Chapter 15

 

            Death almost looks cool in the movies, and dying people are given a chance to say goodbye in poetic ways. "To my wife, I lived because you loved me. To my son, take care of your mum for me. To my daughter, I will look in on you from time to time and make sure that you are okay."

            In the Kikuyu detention camps, men died screaming with pliers squeezing their manhood. The women were raped by humans and objects, and died horribly from internal bleeding. According to the colonial British soldiers, the only good Kikuyus were the dead ones.

            One part of the British campaign against the Mau Mau rebellion was directed against the rebels who fought from the cover of the forest, another against the larger civilian population that was thought to have taken the Mau Mau oath and was providing the insurgents with food, shelter, and moral succor. While thousands of Mau Mau suspects were placed in punitive camps, the nearly entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million was rendered suspect and placed in reserves and 'detention' without trial. In short, it was the civilian population that had to bear the greater burden of the war.           

            The women and children were placed in a separate camps from the men, and escorted every morning into the never ending job of digging trenches. Hunger was the biggest problem and thousands died starting with the children and the weak ones. "We have enough shovels to dig graves," the colonial soldiers would say.

            The women's loyalty was also split and they were faced with a big dilemma. The Mau Mau came at night and raided their homes for food. In the morning, the British soldiers would beat and rape them, wanting to know where they were hiding the rebels.

            A story is told of a young woman who was being beaten by soldiers, encircling her. They kicked her everywhere without a care causing her serious internal damage. Her little daughter came running; screaming for her mama and the soldiers trampled her. The last thing the woman saw as she was being dragged away was the body of her daughter lying still on the dirt - dead!

            The men didn't have it easy either and most of them were castrated in brutish ways. They were beaten and forced into labour to break and 'rehabilitate' them. And they were stopped and whipped when they worked too slowly.

            In one of the biggest anti-Mau Mau operation since the State of Emergency was declared, the British troops attempted to remove Mau Mau rebels from Nairobi and place them in Langata Camps and other reserves. Law and order had broken down in Nairobi and murder and manslaughter was on the rise. According to the colonialists, the greater majority of the Nairobi Kikuyu were either active or passive Mau Mau supporters.

            More than 4,000 British and African troops, Nairobi's entire police force and African loyalists were involved in the dawn operation with orders to shoot and kill in case of resistance. They moved from house to house, kicking down doors and draging out women, men and children. The result was 20,000 Mau Mau suspects taken to Langata camp and 30,000 taken to reserves.            

            In one such detention camp in Nyeri, a new prisoner in his mid-twenties was frog-marched through the huts. There was uncertainty on the young man's face as to his fate, and his eyes moved on a swivel to study the camp. Two soldiers escorted him into the yard and tied him to a pole, hands bound together above his head.

            "I didn't do anything," the young man said as he followed them with his eyes. He was angry, unbroken and ready to defend himself both verbally and physically.

            The soldiers ripped his shirt off and exposed a soft torso that could only be as a result of office work.

            “What’s your name?” The soldiers asked nonchalantly as they picked up their whips.

            “Dennis Mungai, I didn't do anything. Why are you doing this to me?” A flash of fear appeared in the man's eyes at the sight of the whips. There was confusion there; a lack of clarity as to his predicament. 

            “Are you a member of the Mau Mau rebels?” The tone was condescending.

            “No. We were rounded up in Nairobi. The soldiers went from house to house purging the city. All of us were arrested and anybody who wasn’t from the kikuyu tribe was released.”

            The soldiers chuckled. “The only reason you were brought here is because you are Mau Mau. Look around you, what do you see?”

            The prisoner looked around and bit his lower lip. He could see huts and skinny men with tired faces watching him; waiting to see what would happen. Most of them were sat on the ground for lack of space to walk around. Those standing had their hands on barbed wire fence staring into the hills and dreaming of a free world that was more of an abstract. This was a concentration camp – one of the many that the Colonial British had built for the Kikuyu population. The camp with a capacity to hold thousands of people was enclosed inside barbed wire, with trenches, watch towers and armed patrols guarding the prisoners. Inside the camp, people were tortured and forced labour was constantly imposed. There was malnutrition and nobody cared in cases of disease outbreak.

            At night, close to 30 men were crammed into tiny mud huts measuring about 20 by 10m. They took turns to cook whatever little food they could get through rations on a communal fire. There were no toilets on camp, and men slept on the ground, or if lucky, on gunny sacks.  

            “I’m not a Mau Mau,” the young man said in a panicked voice. "I work as a clerk in Nairobi doing office work."

            One of the soldiers was positioning himself with a whip in hand.

            “I’m a clerk in Nairobi, I swear. We were all arrested. I didn’t do anything!” There was desperation in the voice.

            The whip came down and cracked on the bare back. A gut wrenching scream pierced the air and squatting men turned their heads to watch. It happened all the time in the camp – the beating and screaming, but still, every time it happened, it had the same effect; people responded with fear, turning inward against each other. They faced the future with uncertainty of who they were, or what they stood for. An old man walked away, unable to watch, a few topless men moved closer, feeling the young man's pain as if their own.

            “Stay back!” one of the soldiers yelled at the men in a voice full of ego and impunity. There were less than twenty British soldiers in the camp, guarding over a hundred homes. But they had rifles and reinforcements not far away. Attempting anything against the soldiers would only add up to the number of dead bodies in the communal cemetery that was already full to capacity. Torture by the British army wasn't just conducted by isolated individual officers, it was systemically purposed to coerce the population to drop their support for Mau Mau rebels.

