When you hear tales of how Uganda’s former ruler Idi Amin kept human heads in his refrigerator and fed his enemies to crocodiles, it’s natural to be a little curious about the guy. On a trip through the capital city of Kampala, I visited several sites that would bring me uncomfortably close to one of the world’s most bloodthirsty dictators.
The Kabaka Palace (Lubiri Palace / Mengo Palace)
The palace on Mengo Hill is elevated above the city, and without any knowledge of its past one might be charmed by its stately outward appearance.
Until one notices the husk of an exploded Rolls Royce on the grounds…
The car once belonged to Kabaka (King) Mutesa II, who was overthrown in 1966 by Prime Minister Milton Obote in a violent coup. Idi Amin was Commander of the Army under Obote, and he ordered the palace to be shelled, which is how the Kabaka’s car ended up in its current state. Mutesa escaped and fled the country, and Obote and Amin turned the property into an army barracks.
Amin would later stage his own coup and overthrow Obote, embarking soon after on a campaign of ethnic cleansing to eliminate the Acholi and Lango tribes (who largely favored his former superior). He also rounded up, tortured, and killed anyone he suspected of being an enemy. And Amin saw enemies everywhere.
Our palace tour guide led us down a small hill to a concrete armory built for Amin when he took power. But Amin ultimately emptied the armory of weapons and filled it with prisoners instead.
Amin’s men would scoop up those suspected of opposing his regime, blindfold them, and drive them around Kampala for hours. By the time they reached the armory, the prisoners were convinced they were miles outside of the city. They were then herded into concrete chambers, usually dying soon after from starvation, suffocation, or brutal beatings. Thousands were brought there. No one left alive.
Our guide pointed out a moldy water line running along the base of the structure. Often the chamber would be flooded, and prisoners would be forced to stand in the water, to which a guard would apply a live electrical current. Pieces of the old wiring are still embedded in the wall.
Families of Amin’s victims have since scrawled angry messages on the chamber’s walls. Today, hundreds of bats make a home inside the dark cells. No one chases them away, since some believe they embody the spirits of those who lost their lives there.
On the way out, our guide also showed us a cannon that was allegedly given to Idi Amin by another notorious world leader: Muammar Gaddafi.
The relationship between these two dictators was one of great consequence, and is on display at another of Kampala’s most famous tourist attractions:
Uganda National Mosque
Idi Amin’s rule was initially supported by Israel, which had its own nefarious agenda in keeping Uganda as a strategic partner. But when Israel refused to sell Amin some fighter jets, he turned on his allies, eventually even going so far as to send a letter to the UN praising Hitler, and to propose the building of a Hitler monument in Kampala.
Muammar Gaddafi offered Amin the financial help he needed to buy his desired military hardware, and used his influence to persuade Amin to turn Uganda into a Muslim state. To that end, Gaddafi funded the construction of a massive mosque in the capital.
The foundation for the mosque was laid during Amin’s rule, but construction halted after he was ousted from power. It was finally finished in 2006, and is currently the second largest mosque in all of Africa, spreading over twelve acres.
For years it was known as the Gaddafi Mosque, in honor of its chief financier. But after Gaddafi’s death in 2013 the new Libyan government demanded that they change the name or else Libya would not contribute any more funds to help maintain the building. It’s now known as the Uganda National Mosque, and it features a 50-meter-tall minaret from which one can view the entire city.
Kampala Serena Hotel (formerly the Nile Mansions Hotel)
One of the most famous photos of Idi Amin is one in which he’s being carried by four British businessmen around the lawn of the former Nile Mansions Hotel. He hosted a number of state functions and parties at the hotel, and even stayed for extended periods of time in room 202.
He also turned the basement of the adjoining convention center into a house of horrors.
An untold number of Amin’s enemies were brought there to be tortured and interrogated. Few left alive, so it’s difficult to say what specific torture methods were used, but Amin’s forces were known to beat people with axes and sledgehammers, cut off limbs, and pierce the Achilles tendons of prisoners to prevent them from being able to flee. And later, when Amin was chased out of the country and Milton Obote once again took charge, the Nile Mansions remained a torture and interrogation center with an equally bloody reputation.
In recent years the Nile Mansions has been rebuilt, remodeled, and rebranded as the Kampala Serena Hotel. The entire layout is different, so room 202 is no longer where it once was, and it’s difficult to pinpoint which patches of lawn would have played host to Amin’s grand entrances.
The convention center, however, retains the same structure and appearance as it did during Amin’s era. Its retro look might feel rather quaint if it weren’t for the disturbing knowledge of what went on in its basement.
All you’ll find downstairs these days are some tourist services. It’s hard to imagine a rental car place with a darker history…
The Original Entebbe Airport Control Tower
Modern day visitors to Uganda fly into a facility with no noticeable bullet holes in its exterior. But the original airport control tower stood witness to some of the most dramatic moments of Idi Amin’s reign.
When Amin set out to overthrow Milton Obote, he waited for Obote to travel abroad to Singapore on diplomatic business. Upon Obote’s return, Amin plotted to blow up his plane. Amin’s soldiers locked down the airport, but the plan leaked, Obote landed in Kenya instead, and Amin systematically murdered everyone who had direct knowledge of the plot.
Most famously, the airport was the setting for Operation Entebbe—a daring hostage rescue (dramatized in numerous films) undertaken by the Israeli Defense Forces.
In 1976, an Air France flight out of Tel Aviv was hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists who were seeking the release of 53 pro-Palestinian militants. Idi Amin’s hatred of Israel inspired him to offer sanctuary to the terrorists, so the plane landed at Entebbe and Amin’s soldiers helped to offload all the passengers into a disused terminal building.
Israel bided their time with negotiations while planning a rescue operation that involved 100 IDF commandos flying into to Ugandan air space under the radar. Upon arrival, they managed to kill all the terrorists during a firefight with the Ugandan soldiers. Unfortunately, three hostages were also killed, along with one IDF commando (who happened to be the older brother of Israel’s future Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu). But 102 hostages were flown to safety.
One other hostage, 74-year-old Dora Bloch, was left behind. She had choked on a chicken bone while the terrorists were still negotiating, so she had been taken to the hospital and wasn’t in the terminal during the raid. Amin ordered his soldiers to drag her from her hospital bed and kill her. Her remains were later found in a sugar plantation 19 miles outside the capital. She was originally on her way to New York to attend her son’s wedding.
Amin also subsequently ordered the deaths of 245 Kenyans living in Uganda as retribution, since Kenya offered assistance to the Israelis during the raid. Thousands of other Kenyans fled Uganda in fear for their lives. And Kenya’s Minister of Agriculture was later assassinated via an airplane bombing orchestrated by Amin, due to his role in planning the raid.
Idi Amin’s murderous career came to an end in 1979, when the Tanzanian Peoples Defense Forces attacked Kampala. Amin quickly negotiated with his friend Muammar Gaddafi to receive him and his family in Libya, and had several dozen seats installed in a cargo plane to accommodate his many wives and children.
The airport was bombarded by artillery fire as the plane took off, but they made it into the air. Uganda disappeared below them.
Today the site is a tightly secured air base used by the UN. The defunct, bullet-scarred control tower can be seen from the road, but the old terminal that held the hostages has been demolished. There are plans to turn the site into a museum someday. When that happens, I hope I have the resources to return to Kampala.
Thankfully for Uganda, Idi Amin never did.
Thanks to Nelson and Patrick at Gorilla Trek Africa for helping us design a custom itinerary to see all of the above and much more during our trip to Uganda.