In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
=== News Update ===
In the early 1950s, Mau Mau rebels murdered 32 people in an uprising against colonial rule in Kenya. Britain’s response was brutal: 150,000 Kenyans were detained in camps where, survivors claim, prisoners were beaten, tortured, sexually abused and even murdered. Fifty years on, a handful of them are suing the British government. By Chris McGreal
Friday October 13, 2006
It has been 50 years and there is much to remember. But what still stands out from his time in the camps is a tall white man in shorts with a swagger stick. “When we first arrived we didn’t know who he was, but we quickly knew he was in charge,” says Espon Makanga. “All the other whites and the black guards waited for him to speak, and when he gave the order that is when it began. After that it never really stopped. I came to hate that man. I can never forgive him.”
Makanga, now 78, had already endured more than two years as a prisoner of the British when the colonial authorities sent him to Kandongu camp in Kenya in 1957. He describes life in the earlier camps as a routine of tortures, beatings and typhoid that claimed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.
But Kandongu was designed to be the toughest stop on what British officials described as the “pipeline” of camps intended to break down the “hard core” of Kenyans supporting the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule, which began in 1952. Hard core did not mean the worst killers, merely the most defiant.
The camp enforced a regimen known as the “dilution technique”. It was designed by three white colonial officials, one of them the officer whom Makanga spotted as being in charge when he first arrived at Kandongu, and whom he and the other inmates came to fear. They had various nicknames for that officer, but it was only in time that they discovered he was really called Terence Gavaghan. “He was a tall man with a thin face and we soon discovered his camp was about nothing more than being beaten and tortured. They beat us from the day we arrived, with sticks, with their fists, kicking us with their boots. They beat us to make us work. They beat us to force us to confess our Mau Mau oath. After a year I couldn’t take it any longer. Gavaghan had won,” he says.
Makanga was just one of the estimated 150,000 Kenyans held in British prison camps for up to seven years during what was known as the Kenya Emergency, a rebellion against colonial rule in Kenya. Today, he is among a group of 10 survivors, all in their 70s and 80s, who took the first legal step in London this week towards suing the British government for what they say was officially sanctioned torture and other human rights abuses.
Some of the former prisoners describe rape and sexual abuse of women; others say they survived camps where inmates were flogged, worked to death, murdered in cold blood or starved. They want compensation but also an apology for what they describe as a system of organised brutality unmatched anywhere else in the waning years of the British empire. Even in the 1950s, the camps were described as “Kenya’s gulags” and likened by officials to Nazi slave labour camps.
The camps were justified, in British eyes, by the Mau Mau’s butchering of 32 white settlers and African chiefs loyal to the crown early in the rebellion. The Mau Mau were dominated by the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, and were largely driven by bitterness at the loss of land to the white settlers. But the struggle also divided the tribe, and the Mau Mau ultimately killed far more fellow Kikuyu than whites, with massacres such as the killing of 120 men, women and children at Lari in March 1953. In Britain the Mau Mau were portrayed as representing the re-emergence of a primitive bloodlust that the twin benefits of colonisation – Christianity and civilisation – were intended to eradicate. But the British soon proved they could be as brutal as their enemies.
Jane Muthoni Mara is among those taking legal action against the British government. She was 15 when she was arrested for supplying Mau Mau fighters with food and taken to Gatithi screening camp. There she says she and two friends, including a young boy, were beaten with the butts of guns. Her interrogators demanded to know the whereabouts of her brother, who was a member of the Mau Mau. Mara says she was ordered into a tent by a white army officer. There was a black soldier from her area she knew as Edward. He ordered her to lie down and asked her where her brother was. When she did not answer, he picked up a bottle. “He filled the bottle with hot water and then pushed it into my private parts with his foot. I screamed and screamed,” she says.
Mara says other women were also tortured by having bottles thrust into their vaginas. “For older women, Edward would use bigger beer bottles, but for us younger girls it was smaller soda bottles,” she says. “The next day we were forced to sit with our legs in front of us, and the African guards marched over them in their army boots. We were often beaten.”
