Bro. William Okello's Testimony
The war, which we had dreaded, finally arrived at Entebbe in early 1979 when an artillery shell landed at the airport from across the lake. It fell with a loud clap of thunder that echoed throughout the town and struck sheer terror upon the inhabitants of Entebbe. The airport was obviously the main target of the Tanzanians with the ultimate purpose of ferrying in supplies.
With this attack the airport was immediately declared a military zone and all civilians, including air traffic controllers, were ordered out of the airport. There were however no military air traffic controllers and the local commander who had given the order to vacate the airport quickly realized his mistake. So they seized one of the airport workers who was still around and ordered him to drive them to the homes of the duty air traffic controllers to get them to return and man the airport control tower. This worker drove them around in blind panic to the estate where the controllers lived.
At that very point in time I had taken a stroll from my slum dwelling to the same estate not knowing what was coming my way. Then I saw a military vehicle heading towards me and when this worker pointed me out, it screeched to a halt and out jumped two Libyan soldiers and one Ugandan (Col. Gaddaffi of Libya had sent a battalion of Libyan soldiers to aid Amin in his war efforts). They ordered me at gunpoint to enter their vehicle and return with them to the airport to man the control tower. I resisted, protesting to them that not only was I not on duty, but I was actually on holiday! (Which was true). But they wouldn't listen to whatever I had to say and seizing me, they forcibly put me inside and off we drove to the airport with myself wedged between two soldiers.
Throughout the drive to the airport (some three miles away), it was mostly grim silence. When we reached the control tower, I calmly sat at the control desk to await whatever was coming. The Enemy was telling me the control tower would be the first place to be blown up so as to put the airport out of action. At the same time another Voice told me the attackers would want to use the airport themselves and as such the control tower was the last place they would want to destroy. Since I had prayed intensely within myself (there had been no place or time to pray aloud), the latter voice prevailed and a calm settled upon me. Not only did I experience calmness, but also throughout the rest of that day and throughout that following night (I spent nearly twenty four hours at the control tower) not a single shell again fell at the airport. It became apparent that the respite was meant to allow civilians to vacate the danger area.
Then one air traffic controller, not knowing the developments at the tower, showed up for duty and he was told to relieve me. Needless to say I never again put myself in a vulnerable situation but went and hid myself. However when air traffic controllers later felt it was safe to show up for work, some did turn up if only out of boredom and so the control tower run on a skeleton staff.
At that time convoys of lorries were streaming out of Entebbe packed with people fleeing up North of the country to escape the fighting. We knew that there would be a breakdown of law and order when the actual fighting reached us with widespread looting taking place. That was when I made a mistake. Believing that permanent buildings were impregnable compared to my slum dwelling, I packed my valuables into a box and put it at the house of a friend of mine who then "securely" locked the building and himself fled the town believing he would return and find the property still intact. But it was not to be. The looters when they later came smashed the door open and helped themselves to everything, including my box. I made a decision to send my family to the countryside (my wife, Bill, Sarah and the housemaid) while I remained at Entebbe. By a miracle of God she was able to get a place in the last lorry to leave and still a greater miracle to reach the village safely with minimum difficulty.
I remained at Entebbe with 200 shillings (I would say about 5 pounds at the then current exchange rate). We estimated the war would last another one month before offices would re-open and the salaries paid. My top priority was fuel for cooking (there was no electricity in the slum). I spent the bulk of this money on charcoal for use in the charcoal stove for cooking my meals and the rest on water (there was no running water in the slum). I had a small supply of food and to stretch out my resources I prepared a meal to last about five days, which I would only warm when there was a need to eat. But the real respite came from one of my friends. He had planted some green vegetables in an area of about 3 by 3 metres. They were the type of greens that replenished themselves within a few days and these kept us going until the war was over.
Then the war reached the outskirts of Entebbe with loud shelling and sound of gunfire. We spent much of our time listening to BBC world service radio to monitor the progress of the war. There were usually four of us. One day, while we were listening to the radio, three soldiers who were fully armed with kalashnikov rifles and who looked dangerous and illiterate suddenly surrounded us. They demanded to know what we were doing. We told them we were only listening to the radio. They said no, we must have been communicating with the enemy. They demanded to see our identity cards and to know what tribes we belonged to. At that time I had taken up my place at university and so I had two identity cards: one for my place of work and the other a student's card for university. Something within me told me to pick the students identity card. When they realized I was a student, they separated me from the rest of the group and set me by myself. Then they proceeded to interrogate the others. Two of them were from Milton Obote's tribe or sister tribe (Obote was the previous president who many believed the Tanzanians were fighting to re-install in power). They punched and butted them with the gun barrel and one of the soldiers pointed the gun at the chest of one of them threatening to pull the trigger. While he was pleading for his life, I prayed intensely within myself for God to intervene and save his life. Then one of the soldiers urged his colleague not to shoot. He stopped and after warning us not to listen to the radio again, they departed.
(Next: Government overthrown and I move to Kampala)