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”.
Kojja and Nyabyeya camps
The two refugee camps in Uganda were built at Kojja and Nyabyeya. Nyabyeya is today within the Budongo Forest Reserve in Masindi District, northwestern Uganda.
The campsite, located some 30km east of Lake Albert at Nyabyeya, was desolate. There were no towns or villages nearby, just a small piece of land that had been hacked out of the lush tropical forest. For several weeks thereafter, hundreds of machete-wielding Bunyoro people hacked out a bigger space, about 3km square, from the rank tangle of bush, roots and elephant grass. Here they constructed temporary mud huts roofed with thatch.
Some of the Polish women, however, became understandably worried at the thought of life in the African bush. They were surrounded by dense forest full of wildlife: “We will be eaten alive by wild beasts,” they cried.
The camp consisted of six small villages and hosted 3,635 Poles. Eventually, these Polish peasant farmers found the area fertile enough to start their own gardens where they grew bananas, pineapples, maize, tomatoes and sunflowers. They kept livestock too.
A second camp had also been established at Kojja in Mukuno District about 100km east of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and about 35km from Mukono railway station on the shores of Lake Victoria. It was located in a beautiful setting on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Victoria, surrounded by water on three sides and forest and savanna on the fourth. At its peak, Kojja accommodated around 3,000 Poles. In spite of its seemingly idyllic setting, the camp was far removed from contact with the Africans and the outside world in general.
The Kojja settlement covered an area measuring over 700 acres and was located on several hills overlooking the lake. Care had been taken in planning the settlement to avoid giving it the look of a military barracks.
Eventually, there would be more than 4,000 refugees at Nyabyeya (Masindi) and 3,000 at Kojja (Mukono). Bere says that by the end of 1943, the total refugee population of both camps would number more than twice the total European population of Uganda.
The coastline of Lake Victoria consisted of papyrus reeds, scrubby bush and lacustrine forest, ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes and tse tse fly. Thus it had to be cleared and compacted over a stretch of about 3km – all by hand. The clearing of the reeds, forest and bush as well as the road-making required a labour force of 2,000 Africans.
During leisure hours, there was bathing in Lake Victoria at certain times, when armed guards would be on duty, lest hippos and crocodiles joined in the fun. Some of the Poles took to fishing. With the aid of an old motorboat, Bere took the refugees on tours of some of the smaller islands in the lake where they watched water-birds and hippos at play.
Food was purchased locally from contractors. Chickens and eggs were plentiful. Vegetables on the other hand were scarce until the Poles started their own small gardens around their huts. Fuel was wood scavenged from the surrounding wilderness. A bakery was eventually established which baked over 1,000 loaves daily.
As Bere says: “The aim was a contented and reasonably self-contained community… the Poles had to be given a sense of purpose.”
Among the refugees at Kojja were two doctors and a couple of partially trained nurses. This was enough, however, for them to build a 50-bed hospital equipped and supplied from the government’s medical stores. A Catholic church was also constructed for the deeply religious Poles. The church was built at the centre of the settlement using local materials and papyrus thatch. A bishop came from Kampala to consecrate it.
Among the Poles were teachers. School buildings were put up. However, school supplies were limited throughout East Africa. “At one stage we actually burnt charcoal to give the children something to write with,” Bere recalled.
The refugees were apathetic at first but as they settled into camp life they gradually recovered an interest in using their various skills. Workshops and village industries, with a simple apprenticeship system for the youth, were started.
There was spinning, weaving, dressmaking, basket making with raffia from the wild palm trees in the forests, carpentry and metalworking. Skins were tanned for leather; lint-cotton was purchased from nearby ginneries.
Land was plentiful for farming. After the Ugandans had cleared away the scrub, ox-drawn ploughs went to work to open up the land. The Poles grew Irish potatoes, cabbages, corn, peas, soya beans, tomatoes and beetroot for the barszcz, a Polish dish. A chicken farm and piggery was eventually established. The latter became “the pride of the settlement” and would produce hams and highly spiced Polish sausages.
