East to West

The History of
Ugandan Asians

Lived Experiences

Uprooted 50 Years Ago

– Exhibition –

Lived Experiences

In 1972 when the Ugandan Asians arrived at Greenham Common my family were local and all in the British Red Cross. We volunteered to help the families, who had all been through so much trauma during their escape from Idi Amin’s cruel regime, in any way we could.

At 12 years old I was playing with the children. They all seemed extremely excited to be somewhere new to me. We did piggyback rides, and in the absence of any toys for them to play with we found an abandoned wheelbarrow, so we had fun tearing about with small passengers in that too.

We also helped in the Medical Centre entertaining the children while their parents’ received treatment. I remember meeting Sarla Kakar who was a nurse. She was the first lady I had ever seen wearing a sari and I was absolutely fascinated by it. We did demonstrations with the children on how to apply bandages and arm slings. Apart from being great fun for us all, we had sparked their interest. Soon afterwards the County Commissioner came and enrolled a number of the children into the British Red Cross. The Press and TV were there, and all the Red Cross volunteers.

I am a Black dual heritage woman of Asian-African heritage. That makes me unique as we are a rarity but what makes me even more unique is that I have no idea what part of Africa I am from. I was found on a roadside in Kabale in Uganda. My beginnings were unfortunate but they have not deterred me from achieving the success I wanted in my life.

My adoptive parents were from a Sikh Punjabi background. Despite adoption of strangers being a taboo in the 1960s in the Asian Community; and despite opposition from some friends and relatives due to my sex and African heritage, they went ahead and took me into their family.

I grew up in Kabale hearing whispered rumours of either parent possibly having an affair with an African woman or African man and hence my adoption within the family. I grew up being shunned and bullied from people in the community for being adopted and then due to a condition called Epidermyosis Bullosa (EB); which was diagnosed when I was 8 years old.

On leaving Uganda in 1972, my mother, who was now a widow, had a gun pointed at her and was ordered to leave me behind as the soldiers said I was one of them; and not Asian. My mother showed immense courage and refused to comply with the repeated commands. Fortunately, we were allowed to go and none of us were harmed in that encounter.

On our arrival in Greenham as refugees, we were blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Solace was sought in sharing and playing with other children from Uganda and taking on adult responsibilities such as interpreting for my Mum and other families in appointments with professionals.

When we were given a council property, my family encountered racist attacks on a daily level from the local community. Experiences of having bricks shattering windows, graffiti on our walls and doors and being physically attacked.

Despite being diagnosed with Lupus in 1976 and struggling to complete my O’ Levels, (some of which were taken in hospital); I achieved the grades I needed to study for A’Levels and to go onto University, achieving a BA Honours in Social Sciences and then a MA/CQSW Social Work degree.

I have worked in the child protection field as a social worker and then in a managerial position since 1987.

My proudest achievement has been to become a Mum myself through adopting- a dream  which I have held for many years growing up and the latest dream achieved is writing my memoir Worth and having it published.

If there is any message I would want my story to give others, it is to say that no matter what your beginnings are; no matter what negative experiences you may encounter. Believe in yourself, stay focussed on your goals and dreams really can come true.

In 1972 Sarla was living in Reading when see saw a job advert at the local job centre recruiting a nurse at Greenham Common Resentment Camp. She immediately applied and was offered the role.

There were two nurses at the camp, Sarla and Judy Nichoas and four Doctors: Dr. C M Patel, Dr. Markandeya, and Dr. Bhana and one social worker.

She started work at the Medical Centre on the camp in December 1972 until June 1973 when the camp closed.

She recalls the fear, uncertainty and devastation the refugees felt however they were also eager to settle and start to rebuild their broken lives. They were penniless but managing on the support given by the government.

I come from a family with long links in Uganda. My father’s elder brother, Vasanji Gokaldas Kataria came to Uganda before World war one in 1911. At the time there were only 125 Asian families in Uganda, most of them were men only households. Vasanjibhai later encouraged hundreds of families from Bikha and surrounding villages of Saurastra, India to migrate to Uganda. My father came to Uganda in 1936.