            The whip came down four more times and tore skin open. There was blood on the whip and in the air. The young man’s body went limp and tears poured down freely. “I’m not Mau Mau,” he cried in a resigned voice. His legs caved in and his knees hit the ground. He dangled loose, hands tied above his head.

            One of the soldiers dropped his whip in frustration and pulled out a revolver. He had worked himself into a fit of anger and was on an unstoppable role. He pointed the gun at the young man's forehead and yelled at the top of his voice. "This is your last chance! Have you taken the Mau Mau oath or not!"

            The young man looked at the gun in disbelief wondering how he had gotten to this point in his life. One moment he had been a clerk working hard to feed his family, and the next, he was about to die. He thought about his wife and his parents and ached for them. He would never see them again. He knew that now. Something happened inside the young man's body and numbness appeared in his eyes. In that moment, he accepted with all his heart that he was going to die, and the tears stopped.

            "Let me do him," the soldier standing to the side said in an eager voice. "You did the last one. Let me do this one."

            The angry soldier hesitated then lowered his gun. "Okay, don't make a mess."

            Just listening to the conversation was unbelievable to the prisoner, and in his moment of near death, he felt sorry for himself and the soldiers. Humans were doomed to crawl back into the dirt where they came from. 

            Finding inner strength, the prisoner raised his right leg slowly and steadied himself as though to rise. The soldiers hesitated and wondered what he was doing. Both of the young man's feet found the ground and he rose to his full height. If he was going to die, he wanted to die standing like a man.

            Suddenly there was a commotion and all around the camp, squatting Kikuyu men slowly stood up and started stomping their feet on the ground.

            "Freedom," a small voice said. Someone picked up the chant and suddenly it became a roar. "Freedom!" the men yelled.

            The prisoner smiled sadly. He opened his mouth and tried to speak but the pain suppressed the sound.

            "I think he wants to say something," one of the soldiers said sounding excited. "Let's hear it then. Are you a Mau Mau rebel?"

            The prisoner's breathing was laboured. He finally managed to ignore the pain and forced himself to take a deep breath. The air sat very still and the camp became very quiet. People watched in awe and realized that something big was about to happen. With all his inner strength, the young man opened his mouth and let out the words that would define his entire legacy. "Freeeeedoooom!" he cried.

            The sound pierced the air like a knife and was rumoured to have been heard for miles. The soldier took a step forward and shot the prisoner in the middle of his eyes. A nerve racking silence followed, and Kikuyu men staring in shock hated themselves for doing nothing. On this very night, a few of them would vanish into the forest and take up arms, but most of them who lacked courage would remain in the camp and pray that God Ngai would rescue them.

            The sudden sound of a lorry made everybody look up, the distraction a relief. The two soldiers gave the dead man one last glance and walked towards the noise. Nothing was sacred to these men and there was no limit to what they could do.

            Twenty British soldiers in brown fatigues jumped out as a lorry pulled in front of the shack at the concentration camp gate. The battalion hurried into parade formation and stood alert as a green jeep roared through the gate and parked next to the military lorry. A man in dark sunglasses stepped out and took his time to assess his surroundings. He was tall and the white hair on his head defined his age. There was an ease in the way he carried himself, a certainty born of having men bend to his every whim. It was Colonel Collins, the man in charge of the not so colourful 47th Regiment of foot.

            The two soldiers who had been torturing the prisoner ran over and joined others in salute of the Colonel. The battalion managing the camp faced the new comers in parade formation allowing space for the Colonel to walk between.

            “At ease soldiers,” Colonel Collins said as he inspected the men. “Did you get anything from the prisoner?”

            “No sir. He took a Mau Mau oath of silence.”

            “I see," the Colonel looked pensive. "Keep trying to collect intelligence from them, but we need to stop killing the prisoners. God knows, we have killed enough of them. Questions are being asked in parliament as we speak about eleven Africans beaten to death at another camp. The kikuyu people are good workers. We need people to work the farms for us. These are your new orders.”

            “Yes sir!”

            Colonel Collins grinned and looked complacent. He did not understand why parliament was bickering over some dead natives. Britain was an empire and Mau Mau insolence needed to be punished. He had ordered many regiments into the forest and rooted out the insurgents. Talk of Mau Mau brutality was propaganda by the British to hide the true numbers of dead Kikuyus.

            “We have a new mission on Sunday,” the Colonel said. “I will need more men and some of you may be asked to pull double shifts.”

            “We are ready sir!” The soldiers stood sharp as expected. Where more troops were needed for war duty, subsequent battalions of a regiment were raised. The Colonel of a regiment remained an influential figure but rarely commanded any of its battalions in the field. The Lieutenant Colonel was the field commander, and sometimes in charge of more than one battalion.

            “Good,” the Colonel said. “There are fifty boys at the Mathari Orphanage and our sources tell us that the Mau Mau is planning a major recruitment. We would rather kill those boys than let this happen.”

            The soldiers stood very still and waited.

            “The Mau Mau will come for these boys and they will find us waiting. We will kill the Mau Mau. The boys will be ‘questioned’ and those found to be working for the enemy will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law upto and including death. Are we clear?”

            “Yes sir!”

            The men were clear alright. The role of the military was to defend the empire and for the army, to control the natives. Seduced by the dark side, the soldiers' faces twitched and eyes gleamed in anticipation. Killing another human being always gave them a rush of adrenaline that couldn't be compared to anything else on earth.

            Nearby in the Kikuyu detention camp, four men carrying shovels could be seen untying the dead prisoner. They raised him shoulder high and carried him towards the communal burial cemetery. They felt sad and broken, but they did not shed a single tear. 

 

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