What you need to know:
April 11 marked 34 years since Idi Amin was overthrown by a combined force of Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) and Ugandan exiles. In this third part of our series – Idi Amin: The Last Days – as told by his son Jaffar Remo Amin, we reveal how Amin planned and executed a mission to rescue his 10 children who had been studying in boarding school in Kabale, following the cutting off of Mbarara by the liberation forces.
My father’s last stand in 1979 was that undertaken by the valiant Lt. Col. Godwin Sule of the Paratroopers School Malire who died at the “front line” in Lukaya on March 19 from a so-called “friendly fire” incident.
Henceforth, the battle swung in favour of the guerrillas and the Tanzanian forces. These events seemed to have hit dad very badly. He seemed to descend into a world of fantasy visible through his bombastic propaganda statements on Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (Radio Uganda). The state-controlled radio station reported that dad was visiting Mbarara for top-level strategic discussions with the officers of the Simba (Lion) and Chui (Leopard) Battalions.
Caught up in the momentous “surge” were a bunch of pre-teenage children of the man the liberators wanted to topple – my siblings and I!
As it turned out, Mbarara had been in enemy hands for almost a month and the two units mentioned above had ceased to exist as organised forces. With hindsight, I remember that this announcement somehow coincided with a personal mission to rescue his loved ones [my siblings and I] from Kigezi District which was, for all practical purposes, cut off from Kampala.
We always knew dad loved and cared for us very deeply. However, the length to which he went to organise a daring rescue to get my siblings and I out of harm’s way from the war zone could not have been a truer testimony of that love. My siblings and I were sent to the elite missionary schools such as Kabale Preparatory School in Kigezi District for the boys and St. Mary’s Namagunga for the girls. Dad felt good that we could attend the elite schools to which he had once been denied access because his family was erroneously considered Sudanese and “outsiders”.
Because they were not considered Ugandans, dad was denied formal education. That was why he only attempted primary school up to P.4 which was the limit set by the colonial administration for Muslims. He then went to Garaya (school of Koranic studies/readings). This had happened from the year 1940 when he was 12 years old to the year 1944 when he was 16 years old and his family resided at Al-Qadriyah Darasah, Bombo.
The special schools
One of the schools my siblings and I went to – Al-Qadhafi Garrison Primary School in Jinja – was close to an armory, which was the site of a confrontation between troops loyal to my father and the opposition in June-July 1971. Everyone was in the dormitory under big metal beds with gunfire raging outside. We were terribly scared.
Our guardian, Sgt. John Katabarwa, eventually came in and told us everything was fine. The people trying to attack had been forced back.
After that confrontation between dad’s forces and the opposition, we were transferred to another barracks in Mbarara.
I suppose you could say our father had put us in danger, but he always had key people to look after his affairs. He made sure we had guardians. So when it became evident that my brothers and I would be cut off by the troops that overthrew him in 1979, dad did everything possible to rescue us.
Role of soldier-turned parent
Sergeant Tirikwendera, a Munyamulenge from Goma, in my dad’s Crack Presidential Guards, ominously pestered dad to rescue us. We were about to be cut off in the Kigezi District in 1979 when the TPDF and UNLA forces were making their rapid push for Masaka and Ankole District during their lightning advance towards Kampala.
In Kabale Preparatory School at the time were 10 of us, namely: Lumumba Amin, Moses Amin, Mwanga Amin, Adam Amin, Aliga Amin, Luyimbazi Amin, Geriga Amin, MbabaziAate Amin, Machomingi Amin, and myself Jaffar Amin.
Dad had initially thought that we would be safe in the care of the missionaries. However, Sergeant Tirikwendera insisted that the Hima/Tutsi grapevine was giving ominous signs that “Amin’s children at Kabale Preparatory School would be targeted for destruction”. This information was reportedly confirmed by Jackson Kyalikunda who was the operations/research comptroller of the State Research Bureau (SRB).
Eventually, dad gave up and put Sergeant Tirikwendera in charge of a platoon that set off in a brilliant orange 4x4 all-terrain military bus (Fiat 75) towards Kabale, passing Masaka and Ankole just before the Tanzanian army took over the area.
Previously, we had unexpectedly started to receive military police guards from Baba Rajab (Captain Rajab of the Kakwa ethnic group) every evening that guarded each and every one of the three dormitories that we resided in at Kabale Preparatory School. When the missionaries asked us to enquire why the military were being posted outside every dormitory, the soldiers simply stated that they had orders to guard the president’s children.
