body language of contrition at any and every opportunity. I’m a proud man but I know which side my bread is buttered when my back is up against the wall, if I may mix two metaphors in a single sentence.
After a mere 5-10 minutes, as I recall, matters turned to sentencing. We were each fined the princely sum of, I believe, 40,000/=, Uganda Shillings, a month’s salary if you had a good government job, or about £6 in real money. I waited to hear the word, “deportation”, but it didn’t come, at least not to my hearing. We thanked the Magistrate apologetically and graciously and followed the lawyer out of the Court, where we were greeted by my guys, jubilant at the result.
“Were we deported”? I quizzed them. No we weren’t, they assured me, looking as pleased as punch with themselves. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that they had been beavering away on our behalf, negotiating and probably bribing their way to this stunning result. Not to appear ungrateful but I had to resist the temptation to suggest that, if they’d got their act together a couple of days earlier, that would have been appreciated. I didn’t spoil their moment. Apparently, they’d also secured some embargo on the TV news issue so that whilst we would, and did, headline the Uganda Times the following day, there was no TV exposure.
The Deputy Consul was there too and he wanted to transport us, yet again, but this time back to the High Commission where we were to be given brand new passports.
We had to stop off en route to get photographs. It was the 1980s and I had my Kevin Keegan perm (We can perm it straight, they assured me, it doesn’t have to be curly – lying bastards) which was now going to be immortalised in my shiny new passport. I still have it. Who cares, I just wanted to get my hand on that lovely Blue Book that was, quite literally, my passport back to civilisation.
Initially, despite what we’d been through, I had every intention of carrying on where we’d left off, getting back to Entebbe to press on with fitting out the hotel rooms. Bill, bless him, was pretty spaced out by everything that had happened over the past few days. He didn’t urge me to cut and run but it was painfully evident that he was considerably less enamoured of the place than he’d hoped he would feel, once he’d got over the fact that he was venturing into foreign parts. I don’t know where we stayed that night. I have little or no memory of the rest of that day. At some point, however, it was related to me that some forces in the country were exceedingly unhappy that we had not been deported and were looking at ways to get us back into court, to have us charged with some other offence or, in one way or another, to do us harm. I spoke with my partner, Colin, in Mombasa and he convinced me that it would be best if we just got out, pronto, and came to Mombasa – given there was no flight back to the UK for several days and given that DAS Air probably wouldn’t want to take the risk of being seen to help us again.
Uganda Airlines, at that time, had one Boeing 707 and two Fokker F27 Friendships, turboprop aircraft used on internal and regional flights. There was an F27 flight scheduled to Mombasa the following day but there was also a sailing tournament scheduled for that weekend and many expats had already booked to spend the weekend there. The flight was full and overbooked. We had strong relationships with the airline, we were their General Sales Agent (for cargo) and we handled their aircraft back at London Gatwick. That didn’t help us on this occasion. We decided there was only one thing for it, we chartered a four-seater Cessna aircraft off a local company and so we’d fly out first thing in the morning, in complete privacy using the private facilities, avoiding the usual immigration controls on exit and indeed the waiting passenger crowds in the terminal, such as they normally were.
We arrived at the crack of dawn and were dropped off in the charter outfit’s little office. The Captain greeted us warmly and asked us for our passports so he could, as is common practice, take them to immigration and get them stamped without us needing to attend. Ten minutes later, he returned, looking rather disconcerted. “They insist you accompany me”, he announced, very apologetically and obviously a little surprised by this break with convention. We were led into a small room where, sat at a bare desk, upon which was just a rubber inking pad, a rubber stamp and a ballpoint pen, was our very own little Himmler. The very same man, with the NHS pebble glasses. He avoided eye contact, not just as we entered, but for the entire time we were stood in that room. He spoke not one word that I can recall. He held out his hand for our passports and opened each one slowly and purposefully. He turned to the first blank page, and inking his stamp, placed an exit stamp in my passport. He then, even more purposefully, took his pen and drew a vertical line down the centre of the rubber stamp, studied his work and then drew a horizontal line bisecting across the first, to form a cross.
This was a coded signal to anyone looking at my passport to see that I had been deported. He closed my passport and handed it back to me before proceeding to duplicate the process with Bill’s. When he’d finished, we were whisked away by our Captain without further ado and not one word was spoken during the entire encounter.
I expected that we would get to our aircraft, across the apron by a special exit but instead, our Captain led us back through the departure “lounge” of the terminal building. It was exceptionally crowded and noisy, lots of British and other expats, drinking beer and generally exchanging bonhomie, at 7 o’clock in the morning. You can take a Brit out of Britain….
This was the last thing I wanted, we were much too visible in this situation. As we approached a raised dais crowded with drinkers I spotted my “friend” and “housemate”, Ian Brebner. He all but spat out his beer when he saw me, word clearly had not reached him that we had NOT been deported. I threw him an unmistakably hostile stare and hurried along behind our Captain, toward the exit door. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ian put down his glass on a table, excuse himself with his companions and take up pursuit.
There was a policeman at the exit door, his rifle slung over his shoulder. The Captain waved our passports at him and without hesitation kept leading us through the door and out onto the tarmac. I saw the plane out on the apron about a hundred yards away. Then I heard a shout behind us and, turning around, I saw Ian gesticulating wildly and shouting in the face of the policeman. Ian was a typically arrogant expat who treated “the locals” in a disgustingly disparaging way. He was telling the policeman to stop us, “What are you waiting for?” he shouted, “they’re getting away!”. I’ve picked up my pace markedly in these few seconds and now I see the policeman, unshouldering his rifle. I grabbed Bill’s arm, “Run!”, I said, “Run!”.
We and the Captain legged that hundred yards across the apron, he’d seen the policeman take aim in our direction. He gesticulated to his engineer/co-pilot as he ran to get the engine started and I was relieved to see it burst into life almost immediately.
I have to confess the symptoms of age and time and memory at this point. I’ve had it fixed in my head that at some point in all this, the policeman actually fired his rifle at us. That shots rang out around our heads. The truth is, I don’t actually know whether he did or not. In actuality, I don’t even know that it matters. What I do know, is that we arrived, breathless from our exertions and threw ourselves and our bags through the little door, onto the floor of the aircraft. The co-pilot held open and then closed the door for us as the Captain, first through the door, ran to his seat and the aircraft started moving well before we’d got to our seats.
We taxied out to the runway and, without pause, began our takeoff. When I could look back at the terminal building there was a small crowd of people on the tarmac, several policemen in their light blue uniforms and a great deal of commotion going on. I didn’t care. We had rotated, our wheels had left the ground and our little aircraft and we were heading sharply skyward as I breathed a huge and meaningful sigh of relief.
“Free!, Free at last!” was all that rang from my lips, at least, in my head. There was no point talking anyway, no-one would hear it over the noise of the engine.
I’ve never been back to Uganda.
Ian Brebner never achieved anything, not even from his chicanery and died some years later.
Whilst I may not agree with his politics, Yuweri Museveni appears to have kept Uganda stable these past thirty odd years, that’s remarkable in that part of the world.
I’ve seen my friend and associate Fred Kamihanda once since then and I’ve not seen anyone else from Uganda in all this time, it’s not something I regret but I would love to see Jack Calnan and Joe Roy again.
The Chinese now own Uganda, as so much of the third world, it was evident back then that it was happening.