Exodus from Uganda

May 10, 2020

In the second and final part of his series on Uganda, Dr Ajaz Anwar recalls boarding the train to Nairobi, and the adventure that followed

Image: Supplied

One really enjoys the firing of cannons and machine guns in films, but in reality it’s a traumatic experience to see bombs and bullets heading for you. It so happened in March 1979. Muslim-majority Tanzania, with a Christian president (Julius Nyerere) was at war with the Christian-majority Uganda which had a Muslim president — Idi Amin.

Our colleagues and neighbours looked after us well, in spite of the security problems and food shortages. The Pakistan Consulate issued a 10-stage security plan, the last of which was about reaching the railway station. (The Entebbe airport had been supposedly dysfunctional ever since the infamous staged rescue/invasion of the Israelis. It may be recalled that initially Israel was to be set up in Karamoja area in Uganda.)

Skipping all other initial stages, Plan 10 was enforced all of a sudden and we were directed to reach the railway station on the morning of April 6, 1977. I handed over all food items and keys of my residence to my neighbours on the condition that if I missed the train to Nairobi, they would accommodate and feed me.

They all assembled to bid me goodbye with teary eyes. Yet, I am sure that in all sincerity they were praying for my safe departure. My teacher, Mr Taufiq Aijaz stayed put, in the line of duty, as head of Uganda TV. When he did not return during the war, his services were terminated by the Zia government. He successfully pleaded his case all the way to the Supreme Court, and was reinstated; though he was never paid his arrears.

Our luggage had already been dispatched to the station. More chatter was about the tragic judicial murder of Bhutto the previous night. As I was about to board the train, I heard a loud whistle. I handed over my sandwich to a lady who had asked for it, and hopped on.

I and some of my friends had opted for the luggage compartment. As the train gathered steam, we all got busy listening to the radio broadcasts. Mr Shamshad, our colleague and a professor in solid state physics, leaning against the bolted door, had found it more important to shave, trying his skills as a barber. The bolt gradually slid open and the man went into a space-walk excursion. Luckily, he happened to get hold of the bolt — someone amongst us grabbed him by the legs, another caught the rescuer by the arms, and yet another sprang into action. It was more like a train inside the train - a human train.

Collecting some nerves, the man crawled upon his initial rescuer and then the second and then the third one. With a little more gymnastics he would have stepped out through the opposite door. As we shouted warnings, he fainted and lay down.

Giraffes, which usually herd together facing all 360 degrees, were all looking attentively at our acrobatics. One of the giraffes looked more like Salvador Dali’s Giraffe on Fire. Some zebras sped along the train. The whole animal kingdom was enjoying the great rescue effort.

As the train was negotiating a curve in the Kilimanjaro mountain range, not snowcapped at that time, two of the bogeys refused to follow the train, and derailed. In the war zone, they were entitled to detach the unruly coaches and proceed. They mercifully did not leave us stranded and marooned.

Responding to distress calls, rescue men somehow arrived on foot, and from below the precarious precipice shouted some words in Swahili that were unintelligible to us, which the interpreters translated for us into sign language. Fortunately, we had no deaf or mute amongst us to give us the shocking news that they had promised to come back with the rescue train in two days or so.

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Nights are really dark along the Equator. You could count the stars and spot the North Star and the falling stars. Some meteors could also be seen heading towards us. I spread my bedding of sorts under my coach which was luggage or ‘brake’ as railway men called it; mainly because it had no toilet outlet pipe under it. (I knew it all so well!) Those opting to sleep under the other wagons were drenched in pathological showers.

Initially, I thought I was having the time of my life. While in deep slumber I felt myself in the lap of some damsel, probing into all my cavities and plateaus. When I found it to be too hairy all over, I tried to gather my senses. Upon waking up, what I saw was not to be believed in the wildest of my dreams. It was some animal of canine zoology; only a tad bigger. My desperate cries threw everybody out of the wagons. I climbed into one of the thus emptied spaces and feigned a faint.

Once the rescue train arrived we were able to continue. There were no checks as we entered Kenya, and no customs. All along the route, Pakistanis had set up food and beverages stalls for us. Once in Nairobi, we were lodged at a very respectable place by our community. Tariq Asad, our colleague from the Law Department (with no religious inclinations whatsoever and yet later the pleader of Lal Masjid team) was also amongst us.

After enjoying their hospitality for a few days, we boarded a plane which took us to Karachi where many were quarantined for lack of their Yellow Fever certificates issued by the WHO. They included my police officer friend Yunus Hourrani. I, however, was armed with one I had got from Istanbul after being inoculated.

Once in Lahore, I received an envelope with the ‘Service’ stamp (that was before courier services were initiated without legal cover). It was an interview call for a vacancy at the NCA for which I had applied while still at Kampala.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Prof Enayat Pervaiz) 

Note: I intend to compile a series on Pakistani diaspora visual artists.  Those interested may contact me on: [email protected] For more about Uganda see, Inside Africa by John Gunther.


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists’ Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Exodus from Uganda