The amazing man who saved my family from the clutches of Idi Amin

40 years ago, Nina Lakhani's family were among 70,000 Asians driven from Uganda. They ended up in Britain. So how did the upheaval change their lives?

It was 40 years ago that General Idi Amin, Uganda's military dictator, ordered all of his country's 70,000 Asians to leave, in what became one of the largest diaspora since the Second World War. On 4 August 1972, in the sleepy town of Tororo near the Kenyan border where my mum was born and raised, he announced the expulsion, giving only three months for people to pack their bags and leave their homeland.

Amin, who came to power in a military coup in 1971, claimed the "bloodsucking" Asians were sabotaging the economy and taking African jobs. He threatened those who refused to leave with concentration camps, and – chillingly – expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler.

My parents, my brother Deven, aged three, and the extended family were among almost 30,000 Asians who ended up in Britain with £50 each and only the bags they could carry. Everything else – homes, businesses, cars and money – was left behind for employees or to be taken by Amin's men.

As they tried to get out, many people were robbed, some brutally. Few Asians lost their lives, but up to half a million Ugandan Africans were eventually killed during Amin's despotic rule.

My mum, Ansuya Lakhani, said: "We heard stories about bodies floating in the River Nile, dumped by the military in trucks. We were worried for our lives, but it was the Africans that Amin killed, people from different tribes. We left our homes, but we left with our lives."

The Asians were widely regarded in East Africa as the middlemen in a society where racial division – in school, work, housing and leisure – was instilled by the British and accepted unchallenged by most Asians.

"The British lived in Europe town, we lived in our areas and the Africans lived in their villages," my mum said. "That was the way it was. We spoke nicely to everyone, but we only spoke if there was a reason. It was only when we came here we realised that how we'd lived was so wrong."

Indian migration to East Africa was encouraged by the British colonialists, first to serve the needs of the Indian coolies building the great railway and later to help develop the economies.

My grandparents were among thousands who moved to Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania from Gujarat in the 1920s and 1930s, in an attempt to build a better life. My maternal grandmother boarded a steamship at the age of 13 to join her new husband; she did not return to India for 50 years.

Until his decree, Amin had been regarded by the British as a man they could work with. But the expulsion was in part him sticking up two fingers at the Heath government, who he regarded as interfering imperialists, wrongly stopping East African Asians coming to Britain through emergency immigration laws.

Cabinet minutes show how hard the British government tried not only to persuade Amin to re-consider, but to encourage other Commonwealth countries to "share the burden"; they even tried to find an island to dump them on, worried that the public would not tolerate such a huge influx of coloured refugees.

Canada saw the exodus as an opportunity, taking 10,000 of the most educated people before Britain was out of the starting blocks. But three-quarters of Ugandan Asians were British passport holders – citizens with rights, not refugees.

My uncle, Himat Lakhani, who had moved to London in 1962 to study, played a big part in helping the homeless through those traumatic first months, setting-up the Co-ordinating Committee for Evacuation of Ugandan Asians to pressure the government to fulfil its obligations.

But he also motivated an army of volunteers, thousands of ordinary Britons touched by the plight of the new immigrants, who offered to drive, cook, clothe, advise, teach, and even house people from a country many knew little about.

On the very first chartered flight, on 18 September, was Suresh Majithia, who was 29, single and living in the village of Iganga, where he ran a secondary school.

"At first Amin said qualified people like me could stay, but I didn't want to," he recalled. "We were frightened of the military by then and we heard stories about people disappearing."

He remembers going through five army check points on route to Entebbe airport – about 20 miles from the capital, Kampala – as the soldiers helped themselves to anything they wanted, using violence if necessary. "I could see piles of gold and ornaments. They were taking everything."

Once on the plane people were reassured that Britain was expecting them and ready to help, so they tried to forget the newspaper reports about racist protests from the National Front and Smithfield meat porters, and MPs like Enoch Powell. They were welcomed at Stansted airport by the Women's Royal Voluntary Service offering warm clothes, and by my uncle Himat, who tried to match new arrivals with volunteers.

Majithia said: "I was penniless, but I had a brother here, so at least I didn't have to go to a [refugee] camp. I took a week or so to rest and get used to London, but I knew I needed a job if it was going to be OK."

He started work as an accountant for a money-lending company in West London on 5 October. And this desire to work and get on was pretty universal. These were people unaccustomed to getting help, and nor did they want it: most just wanted to get over their old lives and get on with the new.

My dad was among 20,000 people who did spend time at one of 17 refugee or resettlement camps, set up in disused barracks in far-flung places such as Yeovil, Greenham Common and Tywyn. The camps were cold, cramped and isolated, but there was a war-like spirit, with church groups and volunteers on hand with warm clothes and welfare advice.

My dad, who in Uganda had worked in a bank, stayed for almost two months at a former RAF station in Stradishall, Suffolk, and was offered positions as a junior clerk by both Midland Bank and Standard Bank, with a starting salary of £1,400 a year.

But then along came Peter Black, a German-Jewish businessman with a successful shoe and slipper factory in Keighley, West Yorkshire, who had come to England in 1933 as the persecution of German Jews had started to escalate.

His eldest son, Thomas, now 72, said his father was motivated to help another immigrant family because "as a Jewish man he knew what it was like to be persecuted. England made it possible for people like my father to work hard and succeed. He was simply replaying what had happened to him and his family."

My dad took the very difficult and selfless decision to forsake his banking career and leave his extended family, and accept Mr Black's incredible offer not only of a job, but also a rent-free house for a year.

So off they went – my parents and my brother – to a place they had never heard of to start again with the help of a family they didn't know. It was the middle of winter, and Yorkshire was freezing. "The family had prepared the house for us, so there were plates and pans, and even coffee, tea, sugar and milk," said my father. "We were happy to be able to have a cup of tea when we got there.

He added: "We have never forgotten what Peter Black did for us."

Thomas Black said: “My father could see the headlines and made it happen, it was an enlightened thing to do at the time but we were rewarded with a super family who made a great contribution to what we were doing.”

Other members of my family did exactly what the government didn’t want them to, and moved to a ‘red zone’, in their case Leicester, where it was considered to be too full of immigrants already.

Wherever they went, most people were curious and largely sympathetic, if a little clumsy with names and use of the term 'Paki'; some, like the Black family, were incredibly kind and altruistic.

There were of course incidents of racism. My cousin Nikhil Lakhani, a very fair skinned six-year-old, remembers how the kids wouldn’t let him play kiss-chase in the park. “They said I was a ‘blackie’, yet until then I’d always been called ‘mzungu’ which means white in Swahili.”

The Ugandan Asians are considered one of Britain’s most successful immigration stories, among them Tory MP Shailesh Vara, the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and former deputy assistant Metropolitan Police commissioner Tarique Ghaffur.

Others went back after Amin was overthrown, and can be found re-settled in their old towns and cities, though most also have homes elsewhere, in case they ever have to leave again.

Some did much worse here, unable to settle or prosper, though the truth is no-one really knows what happened to them all.

My parents have been back to visit, nostalgic about old times, remorseful about past mistakes, but settled here now as fully fledged British Indians. They were never as financially comfortable, but they fed, schooled, and housed their three children, so they feel they succeeded too.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power