KAMPALA DAYS; Ghosts that lurk in shadows of hotel's gory past

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The Independent Online
A journalist I know refuses to stay in the Nile Hotel in Kampala. Too many ghosts, he says. During Milton Obote's reign of terror in the first half of the Eighties, the hotel - then called Nile Mansion - was used by the regime for interrogation and torture. No one knows how many people died or "disappeared" after being taken there.

I have no dark memories of Uganda, having visited the country for the first time in 1992. By that time it had been seven years since the overthrow of Obote by guerrilla leader-turned-president Yoweri Museveni, and Uganda was well on its way towards recovery. I remember being struck by the lushness and beauty of the countryside.

On my most recent visit, however, I had no time to travel about and confined myself to Kampala. Untroubled by ghosts and memories of the Obote years, I booked into the Nile Hotel. It has direct dialling from the rooms and other facilities which, after weeks of power cuts and telephone problems in Nairobi, made it seem a pleasant prospect.

The hotel, built in 1967 and refurbished in 1987, is hardly an architectural triumph and the food is less than stunning. But it has attractive grounds and a well-equipped conference centre. It was here that the reception for African heads of state was held after President Museveni, already a decade in power, won a landslide victory in this month's presidential elections.

I had thought little about the hotel's murky past until one day I was introduced to an elderly farmer living near the shore of Lake Victoria. Amid the clucking of chickens, John Mukasa recalled the years of suffering, first under Idi Amin in the Seventies, then under Obote who returned to power in 1980 after rigged elections.

Mr Mukasa had once had two farms north of Kampala in an area which, during the Eighties civil war, came to be known as the Luwero Triangle. It was from here that the Museveni insurgency was launched and it was here that most of the worst atrocities of the Obote regime were committed. By the time of Obote's overthrow in 1985, it was estimated that more than one third of the population of this area had been eliminated.

Those suspected of supporting the guerrillas were viciously hounded. Mr Mukasa's wife was beheaded by government soldiers in 1981 and his brother was shot dead. After two years in exile near London, Mr Mukasa returned to Uganda only to be arrested by Obote's security service which mistook him - Mr Mukasa says - for Godfrey Binaisa who had been president for a short period between Amin and Obote.

Mr Mukasa still bears scars from the torture sessions in the Nile Hotel. His interrogators dripped burning plastic down his right leg to make him talk. Not surprisingly, he has not been back to the hotel since.

"The Nile Hotel was a slaughterhouse", I was later told by Brigadier Jim Muhwezi who, as head of internal security, now has an office in the adjacent conference centre. "A number of my friends were interned and died there. It's hard to believe the beautiful gardens were once littered with bodies."

Those days are mercifully past and Kampala is now a model of enterprise. Though the economy is still only at the level it was in the early Seventies, Uganda now boasts the highest growth rate of any African country. The Nile Hotel is full of executives and business people. The basement of the conference centre is no longer a torture chamber, and rooms 211 and 233 are no longer the offices of Obote's dreaded Military Intelligence and National Security Services.

If there are ghosts here they are keeping well-hidden. But I know my journalist friend will not be checking in when next he is in Kampala. Nor will Mr. Mukasa be dropping by for Sunday lunch.

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