To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profiling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, Dr. Oleg Teterin (In Moscow) narrates how he survived death during the July 27 military coup, thanks to his knowledge of Swahili
After a four-year stint in Tanzania as United Soviets Socialist Republic (USSR), Novosti Press Agency (APN) bureau chief, I was told in early 1985 to prepare for a new assignment in Uganda. I was going to replace Yuri Sergeyev, who had already made several requests to APN headquarters in Moscow to be replaced.
Sergeyev had to work in rather difficult conditions; an economic collapse in Uganda after the 1978/79 war, which toppled dictator Idi Amin, political instability that marked Milton Obote’s reign until the mid-1980s and the National Resistance Army bush war.
I arrived in Uganda at the end of June in 1985. There were a lot of interesting and exciting events in this wonderful country, where I worked until August 1990. I cannot recount everything. But I cannot forget how Swahili literacy became my talisman at the epicentre of the first of the two military coups I experienced during the assignment.
On the morning of Saturday July 27, 1985, I received a telex from APN headquarters in Moscow, instructing me to promote articles on an important festival in the local media.
The instruction came in at around 10:00am. Having collected the necessary materials for the local media by 11:00am, I got into an old Nissan Laurel and set out for the city. It took me about seven minutes to descend from my villa on Baskerville Avenue on Kololo hill, where we lived, to Kampala Road.
Everything around was peaceful; cars, mini–vans and pick–up trucks loaded with different goods were scurrying back and forth. Pedestrians were strolling by slowly because it was a weekend. When I looked around, I noticed two powerful trucks moving towards me on the opposite side of the street, carrying uniformed personnel. “The usual thing”, I thought and kept on driving.
Suddenly, two hundred metres farther, on the same side of the street, I saw a jeep with military officers and a motorcade of similar trucks following it. The trucks had headlights on and were full of people in camouflage uniforms. The colour of their skin seemed darker (even black) than that of the other military and Police officers, whom I saw routinely in Kampala.
They smiled and laughed, while waving their arms vigorously, shaking their sub-machine guns in air and shouting something to drivers and passersby. When I opened the window slightly, I heard: “Kimbia, kimbia!” Swahili for run!
At that point, I realised that something was going wrong. In fact, people started fleeing, taking different directions. The cars ahead of me turned left abruptly into the nearest side-streets and sped off across the potholed roads. The panic grew stronger.
Having seen how quickly the street was emptying and that there was no end to the motorcade, I turned to the left as well. At that moment, I recalled that the situation in the city had been rather disturbing over the previous week or two. In the evenings there had been shootings, occasional bursts of sub-machine gun fire and explosions.
Some journalists I knew had talked of an imminent coup against President Apollo Milton Obote. Our diplomats had also been feeling anxious. The embassy had urged all employees of the foreign offices of the USSR to limit their visits to the city and not to go anywhere in the evenings.
Chris Rwakasisi, security state minister (incidentally, a graduate of the Kiev University, Ukraine), had assured our ambassador that the situation was under control. He was wrong. The military units on which Rwakasisi had counted had joined the coup plotters.
For five minutes, I was driving down a side–street away from Kampala Road amid other cars and running people. Miraculously, I did not run into anyone and neither did anyone scratch my car. I was running out of petrol (I had planned to refuel that day). I drove up the sidewalk, stopped and looked around, envying the people who knew where to go.
How could I get back to the bureau or the embassy – both cases necessitated crossing Kampala Road, which had been occupied by the military. I thought of going to Entebbe, 43km south of Kampala.
Soviet helicopter pilots worked under the military and technical co–operation, but I did not have enough fuel to reach Entebbe. Moreover, my wife was at the bureau, as well as my deputy, Yuri Eremin, who lived with us and for whom it was the first assignment abroad.
A quick decision, and I was back to Kampala Road – at the very spot where I had turned previously. There was a Police car in front of me and both sides of the road were full of soldiers wielding Kalashnikovs (AK47s). Then I spotted a middle-aged, high-ranking officer. I left the car and approached him. He looked warily at me.
“Ubalozi wa urusi” I told him. I added, “Balozi wa urusi” and “Angalia gari yangu”. My car had diplomatic number plates, just like any other car of the Soviet foreign office in Uganda.
I cannot say that the officer I chose was surprised. However, he understood me and asked no questions, except for asking to repeat my nationality. Having repeated what I had already told him, I continued (also in Swahili) telling about someone waiting for me at the embassy on Kololo hill and about something else.
The officer neither listened to the end of my explanation nor asked for documents (I only had a ‘press card’ issued by the information ministry on arrival in Uganda). He just told me: “Haya. Nenda!”
You may ask, “But was it really like that?” Yes, exactly so! That short dialogue (the shortest in many years of my journalistic practice) is an episode that I will remember for the rest of my life, for it literally saved my life.
As soon as I crossed Kampala Road, a shoot–out started behind me. But what a shoot–out that was! Sporadic shots, bursts of sub-machine gun fire, bazookas and grenade explosions!
It was thundering! At that moment I realised what fear is. It is such a shame to die for nothing…I hunched over the steering wheel and stepped on the accelerator with one thought – to get home, regardless of the potholed road, and saying to myself again and again; “Laurel, do not let me down!” I sped up ‘our’ Kololo hill, towards Baskerville Avenue.
During this ‘survival race’, I realised, nevertheless, that it was necessary to inform the embassy of the situation in the city centre.
When I arrived at home, I looked at my watch; it was 11:30. The shooting and explosions were still audible. It turned out that I was almost the first person to report the military coup that I had witnessed so unexpectedly.
For the next three days, my wife, Yuri and I stayed inside the villa. Throughout July 27 (day and night), there was an intense exchange of fire, also near my office. The next day, the shooting slowed.
Most shots were fired into the air in order to frighten people so that they remain in their homes. As a result, the city was plundered badly, but there were no riots or big casualties.
It was surprising, but the city’s telephony functioned well and we communicated with the embassy over the fixed line. We followed the events over television and the radio. The first decree of the military junta led by Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa established a curfew, which lasted almost a fortnight.
My observation is that the July coup could be considered rather bloodless. The next military coup, which took place exactly half a year later, in January 1986, was more brutal. But that is another story.