A joint search operation for the abducted American tourist Kimberly Sue Endecott and her guide Jean Paul has been on since Tuesday April 2, in Queen Elizabeth National Park, with the army, police and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) personnel scouring the area and its vicinity.
Sunday Monitor dispatched a team to the Ishasha Sector of the national park where the abduction took place, and the team got to the closest point security operatives would allow it to get, Kihihi Township, 500kms from Kampala. The situation over there is tense, gloomy and restrictive since the area has been placed under security lockdown as the search and rescue operation ensues.
Amidst all the despair, however, there is hope, if you listen to Mr Nelson Natukunda, the Kihihi Sub-county chairperson.
Kihihi Sub-county borders Queen Elizabeth National Park and DR Congo, and Mr Natukunda tells us that he has seen such cases before, only that the previous ones involved local people and did not attract as much publicity as the current one has.
Last year, Mr Natukunda, told Sunday Monitor on Friday, armed men kidnapped fish traders near Ishasha border area and demanded a ransom of Shs20 million. They crossed to DR Congo with the abductees, but eventually released them after they were paid Shs9m.
In another case, again during the same year, a boda boda cyclist, son of a resident the chairperson identified as Mr Enock Mbuya of nearby Nyanga Sub-county, was abducted and also taken to DR Congo. His captors did not take the motorcycle he was riding on with them, Mr Natukunda says, and eventually released him after they were paid Shs2m. They had originally asked for Shs5m, Mr Natukunda says.
On this basis, Mr Natukunda says: “We have had cases of kidnap along the border with DR Congo and we see this incident as not very strange.”
What is strange and different in this case is that the abductors went for an international tourist, and have reportedly asked for a ransom in dollars.
Reports from Security indicate that Ms Kimberley’s abductors originally asked for $500,000 (about Shs1.9b) and that as negotiations progressed, they reduced the sum to $50,000 (about Shs190m), and that they had put it back to $500,000 by the end of yesterday. This is information that Mr Natukunda too had, but that he was not in position to confirm, just like other players.
How it happened
On Tuesday, at around 5.30pm, Mr Natukunda says he received phone calls from people in the national park informing him that tourists had been abducted.
On further inquiry, Mr Natukunda says he was told that about four people in a vehicle had gone on a game drive around Edward Flats (flat area close to Lake Edward) not far from to the Uganda-DR Congo border had been abducted.
“I was told by camp (lodge) operators that this was a family of two elderly parents and their daughter; that they had gone to the park without informing the administration of the camp and had no armed escorts,” Mr Natukunda said.
He says the normal practice is that tourists go on game drives with armed rangers and guides.
“That (driving unaccompanied) was a mistake because going on game drive without security is not the usual practice,” Mr Natukunda stresses.
The kidnappers took with them Ms Kimberly and their guide, but left behind her parents, Mr Julius Martin and his wife Barbel. Mr Natukunda speculates that the kidnappers might have decided they did not want to move long distances in the jungles with elderly people, who have limited physical energy, but that their decision could have been informed by a desire to leave the parents behind so that they mobilise the ransom money.
Inside the hunt
Specifics and progress about the ongoing frantic rescue operations by the police, UPDF and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers are very scanty. The authorities are reportedly concerned that publicity will deepen fear among the public and scare away prospective visitors to our national parks.
The other fear is that if information about progress flows freely, the kidnappers could access the information through Internet or their agents and use it to elude arrest and outmaneuver the rescue team pursuing them.
Only UWA and police publicists are permitted to speak to the press about the incident and ongoing rescue operation.
The publicists confirm that the kidnappers have indeed asked for a ransom, but there are no indications as to whether the government is willing to enter a deal and pay the money or not.
Ms Kimberly is an American and sources say Ugandan and American personnel are sharing notes regarding the operation. Back in America, the official policy is that no ransom is paid to kidnappers, except in special circumstances where the president may authorise it.
In Uganda, in early 2008, when Susan Magara was kidnapped and her captors asked for money, her father asked and got permission from President Museveni to pay the ransom money the kidnappers wanted. In the end, the family revealed, the kidnappers took the money but eventually killed Magara.
Security sources indicate that the government and the kidnappers communicate through phones of the abductees, which shows that they are inside Uganda. There are no details of which language is used.
The entire Ishasha sector has been turned into military operation zone in an effort to rescue the abductees, says Mr Bashir Hangi, the UWA senior communications officer. Only Mr Hangi, police deputy spokesperson Polly Namaye and UPDF spokesperson, Brig Richard Karemire, are authorised to speak to the media on the matter.
Ms Namaye said: “We are still in operation; police are working with other security agencies trying our best to rescue these people. We urge the public to stay calm and hopeful.”
Top security officials, including IGP Okoth Ochola, are overseeing the operations.
Travellers going through Ishasha Sector (heading to Katunguru, Kihihi and Rwenshama landing site) are subjected to security check-ups and asked to produce national identity cards. Those found without any personal identification documents are held for further scrutiny, local boda boda cyclist and tax drivers told Sunday Monitor.
Tour and travel vehicles that frequent Kihihi Town carrying tourists are now rare.
About the area
Coverage. The national park borders DR Congo to the west and this brings in the possibility of the kidnappers crossing to DR Congo as has happened in the past kidnap cases in the area.
Attractions. Tree-climbing lions, hippopotamus (in Lake Edward and River Ishasha), elephants, buffalos and kobs are the common wild animals in the Edward Flats.
Lodging. The tourists were lodging at Wilderness Camp, located inside the park, about 30 kilometers from Kihihi Town Council. Edward Flats area is about 15km further from Wilderness Lodge in the north-west direction.
Mr Nelson Natukunda, the Kihihi Sub-county chairperson, said he was informed that the three Americans had come from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where they had gone to see mountain gorillas.
One can connect to Wilderness Camp from Kihihi Town side (30 km North West of Kihihi town) or from Katunguru (about 70 km West of Katunguru).