Desire To Know

All men by nature desire to know

Entebbe: The Raid that Shook the Foundations of International Terrorism

Operation Thunderbolt

by Peter Pachecos

Entebbe Airport A gentle hand shook me awake. It was around six on a Sunday morning. “Peter wake up. Something’s going on in Entebbe. BBC just reported fires breaking out at the airport.”

I snapped awake instantly. It was my mother. Like me, she was wracked with anxiety over the fate of the hostages in Entebbe. The whole week before, we had our ears glued to the short-wave radio, tuned to BBC which gave us regular reports of the drama unfolding before the world.

Hijacked in Athens, June 27, 1976 by a combined force of  members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Red Army Faction (a West German radical leftist group), the hostages were now in Uganda. As guests of President Idi Amin Dada, a recent convert to Islam, a fact that placed them beyond all hope. I shuddered to think of their fate. Idi Amin was as unstable as he was dangerous.

Combine his homicidal instincts with the murderous inclinations of the Arab and German terrorists that hijacked the Air France plane, and Mum and I felt only God could save the hostages. All our thoughts and prayers were for the doomed passengers.

On July 1, the terrorists released 100 non-Jewish tourists, who were then flown to Paris and London. To their credit, the crew of the Air France airliner chose to remain with the remaining passengers who were either Israeli or Jewish.

I can only imagine the emotions of the German terrorists as they separated the Jews - who were under a death sentence - from the non-Jews who were to be released. In fact, I believe one of the Israeli passengers (who survived a Nazi death camp) brought the savage irony of the situation to the attention of one of the RAF members. From what I hear, he became a little uncomfortable and quickly strode away muttering under his breath that he was not anti-Semitic.

Leaping out of bed, I didn’t quite know what to think or why I was so excited. For, I sensed something big was up. Trembling with excitement, I showered quickly, my mind racing all the while. I knew that somehow, Israel had done the impossible in order to rescue the hostages.

How, I could not imagine.

I smiled to myself as I recalled Yitzak Rabin, Israeli Prime Minister holding a press conference just the day before. He seemed calm and gave the assembled media no clue whatsoever that, even as he spoke, the rescue operation was under way. But it did seem he'd given up hope. And for good reason.

After all, Uganda is more than 2,500  miles from Israel. Not in anyone's wildest dreams did the passengers have a chance. We could only hope and pray for a miracle and that my Mum and I did.

But Israeli soldiers in Entebbe? Now? How can that be? Much as the awe I already had for the valour of the IDF, what seemed to be happening now was far, far beyond the realms of possibility.

But something was happening and my gut instinct told me the place to be at right now was Nairobi Airport. I've no idea why I felt this way but was convinced that in some way the Kenya Government was involved. Had to be. And Nairobi Airport was the key.

My sense of excitement overruled logic; there was no rationale for the urge to be at the airport but and I had no idea what I hoped to gain by going to the airport. I drove there anyway.

Sunday morning traffic is almost nonexistent in Nairobi and I made it to the International airport in record time. As I slowly motored up to the gate, it occurred to me things just didn't seem right. It was shut, to begin with. This unusual sight confirmed my instincts. The airport gate is never shut - not as long as I can remember.
In fact, Nairobi Airport was the place to go if anyone wanted a cup of coffee or a full meal at any time of the day or night - the airport restaurant was never closed. Unlike Canada, dances generally ended at 4am. It was customary for revellers to fetch up at the airport for a decadent cup of coffee or two before heading home.

The runaway was clearly visible from the road and a Sudanese Airways 707 was just touching down. A whole fleet of planes in similar livery similar was lined up on the apron. A strange sight indeed. My thoughts raced. There has to be a reason so many Sudan Airlines aircraft were landing in Nairobi. Were they diverted here from Uganda?

To me, this was more evidence that something big had actually happened in Entebbe, causing it to shut down. By now I pulled up the gates and from nowhere appeared a man in paramilitary uniform. He shoved the barrel of his SLR so close to my face I could practically feel I was looking death in the eye.

“What do you want?” he demanded in Swahili. “What do you have in your car”? He appeared tense and nervous, almost trigger happy - obviously expecting major trouble. As it happened, my car was an extension of my bedroom. The backseat was strewn with books, magazines and a couple of empty cartons left over from helping a friend move house a week earlier. I was beginning to regret the fact that I was such a slob.

I stammered in Swahili, “I'm here to meet someone.” I wanted to add that the 'someone' was arriving on the morning's flight but thought the better of it. Didn't want to die with a lie on my lips.

