Today, when African refugees flee to Europe to seek asylum, they meet with hostility at European borders. But there was a time, such as before and during World War II, when European refugees flocked to Africa to seek sanctuary. Our correspondent, Curtis Abraham, has been touring some such refugee camps in Uganda, which for more than a decade was home to thousands of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian World War II refugees. Here is his story.
Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of the overshadowed distances… And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”
So says the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s vividness and so-accurate description were not merely born out of literary imagination – Conrad experienced Congo firsthand. He captained a trading steamer on the Congo River in 1890 and 1891, before the rubber boom, when ivory was still the principal item of trade.
On 21 December 1903, he wrote a letter to Roger Casement, the British consul to the Congo Free State, whom Conrad had met while in Congo personally investigating and exposing the evils of the rubber trade. It was an evil that resulted in nothing less than genocide.
And although Conrad made little contribution to the actual reform campaign, the barbarism of King Leopold’s imperialist ambitions and the pogrom that took place in the heart of Africa is forever encapsulated in the damning words which Kurtz, the dishonoured custodian of the story’s Inner Station, utters as he lies dying: “The horror, the horror”.
What was unarguably the first genocide of the 20th century would be overshadowed a generation later by the horrors of the Holocaust and Stalin’s deportation camps. But history not only repeats itself, it sometimes does so in paradoxical style. For Joseph Conrad was a Pole born in the Ukraine, and it was the Poles (and to a lesser extent, Ukrainians and Russians) who would seek refuge over a generation later near the heart of Africa, fleeing the horrors of the Nazi death camps and deportations.
Their journey to East Africa was nothing less than an epic human odyssey. Through it all women had to endure the heartache of losing their menfolk through war, deportation and imprisonment. Life in most of the camps was miserable and dehumanising. The relatives, friends and children of these exiles died miserable deaths from cold, disease, accident, malnutrition, and broken hearts.
According to the writings of Rennie Montague Bere (1907-1991), a Cambridge University-educated colonial officer in Uganda who was later put in charge of the two refugee camps, there were an estimated 35,000 Polish refugees in Eastern and Southern Africa.
The majority of the refugees originated from eastern Poland, on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact line (a defensive alliance signed by Hitler and Stalin on 23 August 1939), just before the start of World War II. Evidently, there were also a small number of Jews who managed to flee Hitler’s tyranny to East and Southern Africa. According to Dr Lwanga Lunyiigo, an African historian formerly of Makerere University in Uganda: “The refugees from Europe [who stayed in Uganda] also included Jews as well.”
The first group of an estimated 17,000-19,000 Polish refugees arrived in Africa around 1942. Their ships docked at Mombasa, the Kenyan port, and from there they scattered in various directions in East and Southern Africa – from the Equator to the Cape of Good Hope. These countries included: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In all, there were 22 different camps for displaced Polish persons. In total these camps held some 17,000-19,000 people, including 3,500 older men who were unfit for military service, 6,000 women, and approximately 8,000 children, including some 1,500 adolescent girls. Since children were the vast majority of the refugees, the Polish women united to develop lively and creative communities in which to nurture and educate their children.
It was in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, that the refugees got their first glimpse of Africans close up. “They look friendly and smile a lot. Their teeth, exposed in a broad grin, are sparkling white but their smooth, shiny skin is much darker than I expected. Some wear long white gowns [Muslims], but the majority have merely a loincloth and rows of bright beads around their necks. It seems their role is to serve the white people. They fetch and carry or just stand around for orders,” writes Barbara Porajska in her book, From The Steppes to the Savannah.
In the book, Porajska tells her experiences as a nine-year-old girl in rural Poland who, because of World War II, ended up with her mother and several thousands of other Polish refugees in Uganda. After the War, she and her mother left Uganda for England.
For Porajska, Uganda was to be her home for several years. She described it as, “a beautiful African country by the shores of Lake Victoria”.