Soon after coming into power, Amin’s army mainly run at senior levels by his supporters from the Kakwa and Nubian tribes, started a systemic purge of soldiers from Obote’s Langi and Acholi tribes. In early 1971, I wrote a letter to the East African Standard about this. I asked the Editor not to print my name, but he did. After a few days, the military police came  or me one evening and took me to the Military Police HQ at Makindye. I was the recipient of two dozen lashes on my arrival at the barracks. I was kept in Wing D – D for Death. Every night, around 9pm, a knock came on our dormitory door. Soldiers would enter and start calling out names. We were all holding our breath while they were reading out names. We knew that those whose names were called out would die within the hour. I spent all of those two weeks praying to God to give me just one more day to live. Those two weeks constituted without doubt the most harrowing experience of my life until then and since. We were thirty-four prisoners in Wing D. Over the two weeks, the numbers reduced by half.

When one faces the prospect of imminent death, it focuses the mind wonderfully. What is the purpose of life and what are we here for? I came to the conclusion that if I were to come out alive, I would work towards improving the lot of mankind, rather than pursue material self interest for myself. In order to pass time, I asked my brother to bring me (after some suitable “present” given to the guards) a book I had always wanted to read, but for which I had never found the time - The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a massive seven hundred page book about Nazi Germany. It convinced me that Amin’s Uganda was no different from Hitler’s Germany. What the author wrote about Nazi Germany and its treatment of minorities, I was witnessing, and experiencing it, at Makindye.

After taking time off from Kampala to get over my recent experience, I secured a job with the Madhvani Group as manager of their insurance department at the Head office in Jinja, reporting to the General Manager Mr. J V Paun. In August 1972, General Idi Amin announced his expulsion of all Asians from Uganda. Half of our family left Uganda by October 1972. Just days away from the deadline, my father, Jagjivandas Kataria, died of a   heart attack. The stress arising out of the expulsion and the uprooting from Uganda had no doubt contributed to this. The family had to organise all funeral ceremonies in the final week and the remaining family members left on the final day of Idi Amin’s deadline.

In a complete reversal of fortunes, Vasanti Makwana, who was one of the estimated 80,000 Asians expelled by Idi Amin, narrates how fate brought him into her care. In this gripping tale published in November 2021 Vasanti recalls how her tormentor pleaded with her to save his life.

It started with a telephone call around 2:30am in the night. I was on call for hemodialysis and the coordinator at the other end, sounding very frazzled, told me that she is sending a car to my compound and to be ready to come to the hospital as one of our VIP patients needed an emergency dialysis. I got my bearings and got ready to be driven to the hospital by a male chauffeur. I had gone to work at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was a one-year contract. Females at the time were not allowed to drive a car. Plus, when out of our compound we had to don on a long black covering over our clothes called “Abaya.” Women to this day have to be covered when out. It is the law there.

I reached my department and got busy to ready my machine and equipment needed to dialyse a patient. I called the ER (emergency unit), to find out the history of the patient. The doctor at the other end was almost in a panic and was screaming, “the patient is on his way to the dialysis unit and needed to be dialysed immediately and you have to remove at least 4 litres of fluid from his body. The patient is Idi Amin Dada!”

I thought it cannot be the man of my childhood nightmares! It just cannot be him. Suddenly a very big man was wheeled in the unit by a doctor and an attendant from the emergency unit. His large feet were dangling over the gurney. He had an oxygen mask on over his nose and mouth with the tubing attached to the oxygen cylinder placed under the gurney.

