Out of the blue, the devastating news came on the radio, the newscaster was reading the lunchtime news. No one paid much attention to what he said next. “Last night, Idi Amin Dada announced that all Asians were to leave Uganda within 90 days.”
There was a pin drop silence for some time, then suddenly everyone started talking in loud voices. “Papa, did you hear that? Who the hell does Amin think he is, to order all Asians to leave Uganda! I bet this is a joke by some mischievous person. Why should Amin make such an announcement?”
Actually no one believed that this announcement was genuine. We had to wait for Monday’s newspaper to confirm it. Well, on Monday, all the newspapers were splashed with the headlines: ‘Idi Amin Dada had a dream to get all Asians out of Uganda within 90 days.’
Just a few months ago, we were enjoying life in our small town, with our family, our neighbours, without any indication of the coming disaster! As the saying goes, ‘live the moment fully every day for you do not know what may be waiting at the next corner’.
That’s true, we lived life to the full, until the next morning when we were ordered to leave Uganda within 90 days! How could Amin do this to us! We had no answer to that and just threw our hands up in frustration.
I had left Nairobi, my birth place, to come to Uganda after getting married into the Dogra family. All my school friends, my parental family, relatives, were left in Nairobi. To think I’ll never see them again was heart-breaking.
The procedure of getting the passports, etc, in order as well as booking for our flight to the UK was an ordeal itself. Because we lived outside Kampala, we had to make constant journeys for completing the travel formalities. Moreover, travelling was dangerous as well. The army was always stopping us to check what was inside the car – of course every time they stopped the car, they had to be given a bundle of fresh currency notes. Anyone hesitating was sure to feel the end of their guns first, and then they would pull the trigger.
Those last days were spent in fear. No one was allowed to go out after seven due to the curfew. Amin’s soldiers thrived patrolling streets at night. We used to hear gun shots most of night time.
I remember one of our customers, an English couple, had thrown a farewell party at their residence on the outskirts of Gulu. That was the last time all the people we knew in our town had got together. It was a nostalgic gathering because after leaving our home everyone would be going wherever their destiny was going to take them.
The deadline was approaching fast. Most of the people had gone to Kampala. We were getting a bit scared now because recently we came to know one Ismaili family had suddenly disappeared. The police had found the main gate of their house wide open. When they went in, they found some suitcases, boxes and bags in the hallway. The bedrooms were empty but there was a lot of blood in the hallway going towards the main door of the house.
Some of the policemen were our customers, we had given them some of our cars free of charge and they kept us informed about the misdeeds of the army.
It wasn’t safe to walk alone outside your house late at night; the army had followed one of the family members quietly entering the house. He must have gone out to see a doctor because there was an elderly family member who had been coughing badly. According to the police, the army had brutally taken the young man by pulling him by his neck and thrown him in the back of their jeep. No one knew where the young man was taken. As for the rest of his family, no one ever knew what happened to them. Five members just disappeared!
Now, we were getting really scared. We didn’t care what was in our house – we had left everything in its place. All our office paperwork, other household stuff we had to get rid of by lighting a big bonfire. This was the last month of our stay in Uganda. We were sorting what to take, what to get rid of. The money we had worked so hard to make was useless now in our hands. We were allowed to take only 200kg of luggage per family besides our suitcases.
Our parents were going to India while the rest of our family had decided to go to the UK. So, Papaji had packed most of the machinery from the garage in big crates and sent them to India. Unfortunately, none of the crates reached their destination. They were never released because the storage charges were sky high. Our parents went to Punjab leaving their goods at Mumbai docks.
We were fortunate to have sent our goods to the UK, where the government delivered our trunks to the address we had supplied.
Anyway, the day arrived when we had to say goodbye to our past life, to our staff members who were taking over the business to try to run it to the best of their ability. We were all seated in the car, waiting for our father to come. He was cuddling our family dog, Prince, saying goodbye with tears in his eyes.
I think we all had tears in our eyes. It was heart-breaking to leave Prince. We had paid one of our workers to look after Prince, with a heavy heart we left the place we had called home to go towards an unknown future.
But we had to go to Kampala first. I thought, we were so lucky to have a helping hand from the town’s DC (District Commissioner), who made sure that we’ll be assisted while going to Kampala. So, at the army checkpoints, we shouldn’t face any problems.
