The civilian controllers on duty could not give that kind of authorisation
Part 1. Joseph Mutebi, 65, was an apron controller at Entebbe International Airport in the 1970s and witnessed the raid on Entebbe. He also worked as an aircraft marshaller providing visual communication signaling to pilots taxiing planes to a halt. He narrates to Gillian Nantume about what happened.
“The Air France airbus carrying the hostages appeared in Entebbe airspace on Sunday night (June 28, 1976). The plane remained in the air as the captain communicated to the control tower asking for emergency clearance to land. He said they only had 20 minutes before they would crash.
The civilian controllers on duty could not give that kind of authorisation. Instead, the head controller, (Mohammed) Muhindo, who had just been transferred from Malindi – contacted State House for guidance.
State House gave clearance and the plane landed and taxied to the new terminal. I was the aircraft marshaller. When we came to work the next day, the aircraft was still in the same position and the hostages were still aboard. At about 10am, it was towed to the old airport.
Uganda Army soldiers surrounded it, and near the swamps around the airport, battle tanks were well positioned. The hostages were taken through old terminal to the former VIP lounge. Among the cleaners who attended them was a friend of mine, Nakabengwa. She is still alive but we lost touch.
We continued with our work normally. Airplanes were taking off and landing as usual. However, talks between president Idi Amin and the Israeli government were ongoing. Amin made the calls in the presidential lounge, which was next to our office, and we overheard snippets of conversation.
Radar breaks down
Among the hostages was a woman named Dora (Bloch), who must have been important because the Israelis kept asking about her health. Maybe her health needed special attention. She was later taken to Grade A Hospital in Entebbe Town and did not come back.
On July 2, the radar at the airport tripped and went off. Engineers, the officer-in-charge of the control tower, (Fabian) Rwengyembe, and the officer-in-charge of the air controllers, (Lawrence) Mawanda tried to repair the radar but they failed. Unfortunately, before they could make a report to the authorities, the Israelis came.
There was also talk that a Private - Abiriga had told the commander of the soldiers guarding the hostages that the deployment was not enough since he (Abiriga) had heard that the Israelis were tough men. The commander ignored him.
On July 4, I was on duty as the aircraft marshaller. My supervisor was Issa Nyanzi. Amin returned from Mauritius in his Gulf Stream II. The pilots, who included (Lt Col Andrew) Mukooza, flew in stealthily, and asked for clearance to land as they were approaching the runway.
Amin did not spend a long time at the airport as he always did.
He went directly to the old airport to see the hostages, but after a short while, he was driven to State House. When he left, the airport commandant, Kabanda, also left for his home.
Normally, when a plane is approaching Entebbe at night, the runway lights are switched on to show the captain which way he should go. When there is no scheduled flight, the lights are off. When the Israelis flew in, the runway lights were off.
I was at the apron (where planes are parked, loaded, unloaded, fueled or boarded). Muhindo was sitting in the control tower, elbows on the table, holding his head in his hands. His assistant, a gentleman whose name I do not recall, told him he had seen a plane landing.
Muhindo asked how he could have seen the plane when the runway lights were off. The assistant told him he had seen a rotating beacon (navigation light) from an aircraft coming down. Muhindo told him it was impossible for an aircraft to land on a dark runway.
Just to be sure, Muhindo called the operation commander of the soldiers stationed at the airport and asked him if a plane had landed. The commander asked who had given him that information. Muhindo told him he suspected his assistant was dreaming.
He put down the phone, put his head in his hands and went to sleep. A few minutes later, the assistant saw another beacon and woke Muhindo telling him another plane had landed. Muhindo told him to let him sleep in peace since it was apparent there was something disturbing his (the assistant’s) head.
At the apron, we turned and saw two planes parked on the runway. The planes did not come to the taxiway – on their way to the apron. They just remained on the runway, which was strange. We saw cars driving from the aircraft to the old airport and thought it was Amin and his soldiers going to see the hostages.
Then suddenly, we heard a hail of bullets coming from the direction of the old airport. Our supervisor, Nyanzi, shouted, “Abange! Twafudde da!” (My friends! We are dead men!). The Israelis were coming out of the thick grass on the left side of the apron and running on the taxiway. Their heads were covered and you could not see their faces clearly. They were carrying big guns and wore brown camouflage uniform, exactly like the one worn by Amin’s presidential guard.
Nyanzi called to us to run quickly and switch off the lights. But, the Israelis were upon us. They tripped the man who was going to carry out Nyanzi’s instructions. They also threw Nyanzi down and stood by both men. The rest of us ran and hid in the ditches in the grass.
The sound of the bullets was too much. No one knew what was going on. Later, my friend Nakabengwa who was on duty at the old airport, told me the Israelis ordered her to lie on the floor. As they shot the terrorists, some of their bodies fell on her.
From where I was hiding, I saw cars coming from the old airport, driving to the runway, transferring the hostages to the aircraft. Before they left, the Israeli commandos towed the president’s Gulfstream and used it to block the runway. They also towed a C130 and used it to block the taxiway. No plane could taxi to the runway. And on the low chance that the plane reached the runway, it could not take off because the Gulfstream was in the way.
When they left, we came out of hiding, still confused. We could not leave the airport because we were afraid. Those with communication equipment said they were hearing from Nairobi that the hostages had been rescued from the old airport. We also heard that the chief intelligence officer at the new airport, Rafael, had shot an Israeli (Yonatan Netanyahu, brother to current prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu) as he was putting a key into the lock of the presidential lounge.”
“At about 3am, soldiers from Kampala drove into the airport. That night, they arrested a few people. The first question they asked was why the Israeli planes had not been detected on the radar. Muhindo told them the radar was dead. According to Amin, the fact that they had not informed the authorities about the radar incriminated them.
Amin believed those in the control tower had prior knowledge of the attack or had collaborated with the Israelis. Muhindo was arrested in the control tower. His assistant escaped, running though the swamps behind the airport to a friend’s home in Kigungu. His hair and beard were cut off and he was driven to Kampala where he boarded a bus to Nairobi, Kenya.
The last I heard, he was living in Rwanda and I believe he is still alive. The soldiers arrested Rwengyembe and Mawanda from their homes in the senior quarters on Nsamizi hill, behind State House. Mawanda was condemned because he had put new recruits in the control tower. The soldiers said the recruits were incompetent and failed to see the aircraft landing. They thought a plane could be seen at night with the naked eye.
I saw many dead bodies belonging to soldiers being removed from the old airport. Some had their intestines out.
My older brother, Gerald Nsubuga, was instrumental in looking for our three colleagues. He was the paymaster in Civil Aviation. I accompanied him to Makindye Barracks and other police stations looking for them, in vain.
Mawanda’s father came from Sseta to see Nsubuga. He told him his son had appeared to him in a dream telling him he had been killed. Five days after the raid, someone told us to go to Namanve and check since some bodies had been thrown there recently.
We drove there and found three bodies that had been exposed to the elements for a few days. They had been horribly tortured but they were identified by their underclothes. Muhindo had an expensive Rado watch, and it was still on his arm, working perfectly.
Rwengyembe and Mawanda’s people took their bodies but no one knew where Muhindo hailed from since he was new on the job. He was buried at the spot where they were found in Namanve, with his Rado watch.
After they were buried, we resumed work and life continued.”
Mutebi retired from public service but is still working at the airport in a private company, Crane Cafeteria.