It took ten years before the stench disappeared. Human bones kept showing up. Hand prints, names and notes—written in blood or dirt—speckled the concrete walls: “Obote, you have killed me, but what about my children!” “I never forgot my husband was killed;” “IDI AMIN;” “Respect to Tanzania who saved Buganda;” “Cry Far Help Me The Dead.” It wasn’t always clear which ones had been written by visitors, and which by those who had perished inside.
The sliding steel gate, which trapped thousands of prisoners underground, was gone, and the ceiling had tumbled in chunks to the floor. The only way in was by boat; a dark line, covered in fuzzy mold, still marked where a deadly river, electrified by the flick of a switch, once ran. Not everyone died the first or even the second time they were shocked. Some chose to jump into the water.
These days the one-way trail of prisoners had been replaced by a steady flow of foreigners squeezing in a morbid history lesson between safaris and gorilla hikes. “You’re here for the torture chambers?” Nakamanya Lynett, the tour guide, asked rhetorically: mzungus didn’t come to Mengo Palace for its pastel-painted colonial mansion. With the king long gone, and no tours inside the royal home for years, it wasn’t included in the 10,000-shilling ($3) admission.
Nakamanya, who was dressed in a crisp white blouse, her hair in a bun, volunteered for university credit. She detailed the evils of Idi Amin: Uganda’s playboy dictator, who never hid his sadism and boasted that he kept heads of political enemies in his freezer—though he said human flesh was generally “too salty” for his taste.
The site was forgotten for decades before it was, as Nakamanya put it, “returned to the people.” Where others saw ghost stories, the royals sensed business opportunity: hadn’t Chernobyl’s nuclear ground zero, or Cambodia’s killing fields, attracted hordes of dark tourism enthusiasts? Hadn’t Amin been immortalized by Hollywood’s Academy-awarded The Last King of Scotland?
Red dust swirled around Nakamanya’s ballerina flats as she pointed out relics to some fifty visitors a day: a mutuba tree, source of Uganda’s once-abundant bark-cloth crafts; the burnt-out carcass of a Rolls-Royce; and a blue-white ceremonial cannon, resting among grazing goats.
The prison was hidden inside a lush hillside, overgrown by banana trees and papayas. Loose wires, without lamps, hung between exposed iron bars, so Nakamanya used a torch to illuminate the cells. Each had once held several hundred opponents of the regime: rich, poor, foreign, Ugandan, real and imagined, rounded up across the country by secret police. Every night, a truck came by to collect dead bodies from the cells and dump in a nearby private lake. “We estimate over 200,000 people were killed here,” said Nakamanya, matter-of-factly. “No one we know of ever escaped.”
The smell was that of an old cellar—and not unpleasant. There were no plaques or monuments.
A brick wall insulated the dungeon from the capital sprawling below—the noises of its 1.5 million inhabitants, prayer calls from the Uganda National Mosque (financed by Muammar Qaddafi), and the ring road’s traffic jams virtually inaudible.
“Whenever they sent someone, they would blindfold them and drive them around for three, four hours. So by the time they bring you here you don’t realize even at that point that . . . Most people didn’t know they were still in Kampala.” Nakamanya gesticulated to shrubs of large heart -shaped elephant’s ear. “This kind of vegetation made them think they were very far away.”
Idi Amin had often reminisced about the Battle of Mengo Hill in 1966, where he, an uneducated strongman of a northwestern warrior tribe turned chief of the presidential army, conquered Buganda—the vastest of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms, stretching from Lake Victoria to the Nile—destroying its palace and exiling the king to London, where he died under mysterious circumstances.
Moses Mukasa, a local man who would later work as a servant in Amin’s palace, never forgot it either. Then twenty-five, his first glimpse of the future tyrant was forever etched into memory: Amin was a heavyweight boxing champion and rugby player, almost six-and-a-half feet tall, who insisted throughout his career that he was “a soldier, not a politician.” During the battle, Mukasa hid next to a royal bodyguard, behind a screen of leaves, and watched Amin stride toward them with determination, pausing only a few feet away. Their hunting rifles futile against the presidential army, they watched, breathless, as Amin nonchalantly unzipped his signature khaki uniform, urinated, and marched off. Mukasa was spellbound.
Amin—who five years after the victory at Mengo Hill appointed himself His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea —often had that effect. Reporters devoured stories of the leader, who collected race cars but banned miniskirts and hippies; had five official wives taking turns as “first ladies;” and who reportedly fed several ministers to crocodiles. With defiant flamboyance, magnetic charisma, and bloodthirsty paranoia, Amin mesmerized, and terrified, Uganda and a world beyond.
The real horrors came after Amin launched a political coup against President Milton Obote in 1971, and announced, amid short-lived international enthusiasm and a slightly longer period of financial and military support, that he—a “pure son of Africa”—was the third ruler of a newly independent Uganda. Amin, who had escaped village life as a cook for the King’s African Rifles, a British colonial regiment, descended on the nation itself as a kind of military conquest; he renamed the government “Command Post;” placed military tribunals above the rule of law; and erected underground prisons across the country. His rule became so synonymous with killing that when the capital’s lights went dark, the outages were rumored to be the result of corpses discarded in its waterways blocking the hydropower plant.