He must have realized I was a bona fide Mohindi (Indian) caught in the wrong place in the wrong time and visibly relaxed. “Go away. The airport is closed,” he snapped and, with the SLR still in firing position, watched me hurriedly do a U-turn and speed away.

Nairobi is rather cool in the morning but, by the time I collected my wits, I realized I was sweating profusely. Now, almost thirty years later, I can truthfully say I was as close to death as anyone caught in in the middle of a battle zone. However, I realized how close only in hindsight.

Apparently, in the hours following the raid, involving about 200 Israeli soldiers, the Kenya armed forces were on high alert, anticipating some kind of response from Idi Amin and his Palestinian cronies. They needn't have bothered. Not only was the raid a huge success - all seven of the terrorists were killed, identified and fingerprinted - but the Israelis also destroyed 11 Soviet-supplied MIGs parked at Entebbe, fighter jets that could possibly have been used in retaliatory raids on targets in Kenya.

And yes, I was absolutely correct in assuming the Kenya Government had played a major role in the rescue of the hostages in Entebbe. For, as details of the rescue began to surface, I was surprised to note that Kenya had a number of PFLP militants locked up. This fact had never been reported in the news.

After the rescue operation, in which the commander of the Israeli strike force, Yonatan Netanyahu lost his life, the four C130 Hercules landed in Nairobi for refuelling with the full cooperation of the Kenya Government. Not only that, the more seriously wounded were transported to local hospitals. I'd give anything for the looks on the faces of the nurses when soldiers with serious gunshot wounds were wheeled into the ER, accompanied by men with the same blood group, should transfusions be necessary.

Having said that, I discovered later that, had Kenya refused to assist in the rescue mission, the Israeli strike force had made contingency plans to seize Nairobi Airport long enough to refuel. I can only thank God it didn't come to that.

Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, my national pride ought to have been slighted, to say the least. Instead, for some reason, I found myself cheering the Israelis on and my respect and admiration for Israel increased all the more. In any case, I can say with all certainty Kenyans have always been overwhelmingly supportive of Israel vis a vis the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. And everyone in Nairobi was talking about the raid - in glowing terms. I recall a conversation with a workmate who declared with deep conviction, “The Jews are God's people. You chokosa (harass) them without cause and bad things can happen to you.” Amen.

My take on this is that a lot of Africans still associate Arabs and I daresay, Islam, with slavery (yes, they did it, too - still do), along with the exceptionally horrible cruelties it implied.

For, much as the self-loathing Western media would like to believe that all evil on planet earth originates in the US and, by association, Israel, slavery was rampant in the Middle East and Africa centuries before Columbus discovered America.

With the help of the annual Monsoon winds, Arab dhows plied the East African coast, forcibly Islamicizing, intermarrying, colonizing, and trading for ivory, spices but mainly African slaves. In order to keep captured unfortunates from intermarrying with their Arab 'hosts' men were castrated. This strategy had the added benefit of ensuring a steady demand for fresh slaves. This ghastly aspect of Islam has been seared deeply in the psyche of the African and, for the most part, is a factor in his instinctive support for Israel.

The remainder of my involvement in the Entebbe raid could best be described as an anti-climax.

While still anxious to discover what exactly happened at Nairobi Airport, the episode with the soldier rattled me enough to remind me of my mortality. I realized it was close to 8 am and went to church for Sunday morning Mass. (I was a devout Catholic then). I concluded the best course was to make my peace with my God first. After church services, I felt brave enough for a second foray to the airport but with a little more caution this time - bearing in mind that if the same soldier were on duty, he'd definitely recognize and shoot me.

I arrived at the gates, which were wide open this time around. Sudanese Airliners were still coming in and crowding the apron, but it appeared the aerodrome was still closed. I stood at the waving base and watched the odd airliner float in but the place was essentially deserted - in stark contrast to the wee hours of the morning when the complex was swarming with heavily-armed soldiers, as I later discovered from friends who happened to be there then.

I was still hanging around at the waving base, perhaps hoping something would happen. At about 1 pm a gaggle of reporters from the local newspapers slouched in, armed with an impressive array of cameras and sound-recording devices. I recognized one of them and we stared at each other.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked me.

“I might ask you the same,” I replied, perhaps a little smugly.

He was a stringer for a newspaper in the UK and was roused by a news-hungry editor who demanded to know why he was still in bed and not where the action was: Nairobi Airport. After pumping me for information, hearing about my experience with the armed soldier and discovering how long I had been waiting in this hotspot he asked in amazement, “How did you know to come here?”

I really couldn't answer him. I'd like to believe that, although I'm not a practising reporter, I almost certainly had a nose for news.