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Diplomacy and Danger—Close Calls in Uganda

In 1971, a Ugandan coup d’état led by General Idi Amin ousted President Milton Obote’s government. After Amin seized power, he began a campaign of brutality against the Ugandan people. This brutality led to the general-turned-dictator’s own overthrow just eight years later in 1979, and Amin soon fled the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

Melissa Foelsch Wells  (Date Unknown) (Photographer Not Named)| U.S. Department of State
Melissa Foelsch Wells (Date Unknown) (Photographer Not Named)| U.S. Department of State

In his absence, Uganda had no central authority and competing coalitions began vying for power. It was the perfect storm.

It was in the midst of this storm that Melissa Wells came to Uganda as the United Nations Resident Representative. When Wells arrived, she was immediately met with danger. Even during simple car rides, she faced car-jackings, roadblocks, and ambushes. In those moments, Wells learned how to keep calm, think quickly, and stay safe during life-threatening altercations. What’s more, she was able to reflect on the role that risk plays in the Foreign Service, in addition to considering how Foreign Service Officers work through fear in order to operate as a cohesive, successful team.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” Melissa Wells discusses her experience with a car-jacking when she was returning home one evening from a reception at the U.S. Embassy. Wells recounts her thoughts as she faced a terrible situation on the job, as well as her reflections after the fact.

Melissa Foelsch Wells’ interview was conducted by Ann Miller Morin in March 1984.

Read Melissa Foelsch Wells’ full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on carjackings and the Foreign Service, click HERE.

Drafted by Natalie Schaller

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“It was what you call true anarchy, which is the most frightening of all situations.”

U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda  (2018) The National Museum of American Diplomacy | U.S. Department of State
U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda (2018) The National Museum of American Diplomacy | U.S. Department of State

True Anarchy:
WELLS: It was very chaotic. It was what you call true anarchy, which is the most frightening of all situations.

Q: You mentioned how the police had all been wiped out; there weren’t any police on the streets.

WELLS: That’s right. You had a Liberation Army, which had been recruited along the way. You had the Tanzanian Army there that, of course, was the spearhead in terms of removing Amin from power. But then there was no institutional framework with which to support an army, you see. You have to feed it, house it, clothe it, pay it!

Q: Had the others been murdered? Is that what had happened?

WELLS: The others ran away. The Amin army right there all disappeared. So you had the Tanzanian Army and you had the Uganda Liberation Army without any institutional framework to support it. What happened was that it generated soldiers who had weapons just helping themselves, unfortunately, to the local population. . . You had a very chaotic situation, really, which is one of the most frightening things. Even if you don’t agree with the atrocious policies that somebody may be carrying out, that means that somebody is in charge, and at least you can go and talk to somebody if you’re being killed, and civilians are being murdered for transistor radios, for chickens, for wristwatches. So that’s where we’re talking about.

“I could see that the car was keeping up with us.”

A Close Encounter:
WELLS: . . . The best-known incident, actually, is a time I was not shot at, but it was the first really close encounter with a gun. I was being driven home, which was in Entebbe, from Kampala. I had actually been at the U.S. Embassy for a reception and it was late—late, like nearly seven o’clock in the evening. By that time, the curfew was in effect.

I was aware that a car was passing us. I was sort of looking off to the left. We drive on the left there, incidentally. It was passing us, but somehow it didn’t seem to get on with the job of passing us, and that made me turn my head. I could see that the car was keeping up with us.

There were three men in the car. The driver was on the other side, you see. Two men were at the windows and had pistols. They were keeping up with us, and I sort of looked, and my first reaction was, “Oh, no! Here? Me?” I mean, I’d heard about this. It was always happening to someone else, not to you.

Then by that time he [the driver] realized that we were in trouble, and he started slowing down the car. Then the car pulled right in front of us, and as they got out of their car, I sort of went down on the floor of the car, because I thought they would start shooting. I remember being down there with my nose on the floor of the back seat, thinking, “Is this it? Is this the end? It’s going to end here?”

There was no shooting, so I came up again, and by this time they were pulling George out of the car. A guy came up to me on this side. . . He came out this side, and he opened the door for madam, and I emerged with my hands up. . .So I got out, and then he jumped in. I don’t know whether he jumped in the front seat or the back seat. Whatever it was, they turned around and got out of there. Then I was left there on the side of the road, in the dark, and the first thing I thought was, “Where’s George?” He’d been beaten up and was playing dead or wounded on the other side of the road. I got him up, and he was okay. He had a bad gash in his knee. I just put my arms around him and said, “George, we’re alive!”

“. . . They took the news to the hotel that there was this European woman waving her skirts around in the middle of the road.”

Carjacking Incident  (2019) (Unknown) | New Orleans Police Department
Carjacking Incident (2019) (Unknown) | New Orleans Police Department

Flagging Down Help:
There weren’t that many cars on the road. I’d wave and see a car go “Whoooosh!” I thought, “I’m going to be here all night waving at all these cars.” I had a very full pleated skirt on, so the next set of headlights I saw, I jumped out in front and started waving my skirts.

You’ve got to get out of the situation. . . They can’t see. Everybody drives very fast. I wanted them to make sure they knew this was a mazuna woman standing here. Something is wrong! If you can help, please help. . . Then they took the news to the hotel that there was this European woman waving her skirts around in the middle of the road. By this point, I was late and everybody called and said, “I wonder if that’s Melissa?”

Then another set of headlights came. Again, I go like, “Please stop the car!” I hear the brakes, “Eeeeeekkkkk!” It turned out to be somebody I knew. I said, “Please take us to the Tanzanian Army headquarters.” I knew they had a radio in touch with the Ugandan Army headquarters in Kampala.

“I have put my life on the line in several cases . . . others do it, too. Then you become a unit.”

Moving Forward:
Q: What do all these incidents do to your nerves?

WELLS: . . . What you have to do is realize, “What am I doing here?”

I have to explain this to my family. I figured out that it was necessary because of the relief operations we had. Once I had seen bodies, dead bodies, from the slow violence of starvation, about which you can do something… You can’t do all that much about the atrocities . . .There is no way that I can just turn my back and write a report and hope for the best that somebody else will lead. I know this sounds very heroic and all that, but I’ve lived it. I have put my life on the line in several cases. The wonderful thing, Ann, is that others do it, too. Then you become a unit.

If anything, there were a number of people, not a lot, but some, who were genuinely very afraid in Uganda. I used to say, “If you really live with fear day in, day out, get out.” Because I believe that you attract disaster. It’s like dogs know when you’re afraid, or something like that. There’s a normal healthy level of fear, but if it becomes obsessive, if you see someone out to kill you every minute of the day, that’s wrong, and I think it’s very bad in terms of the total community.

But the beauty of Uganda was that we got a job done. They said we didn’t solve all that many problems, but it’s very easy when you’re sitting back in capital writing papers and whatever it is. But when you know that because of what you did people got something to eat, it’s as simple and basic as that. They may have been killed the next day because of something else.

We used to have philosophical arguments about this. If we do this, somebody else will do that. Well, you have to live with your own conscience. But we developed a group ethic, almost, and we discussed a lot of things and took tremendous risks to get the job done. I’m so proud of having been a part of that, and I’d like to think I did lead the operation with the example that I used to go out, so other people would go out.

Bachelor’s Degree, Georgetown University
Foreign Service
Guinea-Bissau—Ambassador 1976-1977
Mozambique—Ambassador 1987-1990
Estonia—Ambassador 1998-2001