Mengo’s strategically elevated outpost became Kampala’s army headquarters. Mukasa stayed in the servant quarters amid the barracks, even as the royal arms supply, initially an Israeli gift, was repurposed for crimes against humanity. “The rumor was, if you’re taken in there, the only way to escape that was by death,” he remembered.
The actions in Uganda “disgusted the entire civilized world,” said President Jimmy Carter during Amin’ s reign, without mentioning that the CIA had reportedly been showering Amin in aid and weapons throughout the 1970s, as Cold War blocs scrambled to control the Third World.
To the foreign press, Amin became a cartoon villain. A caricature of African dictatorship who laid claim to the throne of Scotland while tirelessly mocking Queen Elizabeth, requesting her knickers, and offering a cargo ship of bananas in gratitude for the “good days of colonial administration.” He facilitated a Palestinian terrorist hijacking and, inspired by a dream vision, abruptly deported the nation’s entire Asian-descended minority—a group numbering about 60,000, who were mostly absorbed by Britain—to “make the ordinary Ugandan master of his own destiny.”
When London finally severed diplomatic ties in 1976, Amin added “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” to his title, which he kept long after he went into exile in 1979.
These days, Mukasa’s grandchildren play in blossoming sweet-potato fields a stone’s throw from the torture chambers, and he worries more about bandits stealing his money than he does about restless spirits—and kept a gun, just in case. In his seventies now, in a time when Uganda’s economy has stagnated, Mukasa had become nostalgic, or perhaps amnesiac, recalling the modest development Amin had brought: a few roads, some jobs, and the nation’s first cancer radiotherapy machine. “He did so many good things and so many bad things,” said Mukasa. “Idi Amin is dead. We should treat him fairly.”
His wife, who said she still hears the cries and screams from inside, wasn’t so sure. She never walks past the palace at night.
Today, Uganda, the so-called “pearl of Africa,” was still being outperformed by the tourism industries of neighboring countries. It began to flirt with the idea of adding more destinations to the torture trail to attract more visitors. “Idi Amin is the most popular Ugandan ever, but no one is making use of him,” said Stephen Asiimwe, chief executive of the Uganda Tourism Board. But not all of Amin’s ghost stories were exploited. There would be no pilgrimages to the Nile Mansions, which had “interrogation” centers, where the dictator sometimes claimed he was born (he wasn’t), and where megalomania veered into performance art, with Amin once being carried in on a sedan chair by four foreign “volunteers” for an installation he called The White Man’s Burden.
The Nile’s Suite 211 was eerily anonymous, only a “Do Not Disturb” sign distinguishing it from dozens of identical doors. A uniformed lobby boy, too young to remember the atrocities committed inside, hurried past silently on crimson carpet. In the basement conference room, a national television channel frantically covered the fraudulent 2016 presidential elections. A $30 million renovation had turned national trauma into “an inspirational blend of five-star polish” and “pan-African panache”: Kampala’s stunning seventeen-acre flagship resort, inspired by the Nile, advertised palm-fringed pools, an explorer-themed Italian bistro, a Moorish spa, and much more, but never its bloodied past.
Serena Hotel was by far the best Ugandan hotel that “tuktukcanuck,” a TripAdvisor user from Toronto, Canada, had stayed in, with only one problem: the structure should have been torn down and rebuilt from scratch. “Too many ghosts,” the user headlined his review. “Needless to say, no amount of renovation can ever erase the horrors hidden in its history,” he wrote after having stayed in the “now lovely” Serena in February 2011, “in honor of those who perished there.”
An afterthought, a “Room Tip”: “Do not stay on the bottom 2 floors.”
Some blamed schizophrenia, possibly syphilis-induced, for Amin’s eclectic tyranny and fiercely nationalist Messiah complex. Others blamed the Western eye.
“Idi Amin represented what Africans were able to do,” explained professor Katono Nzarwa, head of Makerere University’s history department, who specialized in Anglo-American media representations of Amin. “And newspapers make rulers and kings.”
In all his mad, hypersexualized, cannibalistic glory, Amin was the monster the West—recently and reluctantly stripped of empires—had dreamed of, reinforcing centuries-old dark continent clichés, and suggesting, perhaps, that Africa was not ready for independence.
“In Western Europe you have more than 200–300 years of democratic experiments, right?” said Nzarwa. “And in Africa, we have fifty years. But you expect those with fifty years of experience to behave like we have 300 years. Is it really fair?” He was amazed: Even then, fractions of Europe admired, and longed for, its neo-Nazi past. And, as far as he knew, America had not closed its own torture chambers at Guantánamo Bay.
There had been attempts to resurrect the reputation of Amin, who fell from power like he came to it, toppled by his own predecessor Obote in 1979 after invading Tanzania and challenging the country’s president, Julius Nyerere, to a boxing match (with one hand tied to his back, to give Nyerere a “sporting chance”).
