Amin Was Bad Enough Without Media Lies
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The East African (Nairobi)
May 6, 2002
Posted to the web May 7, 2002
Our just ended serialisation of Col Bernard Rwehururu's book on the rise and fall of Idi Amin rekindled veteran photojournalist MOHINDER DHILLON'S memories of the man many historians and journalists have painted black
The purpose of this story is not to whitewash Idi Amin but to clear some misconceptions about the man. Idi Amin was bad enough without exaggeration, for which I have to blame some sections of the international media.
Sometimes I am ashamed of some of my colleagues. One British correspondent working for a respected Sunday newspaper in England wrote horrific stories about Idi Amin's atrocities week after week in the early 1970s.
He was a close friend of the deposed Milton Obote and based in Dar es Salaam where Obote was exiled. One Sunday morning, Nairobi-based international correspondents - there were about 88 of them - were rudely woken up by their principals asking them why they had not filed anything about the British Sunday newspaper story which claimed that 75 students had been butchered by Amin's men and that some of the women students had had their breasts cut off at Makerere University.
Immediately, the journalists started trying to verify the story with their respective embassies in Kampala, international hotels, Makerere University and other sources.
No one could confirm the story. We were to know the truth much later.
I was in the press party travelling with the advancing Tanzanian army towards Kampala when Idi Amin fled north. We made a bee-line for Makerere University to confirm the massacre story only for the Vice Chancellor of the university (Amin was the Chancellor) to laugh at us. He confirmed that there had never been a massacre at the campus. He also said, ladies and gentlemen, please don't ask me to produce women students whose breasts were cut off. The vice said he did not like Idi Amin but he had to uphold the truth.
The don also confirmed that during the eight years of Amin's rule, only one student had been killed and that was outside the campus. Uganda police had dealt with the case, he said.
If you think Idi Amin was a devil, then you never met the real devils in Uganda. I won't name them as I have to go back to Uganda.
I was once invited to an anniversary celebration by Idi Amin and his British advisor Bob Astles, commonly known as Major Bob. I was the only foreign journalist invited and was met at Entebbe airport by government officers and driven around in an official car to do the filming, after which I was to fly back to Nairobi. I was getting ready to do the filming at the Entebbe Golf Club and had set my tripod stand. At the precise moment, two of Amin's uglies walked in my direction and one of them pointed out to me that one of my tripod legs was two inches beyond the newly marked chalk line. Was I blind, he insulted.
I politely explained that parade was going to pass three metres from where I was and that I was a specially invited guest of his excellency. Nothing doing. "You bastard Muhindi (Indian), shut up. This is not Kenya," he barked. "We are not in the pockets of anyone. I am going to count six and if you don't move back in time, I will have you chopped up and send you in pieces to Kenya in a gunia (gunny bag)," the barking continued. A cold chill went down my spine. I said "Yes sir" and moved back about two metres instead of two inches. I was shaking with fear and believe me, I was praying for Idi Amin to appear soon.
Finally Amin appeared and I waved to him and he waved back, walking towards me. He shook my hand warmly and asked me if all was well and if I had been comfortable. I replied in the affirmative. I remained comfortable as long as I was in Idi Amin's eye line. I breathed a sigh of relief when my chartered plane finally took off from Entebbe.
Idi Amin himself was terrified of the uglies. He would never announce his travel plans. I remember flying into Uganda with Brazilian football star Pele to film his meeting with Idi Amin for Rio TV. I knew the time of the meeting and did not know the venue. Half an hour before the meeting, I kept on ringing the Director of Information every few minutes .
Ten minutes before the meeting, I started panicking and complained to the director that missing the event would be a disaster for me. He assured that I would not miss it and asked me to come to his office. There, it was explained to me the venue was never announced for security as there had been assassination attempts on Amin. In reality, Idi Amin was afraid of his own shadow.
The meeting finally took place at his parliament office. He told Pele that he was "kingi" of football "a me kingi of Africa." He was referring to his chairmanship of the Organisation of African Unity
When Idi Amin forced whites to carry him on their shoulders and pictures went round the world, with some describing him as "the watchmen's burden," he goofed by announcing that he would put a statue of Hitler in Kampala. The other gaffe was announcing public executions during the Muslim holy month of fasting (Ramadhan) when Muslims are supposed to be praying and charitable. His Arab benefactors got angry and asked him to cancel the executions, which he did not want to do. To save face, he got Maj Bob to issue a press statement to the effect that he was seriously sick and in a coma. The world's press gathered in Nairobi for the big story.
He was in hospital alright and Uganda media had pictures of him being operated on by a Russian doctor, who was removing a cyst from his back. Amin was looking into the camera with the biggest smile he ever had. The idea was to have the public execution taking place while "he was in a coma." The buffoonery was not over. He retreated to an Island in Lake Victoria for "convalescence."
As for the disappearances of people, not all of them were attributable to Idi Amin. The disappearance of Dora Block after a successful hostage rescue by Israel at Entebbe, in my humble opinion, could not have been ordered by Idi Amin.
It was not Amin's style and he was aware of the negative media repercussions. He would have preferred to show off in the negotiations with Israelis over her release to portray a positive image. He even invited ITN TV News-London to send in a team to fly with him from Mauritius to Entebbe in his jet from a Mauritius OAU meeting.
We had to take a quick decision and tactfully turned down the invitation. With an hijacked Israeli Airline jet sitting at Entebbe with hostages, we decided it was too risky.
At the time, it looked like the one and only chance Israelis had was the hijacking of Idi Amin's jet mid air. However, they had the other plans. It turned out to be a bad decision.
In the news business you win some and lose others.
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