Visiting the ruins of Pakuba Lodge, Idi Amin’s favorite hideaway in Murchison Falls National Park, is a rare treat. The remnants left in Uganda from Amin’s atrocious regime are few but impactful.
“Once we get to the lodge, we need to stay together,” said Maggie, our ranger/guide at Murchison Falls National Park. “Wild animals now use this place as a home.”
Amin’s time in Uganda was immortalized in the movie, “The Last King of Scotland,” which brought Forest Whitaker the Oscar for playing the whimsical tyrant. The film gives some foretaste to Amin’s erratic and ferocious behavior.
The 8-year reign of Amin’s horror in the 1970s ravaged Uganda to deep scars. Amin’s regime is held responsible for a half-million deaths and bringing one of the healthiest economies in Africa to total ruin. Entire villages were wiped out. Professors, journalists, business people, religious leaders, and ministers just “disappeared.”
The ground was so full of bodies that grave digging was brought to a deadlock, and the corpses were fed to the Nile crocodiles. But even the crocs couldn’t handle it, and the bodies were seen washed up on the shore in heartbreakingly high numbers.
Wildlife was annihilated resulting, for example, the total extinction of rhinos and slaughtering 90% of the country’s wildlife. It was a complete collapse for the protection of the wild places of Uganda.
Once the pride of Murchison Falls National Park, the beautiful Pakuba Lodge caught the eye of Amin, who turned it into a State Lodge, his private retreat. According to legend, Amin spent more time in Pakuba than in his official presidential residence in Kampala.
Our van pulled into the driveway of the abandoned lodge, and we stepped out. I gave instructions to the University of Nebraska Sigma Phi Epsilon (Sig Eps) Fraternity students to bring their journals.
The plan was to spend a little extra time at the lodge. I wanted the students to get a more profound sense of what happened here and during the regime of Ami. If we learn from the atrocities of the past, we increase the chances of history not repeating itself, or so I like to believe.
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After searching for the abandoned lodge for wild animals, the Sig Eps found a location to sit quietly, to listen and ask questions.
The lodge is spooky. It’s as if restless ghosts still roam the hallways. At the same time, some grandeur of the lodge can also be sensed. Back behind was a large blue-tiled swimming pool that overlooked the savannah, Nile River, and into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known at that time as Zaire. The pool water was covered with green slime.
“Some say Adi Amin liked this place because he could look back at his old homeland of Zaire from here,” said Maggie.
I tried to imagine generals and other military personal being entertained. A couple of rooms had bars on the windows; it was clear what these were once used for, so I didn’t ask.
The Sig Eps spent 20 minutes writing in their journals. This was a chance to go deeper into their awareness with this past. In turn, they are now prepared and recognize when these symptoms express themselves again. If we recognize them early, I believe, we can take the proper actions necessary to address it.
Once the students completed their writing, a blanket of quietness seemed to cover everyone. We piled back into the van and headed back to our campsite.
Fortunately, wildlife populations of Murchison Falls had recovered from the violent poaching of Amin’s era, which ended when he was exiled to Saudi Arabia. He died in 2003.
On the horizon, a lone elephant used its long trunk to grab a branch high in a tree. To me, it seemed to be reaching for a brighter future.