The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, as Mohezin Tejani noted in his Thank You letter published earlier as part of Simerg’s Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures, was “a man for all seasons.” Tejani thanked the late Prince for his multifarious activities which included being the High Commissioner of UNHCR, a collector of Islamic art which will be housed at the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, and a spokesperson on environmental issues. Vali Jamal’s focus in his thank you letter published below is on the role that Prince Sadruddin and the UN played worldwide in ensuring the safety, well-being and resettlement of thousands of Asian refugees who were forced to flee Uganda on Idi Amin’s orders. Although Vali is an Ismaili he writes the letter on behalf of Uganda Asians of all communities who were assisted by the UNHCR. He consulted many people in his book in writing this letter. The Prince was the uncle of the present Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan.
May 23, 2012.
Dear Prince Sadruddin,
How I wish you could read this letter, but all life passes and yours was taken away at just 70 years. I like to think you will feel our prayers as people of all religions and races read this tribute letter to you.
To me as an Ismaili youth you were from the Noorani family, beloved of your father, our 48th Imam. We used to see pictures of you with Prince Aly Shah and princes Karim and Amyn, wearing the fez, your head slightly tilted, since you were taller than the others. We remember you at the Diamond Jubilee in Dar-es-Salaam, quite chubby at 7 years old, on your head a pagri with a feather on it. You were our Wahala Shahzada Sadruddin. Then you became our hero when you were appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1966. In your twelve years you turned the agency around from being Euro-centric to one concerned with refugees world-wide. In 1972 you became a personal hero to all Uganda Asians of all communities when you airlifted around 5,000 of us to refugee camps in Europe from Idi Amin’s Uganda.
It fell on me to write about that 1972 episode in our lives, our place in history. Idi Amin had that dream in which he believed divine instructions were given him to cleanse Uganda of the resident Asian community. We were but 60,000 people then, just 0.75 percent of the population, but goodness, we controlled nearly 75 percent of the non-food parts of the GDP. Amin couldn’t take it any longer. The deadline was ninety days, in some kind of bizarre reference to the 90-days pre-harvest credit Asian traders used to give to the farmers, and a concession as compared to the 90-hours notice Gaddafi, his new-found mentor when the coup-facilitators deserted him, had given to his Italian “blood-suckers.” The British conceded to accept 30,000 of their citizens; 2,000 were paroled in by the USA; 5,000 dispersed to European countries. Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, opened the doors and eased the way for the settlement of 7000, the first time the country received such a large batch of non-White refugees. It is now known that your nephew and our Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, a long time friend of Trudeau, played a major role in this when he picked up the phone during the crisis to ask the Prime Minister to make Canada a safe haven. We have never forgotten Canada’s open doors in our time of need.
We were keeping tabs from Kampala – and so were you in Geneva! Already on 22 September, you wrote to Mr George Ignatieff, Canada’s Ambassador to the UN:
“I wish to thank you for sending me the text of the statement made by the Prime Minister of Canada on the decision to offer assistance to the Uganda residents of Asian origin. Those who find their claim to Uganda citizenship invalidated, and are not recognized as citizens of any other country, might well become refugees under my mandate. I have thus very special reasons for watching this development very closely. I hope the example set by your country will be followed.”
On 24 October, just ten days to the deadline, the Secretary General designated you to assist Asians of “undetermined nationality” in obtaining travel documents and places of resettlement. Around 5,000 people were involved who had either not succeeded in securing residency visas, or who, although confirmed of their Uganda citizenship, were frightened off from any thoughts of staying by Amin’s threats of rusticating them to Karamoja and forcing them to “live like Africans.” Your agency along with the Red Cross and the European Migration agency in a heroic mission picked up 4,572 refugees in 40 flights in just ten days. The stuff of legends — except most of us were gone by then, wondering what all that white stuff on the ground was as the plane came in to land.
That story, respected High Commissioner, is told in my book through the stories of the “real” refugees who ended up in five European countries. How much gratitude they all show to you! Many of them met you personally at the centres. Here are some names that we cite in an honour roll-call: Vinod Kataria (from Traiskerchen camp (Austria) to Sweden); Thanki family (from Naples to Norway); Sherali Ahmed Kassam family (from Malta to Norway to UK), Chandulal Vyas family (Austria to Holland); Razia Ratansi (Naples to Canada); Nilesh Nathwani (Geneva HCR HQ to Vienna).
Here are two vignettes from Naples. You notice an African face among the admiring people thronging you. You ask: “What are you doing here?” And he says simply, “Sir, I am Ismaili.” His name: Pyaralli Virani. Three years later when you visit Vancouver, he comes forward to greet you and says he never wants to go back to “that” country. Also, you become attached to a Karim Hirji. He is bilingual with French. Karim is severely handicapped from two recent car accidents. He says he isn’t feeling too well and would like to miss the Eid prayers. You persuade him to come. You fix him up to be picked up by Denmark. A few weeks on, the family receive a cable that Karim has passed away.
Thank you Prince Sadruddin for being there for us in 1972. That year your agency had been appointed the lead agency for all UN humanitarian action. You were dealing with 10 million displaced persons from Bangladesh, half a million from south Sudan, and similar from Rwanda and Burundi, yet you cared so much for us? You are hero to not just the 4,572 people who ended up in your refugee centers, but to all Uganda Asians.
How wonderful life was
When you and Uganda were in our world.
Copyright: Vali Jamal/Simerg. May 2012.
About the writer: Vali Jamal has a BA from Cambridge (Trinity College) and a PhD from Stanford. He was a Senior Economist with UN-International Labour Organization from 1976 to 2001. His forthcoming book is called Uganda Asians: Then and Now, Here and There, We Contributed, We Contribute.It should be out by October (2012) at 1250 pages, just in time for Uganda’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. He lives in Kampala, Uganda. He pieced together the accounts relating to the HCR’s role in the 1972 expulsion from internal memos at the HCR office in Geneva and from people’s contributed stories for his book. He is shown in the picture on left at the Bulange (Baganda Parliament) to collect an endorsement letter from the Katikiro (Prime Minister) in April 2012 for his forthcoming book.
Vali Jamal’s other pieces on this website:
We invite your contribution for the thank you series. Please click on Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures to read about the series and links to published letters.
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