It was the man who had forced over 80,000 Ugandan Asians to leave the country in 1972 accusing them of “milking Uganda’s money” At that time, we, the Ugandan Asians, owned 90% of the country’s businesses and accounted for 90% of Ugandan tax revenues. The people from the Indian subcontinent and their descendants are very industrious, hardworking people. Our ancestors had made Uganda our home. It was the only home we knew and it was a paradise on earth. The country is situated on Equator so the climate is very pleasant all year round. The lush greenery, the lakes and rivers, the fauna and the beautiful birds are just a part of that piece of earth once called “The Pearl of Africa.”

“Leave the country within 90 days or face the dire consequences!” he had broadcasted over the radio and television. I was about 14 years old when my parents decided that we had to leave. It was not safe at all anymore in our beloved country. Our lives were in danger. My father had directly witnessed the atrocities committed by the military personnel, the so called goons of Idi Amin, the then dictator of Uganda. By October 1972, both my parents and the four of us children were in the UK. My elder brother was already in England; he had moved there 2 years before, for higher studies. We are five siblings in total.

We were given refugee status and taken to a camp in a remote part of England. The British welcomed us with open arms. We were treated so well and with such dignity that even my father was impressed with the hospitality we were shown by the English people. It was difficult for my parents to adjust to a new environment, different language, an alien culture and customs but, for us kids, it was an adventure! Children are more resilient and adaptable to a new environment. We buried our turmoil, fears and anxieties somewhere deep within our beings and just got on with it.

While taking report from the attending doctor, I was also examining my patient. My heart had started to pound faster and I thought people around me could hear it! The doctor was very nervous and telling me to put the patient on the dialysis machine ASAP. I was very near the patient and could see that he was not doing well at all. His breathing was very laboured, his heart rate was very fast, and despite having oxygen, the oxygen saturation in his body was quite low.

Suddenly his hand snaked over the gurney and he got hold of my arm. I was terrified and stood almost motionless. All the fears of what could have become of us flashed before my eyes. All the childhood memories and nightmares of what could have been. All my mind was saying to me was: Vasanti compose yourself! He is an old man who cannot harm you and needs your help now.

In his feeble voice he said to me while holding my arm “Please help me ... I’m very sick”. In the ER, he was told that once the extra fluid was removed from him via hemodialysis, he would start feeling better. So, seeing me at his side, he must have thought I was the one who was going to cure him miraculously. At that moment I got the courage to put my other hand over his and was able to reassure him. I told him: “Sir, you are in good hands, and we will do our best to help you get better.”

I had attached him to our monitors and could see that he needed to be stabilised before I started his treatment, so I called an ICU consultant. He was from Canada too. It took him no more than a couple of minutes to arrive at my unit. He examined the patient and said: “let’s take the patient to ICU and you can treat him there after we have stabilised him.” He was glad that I had reached out to him for help as he knew that I could not possibly treat this patient by myself in my unit. Idi Amin was very unstable physically and anything could have happened to him during dialysis. The Consultant informed the ER doctor that the patient would be dialysed once he was stabilised in ICU.

We proceeded to wheel him to ICU. The doctor from ER was visibly relieved and happily walked away from us, it was our responsibility now. As we wheeled him in one of the large ICU rooms, I was left alone in the room with him for a few minutes before the ICU staff came in to stabilise him. He kept on looking at me, as if pleading for his life. He was holding on to the words he had heard in ER that we will dialyse him and remove the extra fluids pressing on his lungs and that will help him breathe easier. I only had a few minutes to tell him what I needed him to know and understand before he

was intubated and attached to machines to help him breathe and perhaps put him in an induced coma until he was stabilised. I was virtually shaking, but I picked up enough courage to speak to him. This was the only chance I had to be able to speak to him one on one.

I looked straight at him, into those frightened eyes, and told him very clearly: “Look at me. I am one of those Ugandan Asians you had thrown out of the country all those years ago.” His eyes widened. I could see his facial demeanour change as the fog of yesteryear started to clear in his head. The fear I saw in those eyes, I will never ever forget. That look he had is etched in my mind forever. It only took a split second but, at that moment, all my childhood nightmares about this man just evaporated and I had the power back.

