Through the eyes of hostages

Things took a turn for the worse as the deadline neared. The hijackers started sorting passports and calling the Israelis into a smaller room.

hostages eyes 88 (photo credit: )
hostages eyes 88
(photo credit: )
On June 27, 1976, Emma and Claude Rosenkovitch of Jerusalem were flying from Israel to Paris to visit their parents. Their eldest son, Dan, 16, stayed behind for the international congress of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, but their other two children - Noam, 10 and Ella, 5 - were in tow. At a stopover in Athens, Emma was shocked at how rude a couple of the passengers were, bumping into everyone with their giant black bags. "Why would an airline let people get on with such big bags anyway?" she thought to herself, and quickly forgot. A few minutes later - with guns pointed at flight attendants - the same men and two others, a German couple, announced they were hijacking the plane. "People were ripping off their Jewish star necklaces and throwing them on the floor; they were afraid," says Emma. "One woman shoved her 6-year-old under her chair and told him to stay there, that it was a game and they were making a movie." "Don't worry," the hijackers said, Emma remembers. "We have nothing against any of you." On one hand the hijackers were behaving "humanely," making an effort to put everyone at ease, creating a section for families with children and having a teenager pass out candy, says Emma. "But they were waving their guns and talking about releasing wanted murderers from jail, like Kozo Okamoto, who killed [24] Israelis in Lod." After explaining their demands, the hijackers renamed the flight from "Air France" to "Haifa," says Emma. "They said Haifa was first an Arab city." Claude kept looking out the window. The plane had been circling in the sky for hours. "Would we run out of gas and crash?" he asked himself. Finally they received permission to refuel in Bengazi, Libya, where the hijackers argued with officials - and then returned with omelets for everyone. "The terrorists really relaxed us," says Emma. "We had no idea we would end up in Africa." But within hours, they would land in Uganda and spend a week under gunpoint in Entebbe Airport. Another four Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorists and dozens of Ugandan armed soldiers surrounded them. For the first days, the hostages "made do." They divided the large room up, gathering books to make a library and creating a play area for kids. They were given anti-malaria pills and drank water from the bathroom tap. Food was distributed daily. People rationed their bananas to give to religious people who wouldn't eat the unknown meat products. The hijackers even brought a cart with items from duty-free. "Everyone jumped on them," recalls Emma. "They said don't worry; we'll come back every week. We said, 'every week?' Prisoners at least know how much time they have to serve." Claude, on the other hand, couldn't help but remember the failed 1974 IDF rescue in Ma'alot where 26 Israelis, including many children, died. "I was afraid the same would happen. At least here we are alive," he thought. Idi Amin came to visit several times, each time in a different uniform, hanging with medals. Sometimes he circled his MIG fighter planes outside on the runway without taking off. He was a looming figure and loved to say "shalom," says Emma. "What a megalomaniac. What was he doing with those planes and those medals, showing off? He told us he named his daughter Sharon because he conceived her in Israel at a hotel named Sharon. He said he was going to save us. When he made speeches, many of the hostages clapped. They were scared and it was surreal." Things took a turn for the worse as the deadline neared. The hijackers started sorting passports and calling the Israelis into a smaller room. Emma and her kids were the first to be called. "I had a terrible feeling and [my son] Noam started to cry," she remembers. "Were they going to separate men from women? Parents from children? It took half an hour before I understood that all the Israelis would stay together." Though official reports have said the separation was between Jews and non-Jews, Emma insists that all non-Israeli Jews would have been released, but there wasn't enough room on the plane for everyone. The pilot, Michael Bacos, and his Air France crew also stayed. The released passengers, knowing they'd be sent home, passed books, medicines and toiletries to the Israelis. A new friend he made passed Claude a giant annotated collection of Shakespeare. A few Holocaust survivors had to be calmed, says Emma. "They thought they were going back to the concentration camp. They saw crates of coffee and tea and were sure they were explosives. They started to scream." The conditions deteriorated. Toilets got stopped up, people got diarrhea and dysentery. Emma complained that at least in Israeli jails prisoners get one hour a day outside. The hijackers decided to let the children out for 30 minutes a day. "They played soccer with a can," remembers Emma. "[A German hijacker] stood watching with his Uzi. I said. 'Why are there all these guards with Uzis? We are surrounded by Lake Victoria and its crocodiles, desert and jungle. Where are we going to go?' "Then I asked him, 'You are not embarrassed to see these Holocaust survivors with numbers tattooed on their arm?' He was silent." Everyday it got worse, physically and mentally; people were hoarding food and getting very sick. It started to feel like a small concentration camp, says Emma. The last Friday night there was a Kabbalat Shabbat and the observant people sang the prayers. "On Shabbat we went to sleep at about 11, when later we heard shooting. We thought the deadline was up and they were coming to start murdering us," says Emma. "I lay down on my daughter; my husband lay down on our son, we were trying to save them, we nearly crushed them, they were so scared. "I heard a Russian immigrant screaming: his mother, Ida Borowicz, had died in his arms after being struck in the crossfire. Jean-Jacques Maimoni, he was just 16, traveling without his family, he was sleeping near the door, he thought they were terrorists and he stood up to run I guess. He was shot. And another one, too. That's when I looked up and saw this young man in fatigues with curls, screaming in Hebrew. I yelled, 'They're here!' "In that moment it was over for me. We gathered our things and our children and ran to the plane. My son held my daughter and protected her head with the book of Shakespeare in case there was more shooting. "Back in Jerusalem I realized it wasn't over," says Emma. "I had to be a hero in Entebbe for my children. But as soon as I got home I fell apart. I couldn't talk or drink or eat. Strangers covered the house in flowers and notes and came with food. In town when we went to replace the toys or clothes that were lost on the plane, nobody would take our money. I kept thinking, why did I bring my children on that plane? And whenever I meet the family of the hostages who were killed, it just breaks my heart." It's exactly 30 years later. She raises her eyebrows and her eyes fill with tears.