The message from the team stalking Idi Admin in the African jungles is transmitted to headquarters not in the stuttering beat of signal drums or military code but in impeccable Yiddish. It says: "Er is du (He is here)."
"My men know where he is and keep me informed almost every day by telephone," says Shmuel Faltto-Sharon, the flamboyant Israeli financier who says he has organized the hunt for Amin. "That meshugine hasn't left Uganda. He still thinks he will come back to power."
The multi-millionaire financier, whose unorthodox moves have won him a fortune and fraud sutis in France, and a Knesset seat in Israel, claims to have dispatched a 12-man commando team to capture Amin and turn him over to the new Ugandan authorities. There is no independent confirmation of this, but Israeli officials say with a shrug that with Flatto, as he is generally called, anything is possible. A former aide, Jacques Benaudis, who fell out with Flatto, confirmed that his former boss did have contacts with Ugandan exiles before the overthrow of Amin.
In an interview, the dapper, 48-year-old Flatto said he organized his squad a month ago after telephone contacts with Ugandan exile leaders in Paris. Heading the team, the said, are two former agents of the Israeli secret service. One of them makes the reports from Africa in Yiddish, the language that Polish-born Flatto is most comfortable with. There are also, he says, tow Americans, two Germans, a Swiss and five Africans, one of them a former bodyguard of Amin. The two Americans are said to be a former New York City policeman and a former Army officer, neither of them Jewish.
He dispatched the team, said Flatto, to avenge the murder by Amin of Dora Bloch, the Israeli grandmother left behind when Israeli forces released hijacked passengers at Entebbe airport four years ago. "To a Jewish man, a mother is dearer than a child or wife," says the financier in French-accented English. "Mrs. Bloch is my mother too. She is all our mothers. When she was murdered, I said that one day Amin mut pay." Flato's own gray-haired mother lives with him and his family in the posh suburb of Savion near Tel Aviv.
Born in Lodz, Flatto moved to France as a child with his parents. His father, a dyer, was killed at Auschwitz, says Flatto, as were almost at his close relatives. He and his mother survived the war in a village near Lyon under non-Jewish names. Sammy, as he is still called by his family, began his business career in the textile trade but soon moved to real estate.
Flatto's career as a righter of public wrongs began unexpectedly two years ago when he became the target of extradition proceedings by France which accused him of real estate frauds involving some $50 million. Although he loved Paris and used to have a table reserved for him at Maxim's every day for lunch, he preferred not to return in such unpleasant circumstances. Elections were approaching in Israel and Flatto ran for the Knesset, admitting openly that he wanted a seat so as to acquire immunity from extradition.
The fact that he knew virtually no Hebrew did not stay his hand, for he knew other things, particularly the power of flaunted money. With the help of top political professionals, he toured the country promising to use his own resources to give dignity to the poor, houses to the homeless and succor to the sick. Although dismissed as a joke by the regular parties, he won twice as many votes as he needed for a seat. Even before the votes were recounted, however, there were accusations in the Knesset and press that many votes had been paid for in cold cash. There was a police investigation but the state attorney still has not decided whether there is enough evidence to bring charges.
After his election, Flatto became a champion of the needy. He opened free dental clinics staffed by volunteers in underprivileged neighborhoods. He became a godfather to babies in outlying development towns. When an opera association faced bankruptcy, it was to Flatto that they turned. He set up a staff to deal with the scores of letters his office received each day from persons needing help, generally from some government agency. "I found a new life and I like it," he said last week, "I want to go this way."
Despite his love for his new life, Flatto is not the typical Knesset member. During parliamentary debate, he receives a private French translation of the speeches over earphones. His own speeches he delivers in Hebrew, but he has the words written out phonetically in Lation characters. When a group Knesset members was taken on a tour of agricultural areas in a bus, Flatto dutifully went along - but in his own chauffeured limousine.
And he has not given up his business interests which stretch over several continents. He has set up a large farm in Venezuela staffed by Israeli experts, bought and sold the Royal Manhattan Hotel in New York, backed real-estate ventures in Europe and South America and dabbled in the Cameroons. He acknowledged that he may explore business opportunities in Uganda now as well.
Along the way, Flatto has developed a shadowy network of connections abroad, including Wolfgang Vogel, the East Berlin attorney who has played a key role in East-West prisoner exchanges. "I've known him for a number of years": says Flatto, "but I can't tell you how." He involved himself in the deal last year which led to the release of an Israeli being held in Mozambique and an American student held in East Berlin in exchange for an American who spied for the Russians. Flatto has also involved himself in the campaign to release Soviet Jews and according to former aide Benaudis, has had extensive contacts with the KGB for this purpose. The Israeli government has taken no official notice of Flatto's activities in this area.
The publicity Flatto received abroad following last year's prisoner swap resulted, he says, in numerous letters from persons offering their services for any future operations. He invited a number of these correspondents to visit him, at their own expense. It was from among this group, he says, that he chose the five Europeans and Americans who accompanied the two Israelis to Uganda. The five Africans on the team were picked there, he says.
The operation, says Flatto, has the approval of the new Ugandan regime. He met three of its leaders last February, he says, when they flew in from Paris. "They heard that I had money and they heard about my statements on Idi Amin. They had big money for weapons but what they needed was small money so that they could have their revolution in dignity. They didn't have money for things like, for give me, girls for their men. I received them well."
When Flatto's dirty dozen had been chosen and the men were ready to embark on their mission, the seven whites assembled in Paris before flying on to Tanzania. There they met with one of Flatto's aides, instead of with Flatto himself. His face and reputation are well known in France, and his fraud trial opened last week. CAPTION: Picture 1, Idi Amin; Picture 2, Shmuel Flatto-Sharon