| Idi Amin
London, Aug. 16: On hearing today of the passing away of Idi Amin, the man who blighted their lives over 30 years ago, no one in the Ugandan Asian community actually said: “I’m glad he is dead.”
It is not difficult to understand why. All passion has been spent, the time for tears long since over, a new generation has been born in Britain and life has moved on.
“Uganda’s loss,” almost everyone is agreed, “has been Britain’s gain.”
This is especially so in Leicester, a Midlands city where industry was practically dying and which has been restored to health and vigour by those who came as traumatised refugees.
And yet, the story is not quite that simple. Some in the older generation, who left behind more than their homes, properties and businesses, have never quite recovered psychologically from losses too deep to fathom.
As only those who have been born and brought up in Africa know, the continent has a hypnotic quality. Once it gets into a person’s soul, the former refugees like to say, its hold can never be entirely loosened. Even by the standards of Africa, Uganda was and still is an exceptionally lush and beautiful country. Only memories now remain in yellowing photographs preserved in Ugandan Asian homes in Leicester, Wembley and Harrow.
On being told of Amin’s death, an elderly Hindu woman, who, like her husband, has been in and out of hospital these past 30 years, simply said: “I am going to have a bath.”
For her, this signified a ritual washing away of evil.
In 1993, Tilusha Vyas, by then a BBC World Service journalist, went back to do a documentary on the land she and her family had left behind after Amin’s August 6 decree giving Asians 90 days to quit.
“I was a little girl in 1972 when I arrived at Stansted (airport) with my mother and sister. We were cold, my mother was crying all the time and we had no idea where my father was,” she recalled.
That they had been forced to abandon their home and their supermarket business appeared less important in comparison.
“For two years, we had no word of him,” she said. “We were moved to a camp at Yeoville. We didn’t know if he was alive or dead. Then, through the UN, we heard he had been sent to a camp in Vienna.”
The family was eventually reunited in London, where Vyas now lives with her parents.
“When I did the BBC documentary, I found our house on the straight road from Kampala and Entebbe which had been my home. In my imagination, I could hear my dog, Raja, bark. I was in tears. Then, I realised this was no longer my home; Britain was. I was an outsider looking in.”
For Ugandans, she discovered, Amin’s rule from 1971-79, had been even more disastrous. “Many more Africans than Indians died during his rule,” she said. “We were lucky. We got out alive. Maybe he did us a favour.”
On learning of Amin’s death, she felt drained. “I have no feelings,” said Vyas.
The reaction of Manzoor Moghal, who fled “in the middle of the night with my elderly father and my family” after being warned he was on Amin’s hit list, was surprisingly generous.
Moghal, who was in his late twenties when he arrived in Britain, settled in Leicester, which took the bulk of the 30,000 Ugandan Asian refugees who were admitted to the UK. He worked in finance and has become one of the most respected personalities in Leicester through his work in race relations.
As a young man, Moghal would often visit Amin and came under his spell. “He was a remarkable man, affable, with charisma, who laughed and joked a lot,” he explained. “But he wasn’t a buffoon. He was a person who could have someone killed instantly if he felt threatened.”
In 1986, puzzled by the “Jekyll and Hyde” nature in Amin’s personality, Moghal went to Jeddah, and found himself being entertained for a whole evening by the old, friendly Amin, now in exile.
“I have no love for Amin, I suffered a lot under him but he was remarkable,” commented Moghal. “As I left at 1am, he said, ‘tell the Asians to go back’. He was apologising for having expelled the Asians. He knew Uganda’s economy had crumbled under his regime.”
But the innocence and the old Africa are gone. No one is returning, emphasised Amin.
“Leicester has benefited from the injection of Ugandan Asians. They have created a lot of wealth, thousands of jobs, and there is no racial tension. The younger generation of Asians have gone into the professions — law, medicine, accountancy, industry. Not many are shopkeepers. There may be nostalgia among those who came in their twenties but among those born in the UK there is absolutely no nostalgia.”
Time in Nazmu Virani’s family has turned full circle. He was 24 and remembers the mad dash to the airport with his wife and daughter, Shaila, barely a year old.
One of his family friends, who was determined the soldiers would not have the currency he was prevented from taking out of Uganda, piled the notes into a car and set the vehicle alight.
The soldiers, who lined the route to Entebbe airport and stripped fleeing Indians of jewellery and cash, shot the man.
“On the flight out, there was a a woman who was crying,” said Virani. “She had been able to leave with only £500. I laughed and said we didn’t have enough money to buy milk for Shaila. She gave me £20.”
Virani became a property tycoon in Britain, the outstanding success story among Ugandan Asians. But his company, Control Securities, collapsed amid controversy.
He has started from scratch again, this time with Shaila, now 31, in charge. His two sons, Rahim and Karim, both born in Britain, have graduated with excellent degrees from Manchester and Oxford universities, respectively.
Virani’s thoughts on Amin were remarkably charitable. “Our religion teaches us to forgive,” said Virani, an Ismaili. “When he gave us 90 days to leave the country, over 60,000 Asians, the entire community, prayed for him to stay alive for that period. If anything had happened to him, we would all have been massacred.”
And his reaction to Amin's death'
“We have forgiven him,” sighed Virani. “We hope (Yoweri) Museveni (the current president of Uganda) will give him a good funeral. The past is the past.”
For the Indians who left, it is and it isn’t.