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Amin expulsion: 37 years later, Asians tell why some never left

By Zohran Kwame Mamdani

Thirty-seven years ago on August 4, 1972, Ugandan Asians woke up to very grim news: President Idi Amin – allegedly inspired by a dream of ridding the country of exploiters, hoarders and economic saboteurs announced that all Asians must leave the country within the next 90 days.

It was a day Ugandan Asians will forever remember; the day that would change their lives  forever.

Although many initially dismissed the directive as unenforceable, it became painfully clear as the days wore on that this was not the case. With the final day coming closer, businesses were abandoned, houses deserted, and lives packed into suitcases. By the 90th day, the once flourishing Asian community had seemingly disappeared without a trace. Yet, within the country, a few hundred Asians remained, refusing to leave the land they called home.

Why did they choose to swim against the tide, even when it was increasingly clear that the Amin government entertained no excuses?

The Karmali family was one such which chose to stay  for better or for worse. Although Yusuf Karmali initially left and only returned to Uganda in 1975, his brother Amir Karmali, otherwise known as Mukwano, remained throughout the Amin years. Yusuf who is managing director of Gomba Fishing Industries Ltd cannot say exactly why many Asians risked and stayed.

Its difficult to identify why they stayed back. Theres no particular reason that you can pinpoint. Mukwano did not have anything here if you ask him why he stayed back, hell say because of an opportunity to do something later on, he told The Independent.

But for others, it was a question of nationalism, never mind that opportunity did come later. This was home, the only home they had ever known. This was their country.

Otim John Chandy’s family was one such. Currently a manager at Malaysian Furnishings, Chandy said his father’s integration into the community was instrumental in his decision to stay. His father was a chemistry teacher in Lira.

“The community liked him so much, he was considered a Langi. Even when I was born I was given that name (Otim) from there. He thought of himself as one of the people, and they considered him as one of their own,” he said.

Unlike the Chandy family who were of modest means, the Alam family had substantial property in the country, which reinforced their nationalistic outlook. Zahid Alam, one of the directors of the Alam Group, recalled his father’s decision to stay,

“During that time it was a question of consolidating the family’s interests and as my dad had always been a nationalist, he always told us that this is our country, this is where we belong, and this is where we should invest our money and have our families. Being a nationalist, he hadn’t made provisions to shift enough resources away from Uganda to sustain the large family he had. He just took the bold decision that he would, hell or high water, stay behind,” he said.

But for Dr Mukhtar Ahmad’s family which had been in Uganda since 1926, and yet was prepared to pack up all of their possessions and leave, they ended up staying simply because they were exempted from the expulsion order. Dr. Ahmad, a medical practitioner, explained how his family was given permission by the Amin government to remain in Uganda.

“There was no indication that anybody was going to be exempted from this decree. Then suddenly I got a letter from the Minister of Internal Affairs, Oboth Ofumbi, which said, ‘I have discussed with Amin that since this family has given a lot of service to the community, they should be exempted from this decree. You can maintain your properties, maintain your businesses and can continue working’,” he said.

So what was it like for the ones who stayed? Well, the ninety days only set the tone for a torrid two years to come. Immediately after the deadline, Idi Amin called for a verification process to take place at Entebbe Airport.

“It was a physical roll-call. He called all the Asians up to the airstrip…to check the number that were left behind. There weren’t a lot of Asians really, maybe a few hundred,” Alam recalls the experience.

Along with the roll-call, Dr Ahmad remembers portions of a speech which Amin gave to the remaining Asians, “He gave that speech saying, ‘Though you are citizens, it is not necessary that I give you the leisure of staying in Kampala, you may have to go to Karamoja and dig up land.’ It was a way of instilling fear in others.”

It worked, as many of those present at the airstrip fled. And for the few that remained, life didn’t get much better. Asians who had lived public lives simply went off the radar.

“They never featured in the political, social or economic life of the country. For three years they were living a low profile; maybe just running a garage, just doing something on a very small scale. They only became traders and businessmen after 1975,” said Karmali.

The stayees were particularly wary of Amin’s dreaded State Research Bureau (his intelligence organisation) for whom it was very easy to monitor a hundred or so people. This latent fear brought them much closer to each other.  “All of us would get together at the temple on Sunday…if one person was missing, everyone would get worried, which would prompt questions like, ‘where is this person, why hasn’t he come?,” he added.

Along with surveillance, the Asians had to deal with another concern; the fear of government repossession. Alam explained how repossession was unexpected, in spite of the insecurity of the time. “It seemed like business would continue without significant interference. But then we did get interference during Amin’s time. A couple of our industries were taken over, simply just taken over. A letter sent one fine morning saying this industry had been allocated to so and so and we had to virtually give the key of the factory over to other people. During that time there was a strange combination of uncertainties together with the state security apparatus creating situations of instability.”

This situation was not confined to Kampala and its environs.Â

“Between 1972 and 1974 was the worst time in Lira. SRB was on the rampage with many killings. There was a curfew you couldn’t move after five in the evening, you could not keep the lights on in the house at night,” Chandy said, adding that these restrictions were not specifically a consequence of expulsion but more of retribution against the people of Lira as a whole for being supposed Obote supporters. It is something that would later drive his father out of the country.

“He used to go to the post office to make trunk calls to Kampala. So this SRB guy sits at the post office, listening. I’m from Kerala, South India so my parents speak Malayalam. So my dad called his friend, who was the headmaster of Mengo Senior Secondary School, and spoke to him in Malayalam, telling him that Amin wanted to finish the headmaster at a school called Dr Obote College, because he thought the headmaster was involved with Obote. My father was calling him to warn the headmaster from Obote College not to come back to Lira, because he had come to Kampala for central marking. Somehow I don’t know, I think during the phone call my father’s name was mentioned, and they [SRB] immediately suspected my dad was behind this,” Chandy explained how, soon after, “an informer told my dad, ‘you better take off from this place’.”

For Dr Ahmad who joined the UN office in Uganda, diplomatic status gave something back to his life. “We had all the facilities; day and night armed guard, emblem on the car, the UN flag, yet even with all these things, you were always afraid that something might happen anytime,” he said, adding that as time went on, he found forms of entertainment. “The Indian High Commissioner, Madanjeet Singh, and myself, each night would go out to the drive-in cinema, and we would watch a bit of film, and laugh,” he says.

For the general Asian community, a sense of normalcy returned with the arrival of new members. Apparently, Amin attempted to combat the brain drain by encouraging a new wave of Asian immigration in 1975.

Gaddafi, his closest friend, organised through Pakistan, the coming of teachers, doctors not traders at all, Karmali recalls.

But the most noticeable consequence of the expulsion was the vanishing of basic commodities from the shops. But somehow, there was always a way around.

Commodities started disappearing from the market. No bread, no milk, no flour. I arranged, with my own community of the Pakistanis, that we would buy a VW Combie, and these people would give their orders for what they want, and the car would go once to Kisumu and once to Eldoret and bring their orders of what they wanted, without any duty. They would order their rice, butter, ghee, recounted Dr. Ahmad.

In the end, many will continue to ask whether those who remained look back upon their bold decision with favour or regret. Chandy stated that while his father, of course missed his Indian friends, especially my mum, who became so lonely, he still believes that he took the right decision to leave.

Alam and Karmali also expressed similarly positive sentiments. But Dr. Ahmads words are poignant reflection on the fortunes that arose from an unfortunate event. From the lack of commodities, these new businessmen were born. It was a gamble, an opportunity as it was an open field; there was no competition at all, he concludes.

Yes a gamble it was, one that while laced with danger, rewarded their daring in spades.

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