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Before There was Afghanistan There was Entebbe
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Monday, August 30, 2021
 

“Editor’s Note: The United States’ efforts to airlift U.S. citizens and Afghan allies fleeing the Taliban has evoked memories of the evacuations of South Vietnamese from Saigon for some. For Ketchum resident Renata Beguin, it’s evoked memories of another airlift in early August 1972—one that she was involved in at great danger to herself:

STORY BY RENATA BEGUIN

PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK AND RENATA BEGUIN

I did not know it yet, but Pan Am Flight 233 would leave Nairobi that August morning a little delayed. Tropical bird sounds filled the air as I walked across the hot tarmac to board the plane. The first officer, who was completing his inspection of the engines, gave me a friendly wave. The heat of the rising sun was predicting another scorcher. Barbara and I, the first-class stewardesses that day, joked about the fact that we had to wear stockings in this clammy heat. 

When our captain, tanned and wiry Roger Manchester, called all of us up front, we expected the usual briefing, but seeing his face, we knew that this was not routine.

The first leg of our trip was to Entebbe, the capital of Uganda. The route would take us over majestic, white-capped Kilimanjaro. Captain Manchester often circled the mountain so close that your heart almost stopped and you felt like you could touch the snow. Nervous calls from the ground warned him to keep his altitude, but he flew these huge Boeing 707s as if they were gliders. It was my favorite part of this flight and he was my favorite captain.

Today we learned that it was up to the whole crew, the normal policy of Pan American, whether we agreed to land in Entebbe. We knew that crews of other airlines had languished in jail for days on orders of the president of Uganda. As a consequence, no other airlines flew to Entebbe anymore. 

There was little discussion among the crew. Understanding the situation on the ground and knowing that Pan Am was the only hope for countless refugees to leave Uganda, we all agreed to take a chance.

President Idi Amin had just ordered the expulsion of 80,000 people of Asian descent. Ugandan soldiers brutalized and killed Asians with impunity as they tried to flee the country. Amin confiscated all their belongings: businesses, homes, everything. As many as ten thousand people ended up unaccounted for. 

What greeted us in Entebbe was unspeakable and haunts me to this day. A heartbreaking patchwork of humanity in every shape and color huddled together on the floor of the departure lounge. With hundreds of people covering every inch of that hall, the heat, misery and stench were devastating. Many had been there with no food, water, or toilets for days. Some looked completely resigned. Others, especially children, turned to look at us with just a hint of hope in their eyes.

The desperate Pam Am gate agent was attempting to line up a first row of ticketed passengers when complete chaos broke out. Everyone in the crowd had gotten up. Few had tickets, but all pleaded and pushed to get on our flight. Our captain took one look at the desperate situation and told the agent not to worry about tickets. “Just send as many as possible. We’ll handle it.” 

What followed was unprecedented. We filled every inch of the airplane. Seats were occupied by two, even three, people. Children lined the floor. When we finally had to close the doors, even Barbara and I, sitting on the jump seat, each held a child in our arms.  

The concern that something might go wrong at the last minute was palatable.  Sure enough, just when we finally taxied out to the runway and thought we were safe, a frantic and ‘heavily accented’ voice came over the cockpit radio. In a crackling and broken-up transmission, the control tower was shouting orders at our pilots.

“Pan Am, you are not allowed to take off! Papa Idi is on the way to the airport and has forbidden all flights to leave.”

I was strapped in the jump-seat with a frightened little girl on my lap and could hear the whole transmission through the open cockpit door. Despite the stifling heat, cold sweat started running down my neck. Would we be arrested and taken to an African jail? And what would happen to all these poor people?

Just then, back came the calm, cheerful voice of unflappable Captain Manchester. “You broke off there for a minute, but I heard take off.  Ok, thanks. We’re on the way.”

With that, he turned the plane around to face the long runway and fired up the engines with a roar. With tears running down my cheeks, I took a deep breath as we took off to the sound of sobbing, cheers, and sighs drowning out even the loud droning of the reliable engines carrying us to safety.


 

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