What you need to know:
Fortunate. In this series, we bring you the stories of our times as told by those who were there. This week, boxing veteran Vicky Byarugaba flashes back to the period after the 1976 raid on Entebbe and what it was like as a boxer during the era of Idi Amin. Byarugaba beat an Israelie boxer and an exciting Amin considered this his
Forty years on, much has been said, written and acted about the audacious Operation Thunderbolt, in which the Israeli army raided Entebbe Airport and rescued 103 hostages, from the grip of Palestinian hijackers.
The near-perfect mission, left Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada simply humiliated, itching to punish whoever aided the raid, whether by commission or omission.
But do you know the man who “avenged” that huge military loss…much to the delight of Amin? Meet Warrant Office II and ex-boxer Vicky Byarugaba.
On the fateful night of July 1976, Byarugaba and teammates were in transit to Nairobi. They were returning from Seychelles where they had participated in the Independence Day Boxing tournament.
Twenty months after the raid, the Uganda boxing team, now the Bombers, headed to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, for the 1978 World Amateur Boxing Championships. In the inaugural edition in ‘74, Uganda excelled with Ayub Kalule’s gold medal and Joseph Nsubuga’s bronze to rank fourth in world behind USA, Cuba and USSR.
In Belgrade, John Munduga; Adron Butambaki, James Ochaya, Vincent Ochira, John Odhiambo, Ssenjonjo and Byarugaba made Coach Peter Grace Sseruwagi’s team and were expected to do even better. Uganda had registered some wins in the preliminary stages but tables turned after Byarugaba’s second victory.
After felling a Polish fighter, he defeated an Israeli boxer.
“I didn’t care about his race, he was a boxer like any other; all I wanted was a win to progress,” welterweight Byarugaba said. He had no idea irony was in the making.
Back home, Amin celebrated Byarugaba’s conquest of a Jewish fighter in sheer craziness. He declared Uganda’s “revenge mission accomplished”. In Amin’s view, Uganda had defeated Israel and finally avenged the 1976 humiliation. Like Yonatan Netanyahu’s raid on Entebbe, Amin’s “revenge” mission was such a surprise.
Amin ordered Minister Mary Ssenkatuuka and delegation head Capt. Kimuli, to take the team to Paris for a week before they returned to Uganda.
“I even hugged the Israeli boxer after the fight… but I was shocked by Amin’s decision, it was crazy,” a puzzled Byarugaba recalled. “We wanted to persuade him to let us fight on but who could with the big man?
“Everyone was shocked; personally, I was disappointed because I was at the peak of my powers and my chances of winning a medal were high.” Byarugaba and Co. returned to a heroes’ welcome, dined and wined with a presidential delegation at Grand Imperial Hotel, Kampala. A journalist at Uganda Agus even promised him Shs20 though he never followed it up.
After the “revenge mission” in Belgrade, in ‘78, Byarugaba won a gold medal as John ‘the Beast’ Mugabi managed a bronze at The All-Africa Games in Algiers. From Algeria, Team Uganda had to go to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for the Commonwealth Games. Byarugaba says Amin was misinformed that Israel (a non-Commonwealth nation) was to enter the Games. Uganda abandoned the Games. That Byarugaba had earlier won gold at the King’s Cup in Bangkok, Thailand, and another in Algiers was no justification for Amin’s sentimental decisions.
However, Byarugaba, like many in that era, says sports-wise, Amin was a president like no other. He notes when the national team nearly missed a tournament in Berlin, Germany, in 1977 for lack of funds, Amin instantly gave the boxers the required sum and his presidential jet for a full week in Berlin. “Where do you get such a president?” Byarugaba wonders. Yet that is just mentioning the least.
Prisoner of war
After the ’76 raid, Ugandan exile in Tanzania and Kenya gained momentum and finally ousted Amin in 1979. As Amin fled into exile in Saudi Arabia, Byarugaba, like many other sportsmen in the Forces, bore the brunt. Polly Ouma, Francis Kulabigwo; Paul Ssali and Muhammad Muruli, among others, were captured as prisoners of war.
Thousands were imprisoned, while some were killed. Meddie Lubega, brother of to Cranes’ former striker Sula Kato, disappeared. Byarugaba recalls “We were about 2000 captives who were detained in different parts of Tanzania.” After crossing River Kagera, Michael Nassor, a Tanzanian boxer and soldier, noticed Byarugaba. “We had met at several tournaments and he was surprised to see me among the captives. He advised me to identify myself as a boxer… which spared me some trouble.”
After 10 months, they were returned to Jinja on a ferry, then detained at Mbale prisons. “Government had no clear plans for us.” “In Mbale, I broke a jaw and I was referred to Mulago hospital. But reaching Kampala, I was taken to Luzira (prison); I was framed that I supported the Amin government. This delayed my release until September 1981.”
Boxing career after Amin era
In 1982, Byarugaba returned to pursue his dream of boxing at the Olympics, having missed the 1980 edition while in detention. Government’s care for sportsmen was long gone with Amin. “At the national camp in Lugogo, conditions were poor; we used the flags— which were brought down during the war—as bedsheets and blankets;” Byarugaba recounts. He led a strike urging teammates to demand better.
Coach Peter Sseruwagi tried to calm them but it was worse in Jinja. “We shifted from the hotel to a poor hostel. The food was bad, we slept on bare mattresses, no blankets; I wasn’t the captain but as a senior citizen, I had to do something…”
Byarugaba quit camp to retire to Kasese. Dick Katende joined him. Maj Gen Francis Nyangweso threatened to arrest them but it was the late Cranes coach David Otti who persuaded Byarugaba back. He won gold at the national open in 1984, eventually qualified for the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles, USA.
He won the first bout but badly lost the second to a Frenchman. “Honestly, I had lost my best…I was just intimidating people,” Byarugaba said. “I told Lubulwa (Charles) I was quitting…at my best couldn’t be hit like that, I had lost all the reflexes.”
After hanging up his gloves, Byarugaba served boxing in several positions: coach; Bombers’ manager. In his tenure as vice president of the boxing federation, perhaps like Amin ousted his boss President Milton Obote in 1971, Byarugaba ousted David Agong as president in 2000. In his own words, “I became a dictator” and just like Amin was overthrown in ’79, so was Byarugaba in 2004.”