The Obscenely Easy Exile of Idi Amin


By Ethan Bronner

New York Times
August 19, 2003

On a reporting trip to Saudi Arabia seven years ago, I went to Idi Amin's house. I had heard that Mr. Amin, the former Ugandan dictator who died last weekend at the age of 78, was living in Jidda, the Red Sea port, and I wanted to see for myself. Was it possible that a man who, in the 1970's, had ordered the deaths of 300,000 of his countrymen, raped and robbed his nation into endless misery and admitted to having eaten human flesh was whiling away his time as a guest of the Saudi government?

It was. There, in a spacious villa behind a white gate, Mr. Amin made his home with a half-dozen of his 30 or so children. He was not there the day I rang (a son said he was out of town), but locals said he could often be seen pushing his cart along the frozen food section of the supermarket, being massaged at the health club, praying at the mosque. He had long ago abandoned his British-style military uniform for the white robe of the Saudi man, but as an African measuring 6-foot-3 and nearly 300 pounds, he did not exactly blend in.

A former Sudanese colonel who worked as a manager at the local supermarket said, "People greet him and say, `Hello, Mr. President.' " Why? Wasn't he a savage dictator?

"Oh yes — he used to eat people," the manager replied, laughing. "But this is our nature. We forget."

But what would prompt the Saudi government to play host to such a man?

The answer, when the question was posed to Saudi officials, was an excursion into the desert habits of hospitality, and Mr. Amin's conversion to Islam. His support for the Arab boycott of Israel in the 1970's certainly also endeared him to his hosts.

During the nearly quarter-century of his soft exile, no nation tried to bring Mr. Amin to justice. A few years ago, after Spain's government went after Chile's former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, Human Rights Watch did bring up Mr. Amin's case to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, but to no avail. Under international law, any nation, including Saudi Arabia, could have and should have prosecuted Mr. Amin.

But, as Reed Brody, special counsel for prosecutions at Human Rights Watch, says, "If you kill one person, you go to jail; if you kill 20, you go to an institution for the insane; if you kill 20,000, you get political asylum." Mr. Brody keeps a melancholy map on his wall of other tyrants gone free: Alfredo Stroessner, dictator of Paraguay, lives in Brazil; Haiti's Raoúl Cedras is in Panama; Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia is in Zimbabwe; Hissí¨ne Habré of Chad lives in Senegal. Today there is the International Criminal Court, which can bring a future Amin to justice, although the United States is among 100 countries that have shortsightedly declined to participate in the court.

I was sorry not to have had a chance to talk to Mr. Amin directly. But those who did speak with him suggest that I missed little. An Italian journalist, Riccardo Orizio, asked him in 1999 whether he felt remorse. No, Mr. Amin replied, only nostalgia. Six years earlier, a British writer, Tom Stacey, saw him. At one point, Mr. Amin pulled from his pocket a paraphrase of Psalm 22 and commented: "Remember we are special to God. He sees a beauty in us few see."

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