August 11, 2001
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Once was Uganda: Exiled Indians remember

Ajit Jain in Toronto

A history of pain rolled out as people of Asian origin, mostly Indians, gathered in Toronto to recount the days of 1972 when they were expelled from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin.

"To some extent, 30 years later, the nostalgia of Uganda has been poisoned by the rude exile we had to undergo," said Dushyant Yagnik, a resident of the Canadian province of Quebec.

He was one of 240 people -- all former students and teachers of the Government Secondary School, Kololo, in Kampala, Uganda -- present at the conference at Alliston, north of Toronto.

The participants at the first international reunion came from all parts of Canada, the United States, Britain, Latin America and even Uganda, 30 years after General Amin expelled them on August 4, 1972.

The reunion was a microcosm of India: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Catholics from a former Ugandan society.

Many of them recounted their experiences of how families were uprooted and forced out of the country and how Uganda-born Asian children were declared non-residents, tearing apart many families.

"It was a mini-Partition," said N K Wagle, director, Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, who chaired the conference, referring to the division of India in 1947.

Amin had issued a decree allocating "shops, factories and properties of Asians/Indians to political favourites without considering the capacity of the persons to carry on business", said Mumtaz Kassam, advocate and solicitor in Kampala, who was the keynote speaker at the reunion.

"Consequently, factories closed down and businesses came to a standstill by 1978. The unskilled Africans did not know how to run these assets," she remembered. "Most properties were placed in the hands of the Departed Asians Properties Custodian Board and many were rented out at nominal rates," she added.

Kassam quoted Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni as acknowledging that "our [Uganda's] ability to attract new investment from abroad depends on how we handle the return of Asians' properties".

Kassam said she herself had handled 60 per cent of cases dealing with repossession of properties of Asians. Of the 8,000 that were expropriated, 4,012 have been returned to their rightful owners, 1,300 have been offered for sale in public auctions and there is a residue of outstanding claims.

But few of the other speakers seemed inclined to go back to Uganda as they had all settled down and succeeded in businesses and professions in the West.

Zulema de Souza, who was a teacher at the Kalolo school, said emphatically, "I won't go back and my reason being I lived in fear in Uganda. I came from India where I lived in freedom. I went to Africa without knowing what they would do to you and I never felt attached. I always felt I was in a foreign land."

"I won't even go back to visit Uganda," said this leader of the Goan community, "forget about going to live there."

"After being uprooted, they worked very hard and almost all of them have succeeded and their story is an Indian story of success: how they have succeeded against all odds," added Toronto University's Wagle.

Indo-Asian News Service

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