In just under two months Cam McLeay, Garth MacIntyre, and Neil McGrigor's Ascend the Nile Expedition had traveled an unprecedented 3,300 miles (5,311 kilometers) up the world's longest river, without incident. But on November 7, the three friends, each in his early 40s, wrecked both a motorized raft and a support aircraft while fighting heavy rapids in Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park. McGrigor broke and badly burned his leg in the crash, prompting a call for help.
Steve Willis, 38, a British friend of McLeay's who owned a nearby lodge, drove out the next morning to pick them up at the Nile. The team, along with George Heathcote (who had joined the expedition for the Murchison section), piled into Willis's Land Rover. Accompanied by an armed Ugandan guard, they took off for park headquarters. As Willis drove, he talked about the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group notorious for abducting and enslaving children that has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives since 1986. In October the International Criminal Court had indicted LRA leader Joseph Kony for crimes against humanity. Kony had responded by targeting white foreigners, including a British aid worker killed only days before the team's accident.
"We were discussing the LRA attacks when the bullets started flying," says McLeay, who was in the passenger seat when Kalashnikov fire ripped into the SUV's aluminum skin, ricocheting around the interior. "I looked in the rearview mirror and I could see one man in an olive uniform. I was looking down the barrel of his weapon. And then there was a whole volley of shots."
McLeay dropped into the footwell for cover and the Ugandan guard screamed at Willis to drive faster. Within seconds, the gunmen shot out the rear tires and the vehicle veered into the roadside elephant grass.
"We bounced heavily and then stopped," McLeay says. "And there were bullets all around. There was no question in my mind that if we didn't get out of that vehicle, we'd all be dead."
Leaping out the passenger-side door, McLeay bolted as a pair of rebels charged toward him on foot, shooting. The next man out was Heathcote, who disappeared into the grass. The Ugandan guard then kicked open the rear door and fled with the group's only gun. Willis sprang from the driver's seat directly into the line of fire, while MacIntyre tried to climb out an open window. As he did, a bullet struck his head, splashing blood all over the vehicle's interior. Struggling with his broken leg, McGrigor was the last one out. He collapsed the moment he stepped away from the SUV.
McGrigor crawled into the tall grass, lay on his back, and froze, hoping not to be noticed. But he was quickly discovered by two rebels—teenagers, by the look of it, one whose face had been hideously disfigured. They dragged McGrigor back to the vehicle and demanded cash, which he gave them. Then they wanted his satellite phone and gun. He told them he had neither, which was only half true—he didn't have a gun. When they asked for clothing, McGrigor climbed into the rear of the blood-spattered interior to grab his luggage. When he emerged, the rebels stuffed dry grass into the driver's-side footwell, lit it on fire, and commanded McGrigor to kneel on the ground, execution style.
Photograph courtesy of Ascend the Nile Expedition
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