'My family came to Britain with £700 and reinvented themselves. But the scars remain'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jaffer Kapasi was accustomed to the high life in Uganda, where his Indian-born parents had built a vast business empire. He went to school with an African prince and was surrounded by servants.

That was until 9 November 1972 when the Kapasis were forced to flee Uganda. Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of 50,000 Ugandan Asians after a "prophetic dream" in which God ordered him to "reclaim" the economy for the Africans.

Like most of the 26,000 Asians who fled to Britain, his family arrived penniless, but over the next three decades rose to great prominence. A round-the-clock work ethos led by the Ugandan "rejects" sparked a mercantile revolution and gave birth to today's 24-hour consumer society.

Yesterday, high-profile Ugandan Asians including a bishop, a police chief, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and influential businessmen were not mourning the death of Amin but lamenting his escape from retributive justice.

The Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Rev John Sentamu, fled to Britain in 1974 after suffering serious injuries by Amin's guards. Dr Sentamu, the Church of England's first senior black bishop, said: "The tragedy for Uganda was that it was unable to follow South Africa in its creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at restorative justice. The result was that a dictator who escaped the law was never brought to justice to face his victims and given a chance to ask for forgiveness and make reparation."

Mr Kapasi found himself in Britain aged 18, clutching a single suitcase and £55 in cash. His family lived in a cramped rented flat in Leicester, while many other refugees were housed in resettlement camps.

Now a 50-year-old financial consultant who is treasurer of the Leicestershire Business Association, he said his parents bought a small mini-market in Leicester and worked 12-hour shifts to rebuild their wealth.

"We were regarded as rather bizarre by others because we worked long hours and were the first shops to be open on a weekend and until 9pm every night," he said.

Shailesh Vara, the vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, who was born in Uganda, said while the mass displacement left thousands destitute, they rose to the challenge of reinventing themselves, and by doing so, changed the fabric of their adopted society. "Idi Amin will remain among history's monsters but I know so many who have moved on and contributed hugely towards the British economy," he said. "Asians did not come here with capital. But their perspective was 'what you get out of life is what you put into it'. What they started doing then has become the 24-hour supermarket culture."

But Tarique Ghaffur, 48, assistant commissioner for special crime at the Metropolitan police, said Amin's death had left thousands of Asians with a sense of being "wronged". Mr Ghaffur left Uganda aged 16 for a resettlement camp in Staffordshire. His parents had been displaced for a second time after leaving the Punjab during the partition of India in 1947. "What Amin did was absolutely criminal and he was never brought to trial for it," Mr Ghaffur said.

Whatever successes have been gained in Britain, many are left with a sense of hatred towards the man who expelled them. Farah Damji, 36, editor of Indobrit magazine, was four when her father was placed under house arrest. "My family came to Britain with £700 and reinvented themselves, but I would say the scars of the past remain," she said.

Similarly, Mr Kapasi said his achievements cannot help him forgive or forget an abominable dictator. "Amin was Africa's version of Hitler and putting him on trial would have set a precedent for leaders such as Mugabe."