Problems came while we were boarding the waiting plane at Entebbe airport. We were in a queue – I had taken off my gold earrings and chain and put them in my husband’s coat pocket. Some of the army men had seen me do this and quickly came towards us, for a moment I thought, ‘he’ll shoot me’ – but my brother-in-law took him aside and somehow managed to calm him down by giving him a gift of a valuable tape recorder.
Oh God! What a relief we felt when we eventually stepped into the plane. We still had this fear that any time, one of the soldiers will detain us to question us further. I had never prayed as much as I was doing then. Praying for safety of all the people leaving their homeland for good. May God help us for a safe journey.
The British Government had arranged everything for all British passport holders for a secure journey from Entebbe airport to Heathrow airport in London. Those people who did not have British passports had to go to either Europe, USA, Canada or Australia. Families were separated, friends and neighbours had just got lost in that commotion while fleeing Uganda.
I had never been in an aeroplane before so it was like a wonder journey to me, as in a dream, we were guided by the air hostess to our seats. Luckily, we were all together, our family and most of our townspeople, it felt as if we were attending some function all together.
We were tired so we slept throughout the journey. The air hostess’ voice woke me up. We were nearly there – Heathrow airport was right in front of our eyes. I had never seen such a large airport with countless aeroplanes. Some about to take off and some were waiting their turn to do so.
It was the morning of 1November 1972. We could feel the biting cold on our faces as soon as we came out of the plane. We had been told beforehand that some warm clothing will be waiting for us at the airport reception lounge, where we saw rows of woollen coats and jackets for men, women and children. In fact, the English public had donated the clothing from their wardrobes.
The lady who was guiding us stopped walking when she saw me hesitating to touch the coats. “I can understand what you are feeling ma’am, but these coats are in very good condition as they have been given willingly by the British public – to help to protect you people from the severe cold. You can discard them once you have acquired your own clothing.”
I felt very ashamed of myself so I quickly gave her a smile and started to select suitable coats and jackets for the family, no need to say they really looked as good as new. For the first time I realised how kind these English people were to us. I had read a lot of stories about refugees in various countries from Burma, India and Pakistan – especially during partition time and thought all refugees were treated in the same way.
The revelation that we were in the category of ‘refugees’ suddenly hit me and for a while I was dumbfounded. Looking around at all the passengers who were being instructed to get into the waiting coaches, I realised we were being taken to some unknown place. After the long journey on the plane, we had to make another journey by coach, actually they were luxury coaches, with heating and comfortable seats.
It was 10 pm at night when we arrived at our destination. We had been told that we’ll be accommodated at the army barracks. These happened to be situated at Doniford, a small town not far from Taunton, Somerset. I was surprised that the resettlement board had our details and had arranged comfortable beds for each member of the family.
It was late and we were tired, still we were taken to the canteen hall where the chairperson gave full details about how we were going to live in those camps until suitable accommodation was allocated according to the requirements of each family.
Lastly, we were shown the toilets and shower rooms. I was surprised to see the perfect arrangement they had made for our comfort. The place looked so clean after the dusty places back at home – no it was home no more. Destiny had written another chapter for us, this chapter was to start on English soil.
I salute the authorities of that time that everything was done to make our stay in the camps as comfortable as possible. There were sufficiently furnished rooms for every family. For breakfast and dinner, the canteen provided good food, vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Laundry vans would come after a week to collect used bedding, etc and replace them with fresh covers. There was a doctor’s cabin as well as a reception office, where we’d get information about availability of suitable accommodation in various parts of England, Wales and Scotland.
One thing that caused embarrassment to us was the way some people treated the toilets. It took only one day for some irresponsible persons to make these clean toilets into a messy dirty place.
Next day, my husband called all the men from our billets. “Look, we have been provided decent facilities by the authorities but this is England, not Africa – we won’t get any cleaners here, we have to do our own cleaning. So, it is for everyone’s benefit for us to help clean the shower rooms and toilets ourselves by taking turns.” That talk did the trick even though there were still some lazy and messy people amongst the crowd.
The daily life in the camps became a routine and we started getting bored. After two months, we decided to visit London to see the Christmas decorations; no offer had come for us but some large families had already accepted offers of suitable accommodation in Wales, North of England and Scotland. We wished then good luck and decided to go to London to look for jobs and to rent a suitable accommodation. So, we said farewell to the camp life and started the journey of our new life.