What role had “racism, colonialism, neocolonialism, classism, religion, tribalism, and greed” played in “creating” Idi Amin, wondered Jaffar Amin, one of more than forty children sired by the dictator (who insisted on being called “Big Daddy”), in his recent biography, Idi Amin: Hero or Villain? He’d laced it with fun facts: Did you know that Amin “tussle[d] with a crocodile in Somalia [while] on a King’s Rifles Army Tour of Duty”? That he “gave a Black American cleaning lady a 10,000 dollar tip to ease her suffering from racism” while in New York City? Or that some thought Amin was “set up” and “slandered” because he couldn’t be controlled by superpowers?
“He was more Stalin than Hitler in my opinion,” he added, in one of many Facebook posts calling for a more nuanced retrospective his of father’s legacy: “Someone who Transform the country for the better or for the worse, but Transform he did.”
These days, Uganda had the world’s youngest population and sky-high unemployment rates. At least three of Amin’s sons had repatriated, keeping their last names, and at least one worked for the government.
Nzarwa, the historian, was torn between Uganda’s future aspirations and a past slipping into oblivion. Business tended to suffer once skeletons, literal and figurative, tumbled out of closets. Even Westerners preferred visiting haunted houses, he hypothesized; not sleeping in them. “What would sell better: to preserve a room for posterity, to come and see where the torture used to take place?” he said. “Or to earn the extra dollars that come from that room? In your culture, bread and butter are taken for granted. You are looking at info for the sake of it. Here, we don’t.”
Nzarwa had never heard of Mengo’s torture chambers, which had never been marketed to locals, but was uncertain about the educational value of voyeurism. “The world has had their own Idi Amins,” said Nzarwa, shaking his head. “That’s the most unfortunate reality of humankind. That we never learn from our mistakes.”
At Mengo too, history had a tendency of repeating itself, and Nakamanya, the tour guide, was a “Museveni baby.” After overthrowing Tito Okello, who had overthrown Obote, who had overthrown Amin (and continued to use his torture chambers), Yoweri Museveni had governed Uganda since 1986, before Nakamanya was born. No stranger to torture and totalitarian tendencies himself, he had barred Amin from returning to Uganda from exile in Saudi Arabia, threatening that Amin would face charges for human rights violations.
To Nakamanya, the world’s fetishization of Amin had more to do with marketing—sometimes exaggerated by media—than the relative magnitude of his evils. “I think it’s a tourist attraction because the Amin story sold more in foreign countries. His cruel actions were not so unveiled to the people who are in Uganda. Most people who committed these crimes have not been prosecuted.”
She contrasted it with Rwanda, where perpetrators of mass killings had faced tribunals, and where she had visited the monuments commemorating the estimated 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. That was different: “it was more people killing people,” she stressed. “Here, it was the army, the government, killing the people.”
Amin became a chapter brushed over in Nakamanya’s own history classes. “They tell us he’s not a very good leader: that he used fascist suppression; that many people died during his rule. But that’s as far as it goes. To compile all he did during his rule could be a 500-page book, but we only learn about four, five pages.”
Amin passed away peacefully, at roughly seventy-eight, surrounded by world-class doctors and loved ones, having spent his last years by the Red Sea, sponsored by a Saudi allowance, in exchange for staying out of politics. His native village mourned a fallen hero, and international media rejoiced at his return to headlines. “The Butcher of Uganda” was buried in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2003, by his own account without regrets.
Even today, no one knows how many had been murdered—the International Court of Justice, which never tried Amin, estimated the toll at as many as 300,000; human rights organizations put it closer to half a million. Almost four decades after his departure, his spirits haunts the nation; presidential candidates made campaign pledges to repatriate his remains. But shouldn’t his thousands of victims still strewn on the bottom of Lake Victoria find justice first? countered those who still remembered.
In Ugandan folklore, Nakamanya explained, souls of the deceased were trapped where they had died. For now, families without graves to visit came to Mengo’s royal gardens for peace.
Everyone’s reaction was different: some broke down crying, others were silent, trying to take it all in. Some stayed an hour or two to feel the presence of loved ones. Most were very old—80 percent of Ugandans alive today were born after Amin’s era—and there were now only one or two survivors who came to visit each month.
This afternoon, there were no other visitors in sight. “Most people don’t want to come down here,” said Nakamanya apologetically. “It scares them.” She acted as a therapist of sorts. “If they come, we do talk to them.”
Nakamanya ended her tour in a dusty souvenir shop, finishing her shift at 5:30 p.m. sharp. She didn’t know what to think about the strange nightly commotion coming from the crypts—maybe superstition, maybe echoes?—but never stayed past sunset to find out.
Besides, she had a feeling Mengo’s ghost stories wouldn’t be Uganda’s last. “Today maybe it still goes on but in a more systematic and calculated way,” she shrugged. “Today you just disappear and no one knows.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation‘s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.