The Nation (Nairobi)

16 July 2006

Kenya: Unveiling Secrets of Kenya's

Celestino Mbare, 80, a Meru elder, though frail and wrinkled, is still a proud man. As it were, he has lived through a lifetime of Kenya's history and carries memories of the good and the bad of life's triumphs and its tribulations.

On July 10, his voice was heard on the BBC's national radio in Britain, recalling his memories of a day that still haunts him; the day in June 1953 when his friends and agemates were callously murdered by soldiers of the King's African Rifles (KAR).

As he recalled an event that has come to be known as the Chuka Massacre, while walking down the path to the scene of the crime, Celestino spoke emotionally of seeing the corpses of his friends: "A gruesome sight, a very worrying sight," said the old man.

"You saw someone lying there dead; someone you knew, who had been shot."

Celestino painfully relived his memories of an episode that he and other residents have not forgotten in the past 50 years, but which the world learned about for the first time this week.

The Chuka Massacre story is disturbing for many reasons. It raises once again important questions about the actions of British forces in Kenya during the 1950s, and it leads us to wonder why, after half a century, the British government is still unable to square up to what happened?

But it also touches on sensitivities of telling Kenya's own history.

First, a recount the sombre events that took place in Chuka in June 1953, in the midst of the Mau Mau rebellion and Kenya's State of Emergency.

Until June 1953, the Chuka area in the larger Meru district had seen little sign of Mau Mau activity, and there wasn't much support for the rebels. Mau Mau bands were known to be operating from the forest nearby, however, and it was this that prompted the army to mount patrols in the area.

On June 13, 1953, soldiers from the 'B' Company of the 5th King's African Rifles arrived in Chuka to begin a weeklong operation against the Mau Mau units believed to be hiding in the forest. The soldiers were to move from camp-to-camp within the forest, attempting to locate and eliminate groups of Mau Mau fighters.

Meanwhile, homeguards were to patrol just outside the forest edge to arrest rebels attempting to flee from the soldiers.

The company's commander, acting major G.S.L.Griffiths, stayed at a camp set up in the area and was in touch with his troops throughout. On the ground, the troops were under the direct command of two junior British officers.

When the soldiers arrived in Chuka, they asked about local intelligence regarding Mau Mau activity. The police brought forward two recently captured rebels who were taken into the forest by the soldiers to act as "guides".

After setting up camp on the first day of the operation, June 14, 1953, Griffiths and his British officers interrogated the "guides".

When asked about Mau Mau hideouts, neither offered any information. To encourage their cooperation, Griffiths ordered that one guide have a hole made in his ear by a bayonet. A string was then passed through the gaping wound in the man's ear, to be used as a lead and a tether over the next four days.

The second guide witnessed this barbarity, but still could provide no information of value. Griffiths ordered that his ear be cut off, and after this torture was complete, the "guide" was shot dead.

This was just the beginning of the horrors to come. In the following two days, the 5th KAR of 'B' Company steadily moved through the forest. As the soldiers flushed Mau Mau fighters from their hideouts, the homeguards outside the forest made a number of arrests.

The operation appeared to be progressing well, until the early afternoon of June 17 when one of the KAR patrols moved out of the forest and into the local farmlands.

The patrol encountered 12 men of Chief Petro's location at the settlement of M'Withika. When KAR soldiers approached the men, a dispute broke out.

The angry soldiers arrested the men, sending two of them to fetch food from the homesteads in the vicinity, and ordering the other 10 to lie face-down. The 10 men were then severely beaten.

Bruised and bleeding, the 10 villagers were escorted into the forest by the KAR patrol. By 4pm they had reached the KAR's temporary camp. There, they were made to lie face-down in a line and, at sunset, each one was shot in turn.

The murdered men were M'Baruthi Mugira; M'Bioki Mugira; Benjamin Mutegi; M'Baini M'Thara; Daniel Gaiounge; M'Renjeu M'Chanji; Nkanata M'Rambu; Alfred M'Ruaria Mutethia; M'Rithaa Kimaku; and M'Bauni Mburugu.

The following morning, on June 18, 1953, the soldiers received the day's orders from Griffiths.

Led by their African Warrant Officer, one patrol moved along the forest fringe, and as they had done the previous day, the soldiers entered the shambas around the settlement of Karege, which was under the jurisdiction of Chief Karawa. In mid-morning, the patrol encountered a group of male villagers, who had gathered to assist their neighbour build a new hut.

Villagers' attitude

The soldiers stole food from this group, and when the villagers protested, one man, Bore Kibiro, was shot close to his home. Again, apparently angered by the villagers' attitude, the soldiers arrested the group and escorted the captives into the forest.

A number of women and others around Kirege would later recall that they had seen the men being marched away, and that a British officer was with the patrol all this time.

Between 2pm and 3pm that afternoon, the 10 captives, nine adults and a boy, were killed in a clearing near a small coffee farm, many of the bodies being bayoneted and others shot.

The dead villagers were Njeru Nyamu; Njagi Kibata; Borana Nderi; Mbuba Muthitu; Mbuba Kigundu; Muchiri Mucheke; Nkiria Kathumbe; M'Reri M'Riria; M'Bioki Murage; and Kange Mutegi. Before leaving Chuka, there was to be one final act of callous brutality.

At 3am the next morning, June 19,1953, the "guide" who had remained tethered with a string through his ear for the past four days was shot dead. The report of his killing simply recorded that he was shot "whilst trying to escape". At daybreak, the soldiers left the forest.