From 1945 to 1951, the lakeside hills were dotted with hundreds of buildings that marked a self-contained Polish town. There was also the school, hospital and administrative blocks. The refugees
built numerous standard houses, 15 administrative structures, six stores, 30 kitchens, 30 market stalls, one hospital ward and 12 school blocks. The school still survives, although without the original blocks.
Today, however, all that remains of the town is the cream marble memorial stone bearing the names of the dead. An inscription on it reads: “In memory of Poles” who lived in Uganda in the years 1942-1951. Below the inscription is engraved a list of the 100 Poles who were buried here.
For those who had lived in Valivade in India, they deplored the conditions at the Kojja settlement. In The General Langfitt Story written by Dr Maryon Allbrook and Helen Cattalini, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of Polish refugees who lived in Africa and later settled in Australia, Bogdan Harbuz recalled that upon arrival at camp Kojja, they: “…were slightly disappointed. After the luxury of India it looked rather primitive to us.”
He added: “We felt very dependent on the UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration] for everything, including clothing. Our group from India sort of rebelled. We were not used to the strictness of the camp regulations so we tried to improve the conditions.”
It was the youth among the refugees who found an African setting appealing, with the potential for unlimited adventure. “I was just a youngster and was more concerned with social life, high school and the Scouting movement,” Harbuz remembered. “The rest of it didn’t interest me at the time. I did not have to worry about where the next meal came from. That was my mother’s worry. I liked what I saw around me: the big lakes, the beautiful jungle, the animals, the fruits in the jungle, the Africans. To me it was an adventure.”
Within two years of the refugees’ arrival in Uganda, a unique community life developed in the settlements. Both Kojja and Nabyeya had primary schools, secondary schools and a secondary economic school. The Polish Examination Board established examinations for students. Both settlements had hospital facilities run by Polish doctors and nurses.
The Kojja Hospital subsequently grew in size and by 1943 was able to admit up to 250 patients. It had electricity as well as a waterborne sanitation system. It also had a Polish referral section at the Kampala European Hospital in Nakasero (formerly the Uganda Television Headquarters), also run by Polish doctors and nurses.
Quite a number of the Polish medics had been trained in tropical diseases at Masaka. Trainee nurses normally took Nurses’ Examinations set by the Polish Ministry of Welfare and supervised by a local Examination Board.
Since many of the Masindi Polish refugees were orphans, there were several orphanages in the Masindi settlement. At the end of 1943, the orphanages were regrouped into a children’s village.
From the outset, the objective was to make these settlements as self-sufficient as possible. Women made up the bulk of teachers, orphanage matrons, and nurses. Women generally were engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. Starting with kitchen gardens for each home, the settlements, especially Kojja, had agricultural farms and large-scale poultry and piggery projects. The settlement was able to produce seasoned meat such as ham and sausages on a permanent basis.
The women also did a lot of weaving, and made rare linen cloth from Uganda cotton. The majority of men were artisans such as locksmiths, carpenters and joiners, shoemakers and brick-makers.
Parties were frequent, “their troubles forgotten in laughter, song and violent stomping dances,” recalled Bere. “These parties often seemed to start with barszcz and, when enough eggs could be obtained, ended with the superb cakes for which Poland was famous. Drink flowed with ‘Kojja whisky’ to the fore … hospital alcohol undoubtedly had something to do with it.”
Ugandans who lived near the camp confirm that they remember no mis-demeanours committed by their refugee neighbours. Mr Musambansiko, who worked as a guard at the Kojja camp, agrees. He noted that access to the camp was restricted and could only be granted by the camp commandant’s permission.
Also, permission to leave the settlement for a day’s trip to Kampala was normally handled by the village Settlement Committee. There was a bus to Kampala once a week for those who wished to visit the town on a day’s pass.
Socially and economically, therefore, these settlements, having remained completely self-sufficient, appear to have existed for over nine years without being overtly noticed by those who lived around them. Unconfirmed reports indicated that there were only two cases when men (an Indian and one European) from outside the settlement married Polish women from the camps. A few elderly men, such as F. Ziobrowski and one Mr Jalowiecki, themselves refugees, are reported to have married younger Polish women from the settlement at Kojja.
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.