30 Years
HomeThe Uganda Asian Interlude

Extract from book :- Pages 49-50. 51
The Path of Duty
by Brigadier G.H.B. Beyts - DSO. MBE. MC
Casa Linda. Apartada 124
Nerja Malaga. Spain

Chapter 17. The Uganda Asian Interlude

In late August 1972, I was asked on the telephone by a past colleague in the Kenya Administration whether my wife and I would be prepared to supervise the reception of the Asian community, whom Amin was about to expel from Uganda. After we got the promise of help from kindly neighbours to look after our house, we confirmed we would arrive at Stradishall Air Base in Suffolk by the following day. On our arrival we found the WRVS and the Medical Authorities had already started under the inspiration of the MP Eldon Griffiths, to make this disused camp habitable. Three days later the first plane load of dejected Asians arrived at Stansted Airport, and thence to our Camp, where a large number of officials and the BBC were present to greet them. There was also a large curry lunch already waiting, but most of the Asians preferred fish and chips, so the curry was gratefully consumed by the many volunteers who had not had the time for a square meal for some days.

The following day I was told to proceed to the United States Air Force Base at Greenham Common near Newbury. This was quite a different problem, as the United States Embassy had to be contacted before I could even make a start. This was due to security reasons as Greenham Common was an operational Air Base, but once the "go ahead" was given the American Station Commander and his family rolled up their sleeves and set a fine example. So did the Salvation Army, under Major Stevens and his wife, who contacted the local churches to call for volunteers. The response was magnificent as also was the homely hospitality afforded by the kindly folk around Newbury to our unfortunate Asians.

There were 65 Barrack Blocks double storied and each with a capacity for 32 adults, to be cleaned and made habitable. as they had lain empty for eight years, their water pipes and heating systems had rusted, the windows were broken, roofs leaked and they were all in a filthy condition; yet we had to be ready by the 18th day for the influx of refugees-a name that was changed to "newcomers" to sound more sympathetic. We found that the kitchen ovens could not cope with Asian food, so a complete set of new kitchen equipment had to be installed. Unfortunately we could not change the antiquated steam heating which frequently broke down, so that the rice was often unedible and had to be thrown away.

The Asians had no previous experience of European sanitation, nor of maintaining cleanliness in their quarters, as this had always been done for them by African servants. Many of them only spoke Gujerati or Ki-Swahili, so special English classes had to be started for the adults, many of whom disliked the idea of being taught. As however I pointed out that they would have to fend for themselves on leaving our Centre we used to take them to the Supermarkets, and the Post Office in Newbury to teach them in a practical way. The children on the other hand, spoke English reasonably well, and were keen to adapt themselves to the English way of life, much to their parent's discomfiture as they found their strict parental control slipping away.

To make life more interesting for them, I formed as Asian Committee under an Asian Chairman, the first of whom was a Bristol University graduate and he was followed by an ex-Captain in the Pakistan Army. This committee organized Cinema Shows, and Asian Dancing, a Welfare Centre with indoor games, a shop stocked with Asian fare, a barber's shop, a library and appointed Asian volunteers to help the canteen staff to cook Asian food.

The Asian Dance Team was very popular at local Church Halls and Clubs, where they raised money for local charities as a token of their gratitude. Southern Television also made an excellent ten minute film of their dancing.

Christmas Day will always be remembered as they all attended the American Chapel to hear the Bishop of Reading, address them. Hardly an of them had ever entered a Christian Church before, but under the guidance of our Salvation Army colleagues they sang the carols and one Christmas hymn remarkably well. The USAAF provided a Christmas tree festooned with cotton wool to look like snow flakes, and toys were given by Father Christmas mounted on an American jeep.

The Royal Berkshire County Council had been of the greatest help from the start, providing Teaching Staff from Nursery School to Secondary School level, and admitting 35 teenagers to Newbury Technical College, where they obtained two A level and eleven O level passes in their short stay.

During the ten months of its existence some 4,000 Asians passed through Greenham Common, and all of them were found homes by our Resettlement Staff loaned from the Civil Service or Inland Revenue. The already overcrowded Asian Communities of Brent, Southall, Leicester and Bradford were avoided, but as so many had relations in those places they could not be prevented from joining up. There were some difficult cases such as those with more than one wife, as separate houses had to be found for each wife and her children. We had two such cases, each involving two wives with five children apiece. Then there were the orphans who had to be found foster parents, and regrettably some who were deranged or lonely seniles.

Some wanted to return to the land of their birth, which was Gujarat State in India; about ten families did so. Others wished to go on to Canada, including our brilliant surgeon, who had helped in our medical Centre. He had studied in South Africa and now has a practice in Toronto. The Scandinavians, too, offered a home to those who knew about forestry, of which there were a few.
The most difficult period undoubtedly was the initial phase lasting six weeks when bus-loads would arrive from Heathrow at all hours of the day and night. Meals had to be ready as short notice, and our volunteers worked round the clock snatching food and sleep as and when there was a lull. It was wonderful to share in such an act of mercy, and our Asian 'newcomers' still keep in touch with us. As a lasting token of their gratitude our Asian Chairman presented framed pictures of Uganda wild life suitably inscribed, 'In lasting gratitude-Uganda Asians-Greenham Common 1972-1973', to both the USAAF Station Commander, and the Chairman of the Royal Berkshire County Council.