The two "guides" from Central Kenya and 21 Meru villagers lay dead. Later that day, the wives and relatives of the murdered villagers found the courage to report what had happened.

It was at this point that Celestino Mbare went with the local chief, the District Officer and Dr Irvine, a medical practitioner at the nearby mission station, to see the bodies in the forest.

Celestino was not the only person to recognise the dead.

The chief quickly confirmed that the dead men were all members of his homeguard. Contrary to what the KAR soldiers would at first claim, none of the victims were Mau Mau. The soldiers had killed not rebels, but 21 loyalists.

On realising this, the DO could not disguise his anger and hurried away to make his complaints to Nairobi.

British investigations

In doing so, he made it plain that, in his view, the KAR had "murdered" innocent villagers. For Dr Irvine, too, the discovery of the bodies was painful. As he conducted the autopsies and wrote his report on each corpse, he recognised some of his parishioners among the dead, and one youth whose school fees he had personally settled.

The Chuka Massacre was not the first atrocity committed by British forces in the war against Mau Mau, and nor would it be the last.

Within a few weeks of the Declaration of Emergency in October 1952, reports of atrocities and excessive violence were filtering back to London. By mid 1953, some cases had been prosecuted. While several European men were convicted in these cases, the sentences handed down by the courts were criticised for their leniency.

The British army in Kenya handled its own discipline, and although during the first eight months of the conflict there were widespread accusations against the KAR and other British regiments, none of these charges came before the local courts.

When a new Commander-in-Chief, General 'Bobby' Erskine, came to Kenya in June 1953, he was determined to get a grip of discipline. But while Erskine was still making his assessment, news of the massacre at Chuka reached him.

He ordered that a military inquiry be held in Chuka on June 22. The findings of this inquiry were never made public at the time, and no trace of the original papers can be found in the archives either in Britain or in Kenya.

Erskine took the decision to cover-up what had happened. Papers held in the National Archives in Nairobi make it clear that, at Erskine's urging, the colonial government authorised compensation for the families of the murdered villagers.

The 21 families each received Sh2,000 - a much larger sum then than it is now, but still a paltry recompense for their loss.

General Erskine then wrote personally to local chiefs, perhaps hoping to heal the breach with this previously loyal allies, to reassure them that "investigations have satisfied me that whoever is to blame, it is not any of the persons killed".

The letter is still in the Nairobi archives. Despite this admission of guilt to murder, the army did not pass its findings to the Attorney General, and so prosecutions could not be taken forward "due to lack of evidence".

There was sufficient evidence, but also reluctance on the part of the British army to expose that evidence to public scrutiny.

Having so far kept matters out of the public gaze, Erskine next set about disciplining those concerned.

All of the soldiers involved in the Chuka patrols were placed under open arrest at Nairobi's Buller Camp, but Erskine decided not to prosecute them. Instead, he would make an example of their commanding officer, Major Griffiths.

And, rather than risk bringing publicity to the Chuka affair, Erskine was able to obtain evidence to have Griffiths charged with the murder of two other suspects in a separate incident that had taken place a few weeks before the Chuka massacre.

This ruse went badly wrong, however, when the 5th KAR soldiers giving evidence at the courts martial in November 1953 refused to speak frankly against Griffiths. He was acquitted of the charge.

One of the British soldiers later admitted that he had lied, deliberately committing perjury. Erskine was furious. And so was the British Conservative government in London, where rumours of "army atrocities" had leaked to the press.

When the Cabinet met, an inquiry into the conduct of the army in Kenya was ordered. The inquiry was to be chaired by Lieutenant-General K. McLean, who arrived in Nairobi in December 1953.

All this gave the appearance that the army had resolved to clear its name by thorough, honest examination of uncomfortable issues: But Erskine knew only too well that an investigation of events before June 1953 would have revealed things much worse than Chuka.

In a letter to the War Office, in December 1953, to be found in the British archives, Erskine made this candid admission: "There is no doubt that in the early days, i.e. from Oct 1952 until last June there was a great deal of indiscriminate shooting by Army and Police. I am quite certain prisoners were beaten to extract information."

To avoid a scandal, McLean's inquiry, therefore, drew a veil of official secrecy over the first eight months of the emergency.

Though McLean went carefully into the details of the Chuka affair, his final report was a whitewash. He concluded that, whilst there may have been some irregularities in procedures by some units, the conduct of the British army in Kenya "under difficult and arduous circumstances, showed that measure of restraint backed by good discipline which this country has traditionally expected".

Satisfied by this, and with fresh evidence on Chuka obtained through McLean's inquiry, Erskine now ordered that Major Griffiths be subjected to a second courts martial. This time he was charged with the murder of the first "guide" in Chuka, and the evidence of the soldiers under his command now turned against him.

When the trial concluded, on March 11, 1954, Griffiths was found guilty, and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The two British junior officers who led the patrols in Chuka, Innes-Walker and Howard, were never prosecuted for the murders of the villagers.

Nor did the 10 African soldiers who were present ever stand trial, all of them Kenyans.

It is difficult to avoid the thought that these 12 men were allowed to go free in return for their participation in the conviction of their commanding officer, even though each one of them - British and Kenyan alike - must surely have been liable to prosecution for war crimes.

Ads by Google

Copyright © 2006 The Nation. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.