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When Europeans Were Refugees In Africa

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When Europeans Were Refugees In Africa

British colonial attitude

Britain took on the responsibility for the homeless Poles, but is said to have treated the refugees with hostility. The Poles in Africa led a very difficult life in severely administered camps and were not allowed to mix with Africans. There were only 2,000 British nationals in Uganda at the time, compared with the 7,000 or so white refugees, according to records at the national archives.

Through the colonial period, Uganda’s immigration policy purposely discouraged white immigration and settlement. It is probably this deliberate policy by the British colonial government that was invoked in planning the organisation and control of the Polish refugees’ asylum in Uganda. The colonial authorities ensured that the Poles had minimum or no social interaction with the Ugandans.

However, in spite of the geographic isolation and imposed restrictions, the local Luganda (the language of central Uganda) newspaper at the time reported that although the Poles were Europeans, they acted warmly towards the Africans. So much so that, at least in the case of some of the Polish men, intimate relationships developed. They could hardly have known about the 1936 colonial ordinances banning interracial relationships between white men and black women.

According to Professor Lunyiigo, writing in the East African newspaper about the Poles in Uganda: “The British wanted to maintain the myth of white supremacy, but the Poles didn’t think the same way. These were men who went with local women and drank waragi [local banana gin]. In Bunyoro some of them married the locals. But the British wanted to get rid of them.”    

Since most of the young Polish men were recruited into the army, the majority of the refugees were women and girls. This was a problem according to Bere who admitted that: “A few may have had affairs with local Africans but there were no illegitimate babies and no venereal disease.”

Each of the camps had their share of a small number of prominent visitors, including a former Polish minister of finance who was based in Cairo as minister of state. Feliks Topolski, the war artist, did some drawings as part of a world tour which had taken him from North Africa to China and back again. The Mukama (or King) of Bunyoro paid occasional visits to the Masindi camp, “and greatly impressed the Poles with his old-fashioned dignity. I once took a party of refugees to visit him at Hoima where they were enthralled by the superb drumming of the royal musicians,” said Bere.

These refugees were far from the image of the humble Eastern European peasant. Many of them were well educated and applied their knowledge to the betterment of their respective camps. Among them were engineers who established an electricity plant and a water pump and ran repair garages. They also had five lorries and one ambulance.

Malaria killed many of the Poles, thus making the use of mosquito nets mandatory. The refugees were advised not to go near the damp, humid woods where the mosquitoes bred. Many also suffered from amoebic dysentery. There were three Polish doctors who had a supply of essential drugs and who helped as best they could with the refugees’ ailments.

The dead were buried at Nyabyeya in Masindi, Bombo in Luwero District, and Entebbe, according to records at the Uganda National Archives.

There are about 50 graves with memorial stones in the well-maintained graveyard at one camp, all dated 1942-1948 (when the camp was closed and handed over to the Forest Department), except for a large grave dated 1961.

Occasionally, visitors from Poland come to lay wreaths in the Polish national colours of red and white on a single memorial stone bearing 100 names of people who lie interred below. Such visitors come several times a year these days. They have cleared the bush around the graveyard.

The refugees had originally arrived in groups and they also left in groups and at different times. When World War II ended, the majority of the Polish refugees were resettled in the UK, Canada and Australia in 1948. The Refugee Office in Nairobi handled the resettlement. A few remaining refugees took up temporary employment in Uganda.

In December 1951, the Kojja settlement was finally closed and the two blocks in the centre of it were turned into a Polish Memorial School. By mid-1952 the entire settlement had been dismantled and all the assets sold to bidders.

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