Mara was later tried and sentenced to three years in prison for Mau Mau membership. “We were taken to Embu prison. A lot of people died there of typhoid. We were forced to do work carrying bricks to build a school. We were beaten if we moved too slowly. It was very hard work,” she says. “They would just flog everyone at times, four or five guards with whips would come into the cell.” She was finally released in September 1957, but never saw her brother again. She says she never recovered from the sexual violence and for years was frightened of sex with her husband.
Terence Gavaghan is 84 now and lives in London. His former prisoners do not accuse him of the worst crimes committed in some of the camps, such as the sexual abuse or killing. But they do say that the camps under his authority enforced a regime of systematic brutalisation aimed at breaking any resistance to the authority of British rule.
Gavaghan was a colonial district officer when he was recruited to oversee “rehabilitation” of Mau Mau prisoners at six camps in the Mwea area of central Kenya. In his memoirs he describes agreeing with John Cowan, the head of Kenya’s prisons, on a system to force detainees to renounce their support for the Mau Mau that he described as “enlightened, humane and Christian-based”. He also writes that “no legal restraints were envisaged”.
In a telephone interview with the Guardian, Gavaghan says his orders were to end the defiance of inmates who were viewed as a block toward economic and political progress on the way to independence. He declines to discuss whether he ever used the beatings described by Makanga on prisoners, or other specifics of how he broke the hard-core Mau Mau, other than to say he was intent on ensuring that on release they would “not be demonstrating defiance”.
He also says he cannot be expected to remember a few individuals from among the mass of detainees who passed through the camps under his authority. “It would not be sensible to answer questions about people I cannot remember who say I did things I did not do,” he says. “I decided on a process, with the agreement of the attorney general, Eric Griffith-Jones, which led to their release within a year. And that was achieved without a single death, and no ill-treatment.”
Griffith-Jones was Kenya’s top law officer during the emergency. In June 1957, he visited Kandongu to watch Gavaghan at work and wrote a secret memo detailing what he saw. The memo was attached to a letter, also marked “secret”, from the governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, to the colonial secretary, Alan Lennox Boyd. In it, Baring says that Gavaghan had established a regime of beatings as a means to break the prisoners and that the government needed to give it legal cover, as violence was “in fact the only way of dealing with the more dyed-in-the-wool Mau Mau men who will be our problem in the future”.
Griffith-Jones says he and other colonial officials were shown around Kandongu by Gavaghan, who “participated in the proceedings and maintained, in conjunction with the senior prison officers, direct personal control over the proceedings”. Those proceedings were to oversee the intake of 80 Mau Mau detainees over whom “camp discipline” was to be swiftly established. This included shaving their heads and beards, and requiring them to wear prison uniforms.
“Any who showed any reluctance or hesitation to do so were hit with fists and/or slapped with the open hand,” wrote Griffith-Jones. “This was usually enough to dispel any disposition to disobey the order to change. In some cases, however, defiance was more obstinate, and on the first indication of such obstinacy three or four of the European officers immediately converged on the man and ‘rough-housed’ him, stripping his clothes off him, hitting him, on occasion kicking him, and, if necessary, putting him on the ground. Blows struck were solid, hard ones, mostly with closed fists and about the head, stomach, sides and back. There was no attempt to strike at the testicles or any other manifestations of sadistic brutality; the performance was a deliberate, calculated and robust assault, accompanied by constant and imperative demands that the man should do as he was told and change his clothes.” Griffith-Jones says that eventually all of the new intake submitted.
“Gavaghan explained, however,” Griffith-Jones’s memo continues, “that there had, in past intakes, been more persistent resistors, who had had to be forcibly changed into the camp clothing; that some of them had started the ‘Mau Mau moan’, a familiar cry that was promptly taken up by the rest of the camp, representing a concerted and symbolic defiance of the camp authorities; that in such cases it was essential to prevent the infection of this ‘moan’ spreading through the camp, and that accordingly a resistor who started it was put on the ground, a foot placed on his throat and mud stuffed in his mouth; and that a man whose resistance could not be broken down was in the last resort knocked unconscious.”