He was a pathetic sick old man fighting for his life and now he was trying to process that the person who was supposed to help make him better is someone he had wronged all those years ago in Uganda.

I held his gaze, sighed, and very clearly told him: “Don’t be afraid. I won’t harm you. I’ll help you get better. But I want you to know that my father lived in the UK for many years. It was never his home and he never forgave you. Despite having wronged so many of us by evicting us and stealing everything from us, most of us Ugandan Asians are doing very well.”

Soon after, his care was taken over by ICU staff, he was stabilised and I was able to give him dialysis. His hemodynamics improved remarkably but in the following days he developed what is known as Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN).

Most of the skin from his body was peeling away, exposing the underlying tissues, veins and parts of muscle. I saw the peeling of his skin from his legs; it came of his legs the same way socks come off our feet. It was obviously excruciatingly painful. Even in his comatose state, despite being given intravenous pain medications, we could see his body twitching and writhing in pain.

Idi Amin died a very painful death on August 16, 2003. I can only imagine the pain and suffering he endured during those two arduous months. I would not want to wish such a painful death on even my worst enemy.

From what I had witnessed, Idi Amin had paid his dues in full in this life. In his last coherent thoughts, he likely had the face of this Ugandan Asian etched on his mind! I believe that karma always catches up to you. Whatever goes around, comes around.

Myself, and my 6 siblings were born in Masindi, Uganda. In 1935 my father, aged 18 travelled from Gujarat, India to Uganda in search of a better life. The state of Gujarat had experienced difficult times and unrest. My father travelled in a Dhow from Porbandar to Mombasa and finally arriving in Jinga. With the assistance of family members, already living in Uganda he started to run a grocery store, through sheer hard work and determination he managed to buy the store and by 1968 he also owned a number of petrol stations.

Life in Uganda was basic but it suited us, however he needed his wits about him, living in an underdeveloped town in a new Country. There was a small Asian community and they all  supported each other. My father was the chair of the Lions club in Masindi. Schooling was not great in Masindi and my father set up an apartment in Kampala and sent my older siblings to study in Kampala and my Grandmother to look after them.

Ugandans had been very welcoming but that all started to change in 1962 after Uganda’s Independence. All Asians were told they had to pick one nationality, British or Ugandan. My father was the only member of our family with a Ugandan citizenship as he needed this in order to be able to run a business. So when the expulsion happened my father could not leave with us and had to go into hiding because they would not give him a British Citizenship and he became stateless. He left our business and home with the staff to manage. After 2 - 3 months in hiding he managed to board a flight to India and flew to Mumbai.

In the mean time myself aged 13 and siblings, aged 15, 11 & 6 came to the UK, whilst the elder 3 siblings went to Canada as my eldest brother Jatin was already studying in Toronto. We arrived in to the UK in October 1972 and stayed at West Malling resettlement camp until Feb 1973 when we were offered a council house in County Durham. Mum took a job in a commercial laundry.

Eventually my father boarded a flight from Mumbai to London Heathrow and was detained in Pentonville for a few months as he had no immigration documents. He always said that prison was not as emotional as leaving everything behind in Uganda. In November 1973 when Princess Ann married my father was given a pardon by the Queen and allowed to join his family.

Adjusting took some time and he went on his pursuit of finding a job. One day as he stood in the queue at the job centre he overheard a conversation about how there was a demand for accommodation to cater for those that did not have any accommodation - a guest house. Eventually they gathered enough funds to open a guest house and both of my parents would work there. Mum would make the breakfasts for the guests. They were determined to be independent. Sadly my Father passed Jan 1988 and Mum now lives in Dehradun, India with my youngest sister. After marriage I moved to Redditch, Worcs and have continued to live here. This year I sponsored a Ukrainian family as I felt I wanted to give back the help and support I received 50 years ago.

Home for me is middle England, I have never been back to Uganda and I do not miss it. I am what I am because I left Uganda. Having been a refugee I feel I have always had to be better then the best and to always prove myself in everything I have done.