On that eventful night in February, Ms Samna, who was the resident matron at “The Warren” dormitory where I resided, woke us up deep in the night informing us to dress quickly and prepare to leave. I did not know why and I was surprised that we were leaving for home just shortly after the term had begun. I was in P.6. We were not required, as it were, to take anything and I remember eyeing my chocolate brown ‘Haji Kadingidi platforms’, checkered beige ‘bell-bottoms’ and chocolate brown polo neck top with longing when we were forced to leave everything behind.
I only got a very last glimpse of my beloved Ms Mary Hayward just as we climbed into the Orange Fiat 75. I was struck by the multitude of weaponry inside the bus and the stern attention from the platoon sent to rescue us. They were dad’s Presidential Strike Force Guards.
To us children and to my mind in particular, this was straight out of the famous five-series movies. As the powerful bus set off, I even asked Sgt Tirikwendera why we were not heading towards Mbarara when he turned towards Kisoro having descended down Rugarama Hill and just passed my classmate Ezekiel’s house. He solemnly told me that part of the country had been cut off by the invading Tanzanian army.
The long trek
We trudged through Wakaraba valley towards Kisoro. Mbarara was now in enemy hands and the two Uganda Army units there had ceased to exist as an organized force in the area. We would have to head for Kisoro, pass through Rwanda, cross over into Zaire and then back into Uganda around Lake George and Lake Edward through the Queen Elizabeth National Park in order to escape the invading Tanzanian Army. We would then go to Hotel Marguerita where we would wait for a plane dad was sending to fly us to Entebbe.
I remember the treacherously steep descend around the Kisoro area. The soldiers later told me that we were lucky passing through this place deep in the night because the abyss was not a sight for the faint hearted. What an amazing trek!
This will always stick in my mind. We only had a Military Police backup from the Kabale Barracks who escorted us in a military Land Rover. Just as we entered the national park deep in the night, somehow one of the sockets to the battery power came off and the powerful bus ground to a halt right in the middle of the park.
The military police alighted and came to try and fix the problem but they were very alarmed by the slowly advancing laughter from hyenas in the area, which seemed to be daring the soldiers to try their luck. Anyone who has ever heard the sound of a hyena’s laugh will know what I am talking about. The officer in-charge, a captain, then decided that we would have to rest in the car until early morning the next day.
At dawn, Sgt Tirikwendera, probably a veteran truck driver, alighted and simply re-plugged the battery and the powerful machine kick-started instantly. We set off on a speedy romp through the park but came to a mile long traffic jam of heavy goods trucks that had got stuck in metre deep ditches. I will always remember the initial bemused looks on the hardened truck driver’s faces when Sgt Tirikwendera made a detour on the side of the stranded trucks, then amazingly managed to pass the multitude of trucks to the grudgingly respectful stares of the truck drivers.
The drivers longingly looked on as we effortlessly trudged forwards in that brilliantly orange all-terrain military bus. We came out near the Kazinga Channel, a conduit that links Lake George to Lake Edward, and were able to join the tarmac road right up to Hotel Marguerita at the foothill of Mountain Rwenzori, inside Queen Elizabeth II National Park.
Dad sent a King-Air turbo propeller plane to pick us up after a lengthy stay at this memorable hotel that bears my mother’s name. While residing at Hotel Marguerita, the officer in-charge of Kabale Military Police Barracks, one Capt Rajab Rembi, a former Uganda Cranes no. 11 winger in the 1960s, tentatively managed to teach a gangly flat-footed laid back 12-year-old how to play pool in the bar room area.
I still remember the lessons I received from Captain Rajab and the misty atmosphere one sees at the foot of Mount Rwenzori. What a beautiful sight! Dad later shocked us when he claimed that there was an attempt by the advancing liberation forces to shoot down the plane with anti-aircraft fire as it approached the Mpigi area.
We slept during the entire flight because we were too exhausted from the jungle trek. We had trekked from Kabale to Rwanda and Zaire and back into Uganda around Kasese into the national park through the night, arrived at the hotel around lunch time and were flown to Entebbe arriving by 18:00 the same day. That was why dad’s revelation really shocked us.
Other than the turbulence experienced around the lakeshores as the King-Air plane approached Entebbe Airport, nothing much happened apart from my sister Asha Aate Mbabazi tagging my sweater and owning up that she had wet herself. I placed my six-year-old sister to the side and indeed my “Idi Best” (“Sunday Best”) trousers were all wet.
Upon arrival, I rushed to the Children’s Wing to change, while she was rushed to her mother Mama Mary Karemire. At the time Mama Mary was the private secretary for social affairs in the President’s Office.