Although Gavaghan says that this regime was carried out with the approval of the attorney-general, Baring’s letter suggests that the routine of beatings was already established and that the colonial authorities were keen to give it legal authority. “We have felt that either we must forbid Gavaghan and his staff to proceed in this way, in which case the dilution technique will be ineffective and we will find that we cannot deal with many of the worst detainees, or, alternatively, we must give him and his staff cover provided they do as they say they are doing,” Baring writes to the colonial secretary. “Put another way the problem is this. We can probably go further with the more fanatical Mau Mau in the way of release than we had ever hoped 18 months ago. But to do so there must be a phase of violent shock.”
In the end, Gavaghan’s methods were approved with “safeguards”, including a requirement for a medical examination and that violence should be carried out only by Europeans. The new regulations permitted force to be used to “enforce discipline and preserve good order” because established punishment “achieves little or nothing”. Such a broad definition opened the way to a regime of perpetual violence endured by men such as Makanga.
Gavaghan came late to the camps, however. The British government’s apparent desire to bring some order and legal cover to the treatment of Mau Mau prisoners was prompted by a string of abuses long before Gavaghan appeared on the scene, and growing questions at home, particularly from the Labour opposition. The camps were one part of a process of breaking the Mau Mau that extended from herding large numbers of Africans into “protected villages” to confiscating livestock and destroying homes.
Espon Makanga witnessed many abuses before he arrived in Kandongu. He had joined the Mau Mau in 1952 when he was 24. Two years later he was shot in his right elbow in a British army ambush, and he lived with the wound for a year until he was arrested and sent to Thika prison camp. “Many inmates in Thika died from beatings and typhoid. We had to bury many of our comrades who died there,” he says.
Makanga was moved to Manyani, where on arrival the prisoners were thrown in a pit of disinfectant. “The guards surrounded us and beat us to force us in as if we were cattle,” he says. “Some people went under and swallowed the disinfectant, which made their stomachs swell up and caused a lot of pain. The camp was under the command of a white officer who frequently gave orders for us to be beaten if he thought we weren’t working hard enough. Some people died from the beatings. Others died from typhoid. They were buried just outside the camps.” One typhoid outbreak in Manyani killed more than 100 inmates.
Another survivor from Manyani is Kariuki Mungai. He says a much-feared punishment was to be forced to carry the overflowing toilet buckets from the cells. “You had to carry the bucket on your head. They were always overflowing with excrement and urine, and the guards would beat you as you ran with it on your head so that it flowed down your face,” he says. In time, Mungai was forced down the “pipeline” and into the hands of Gavaghan. “There was a day when a group refused to work. Gavaghan called all the guards together and ordered that we all be beaten for an hour. Those who still did not work were beaten again.”
Another former prisoner who has joined the lawsuit, Wambugu wa Nyingi, says Gavaghan ordered inmates to walk on gravel on their knees with their hands up for long periods. He shows me the scars to his knees that he says are the legacy of the punishment. “We were terrified of him,” says Nyingi.
Patrick wa Njogu was a Mau Mau general who led a force fighting from the Mount Kenya forest, which was frequently bombed by the RAF, and who lost a leg after he was shot by British troops. He was arrested, tried for the murder of a forestry officer and acquitted. But he was still sent down the camp pipeline. “I remember the preaching and indoctrination,” says Njogu, who says he was held in 15 camps over six years. “And I remember the beatings and the lack of food and the typhoid. When I was in Gathigiriri [camp] I refused to work digging trenches because I had lost a leg. They still beat me as they beat anyone else who would not work. On one occasion they beat me and dragged me around the camp by my remaining leg.”
Back in Britain, Labour MP Barbara Castle was one of those worried by what was happening in Kenya. Among her sources was Kenya’s assistant police commissioner, Duncan McPherson, who was frustrated at being blocked by the colonial government from prosecuting camp officials. He told Castle of several instances in which Mau Mau prisoners were beaten to death or shot, and about the ensuing cover-ups. “I would say that the conditions I found existing in some camps in Kenya were worse, far worse, than anything I experienced in my four-and-a-half years as a prisoner of the Japanese,” he told Castle.
A Kenyan judge, Arthur Cram, offered a damning verdict after an investigation into torture, murder and cover-up at one interrogation centre, not under Gavaghan, by drawing comparisons with infamous Nazi labour camps. “They not only knew of the shocking floggings that went on in this Kenya Nordhausen, or Mathausen, but must be taken to be the men who were said to have carried them out. From the brutalising of flogging it is only a step to taking life without qualm,” he said in his judgment.
The executioners were also working at a rate unprecedented in the final years of the British Empire. At the height of the emergency, about 50 Kenyans a month were being hanged for rebellion. Prominent Britons, including Bertrand Russell, Michael Foot and Tony Benn, wrote to a senior Kenyan cabinet minister objecting to the numbers of people executed for offences other than murder. The letter noted that in the two years to November 1954, 756 Africans were hanged, more than 500 of them for crimes other than murder and 290 for “unlawful possession of weapons”. Only a minority of the 1,090 eventually executed for Mau Mau-related offences during the emergency were convicted of killings.
What some saw as the inevitable outcome of the camp regimes was realised in March 1959 at a place called Hola, where African guards clubbed 11 prisoners to death while European officers looked on. The camp authorities immediately moved to cover up the cause of the killings. When the local district officer, Willoughby Thompson, arrived, he was told that the dead Mau Mau prisoners were overcome by heat and that water had been thrown over them and they had drowned. Thompson described the explanation as “very improbable”, but it was accepted by the colony’s governor, Baring, and passed on to London. The truth came out in part because Nyingi and other prisoners gave accounts at an inquiry into the killing of the 11 inmates. The investigating magistrate, W H Goudie, blamed officially sanctioned brutality for the deaths.
An official report into the emergency concluded that about 12,000 Mau Mau were killed in the conflict. Some historians put the figure much higher. But the numbers are not what concerns the former prisoners now suing the British government. They are worried that their accounts will not be believed in London because the British do not think they are capable of such abuses. “The British see themselves as good,” says Njero Mugo, another veteran of the camps. “But from the day the first missionaries arrived we never believed that the British stood for the rule of law. They stole our land. They treated us as though they had more right to be in our country than we did. Did you know that if you were walking down the street and you met a white person you had to remove your hat?”
At the end of Gavaghan’s tenure in charge of the Mwea camps, a young district officer, John Nottingham, was assigned to take over. Nottingham, who still lives in Kenya, refused. “I heard the most terrible stories about those camps from my fellow DOs. They didn’t surprise me very much. There had long been indications of the brutality,” he says now. “I went to see Gavaghan in his office. He said that people were just roughed up, it wasn’t anything very violent. He described it as being like a good rugger scrum. I went back to Nairobi and wrote possibly the most pompous note of my life. I said I myself think I know the difference between right and wrong, and I also realise it’s not my job to teach the government the difference between right and wrong. But what you’re doing is wrong and I can’t accept this job.”
In his memoirs, Gavaghan describes Nottingham as encumbered by “confused pretensions and attitudes”. Nottingham says there could not have been many colonial officials who did not know the truth of what was going on. “After Hola I was at a meeting with Baring and other DOs at which Baring was asked if he knew about the violence in the camps. Baring answered no, he knew nothing. He said he had given the strongest possible orders that violence should not be used,” says Nottingham. “Outside the meeting I asked Gavaghan if what Baring had said was true. Didn’t Baring know? And Gavaghan said: ‘Of course he knew.’ People in Britain said our people could never do that. But they did. The men who ran these camps were specially chosen from top schools. They didn’t last long before they fell and the whole argument that we’re bringing civilisation collapsed,” he says. “It’s a big lesson”.
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