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Kenya's Mau Maus Seek Restitution


It's been more than half a century since settlers in Kenya became the focus of a colonial war. The Mau Mau rebels grabbed international headlines in the 1950s by murdering 32 white settlers in the country's highlands. What got less attention was the response of the British colonial rulers. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were rounded up and held in camps. Decades later, Mau Mau veterans have sued the British government. They claim the British carried out atrocities against the detainees, including slave labor, torture and murder, and a new book supports their claims. David McGuffin reports from Kenya.

(Soundbite of protesters)

DAVID McGUFFIN reporting:

A large group of elderly Mau Mau war veterans protesting outside the British High Commission here in Nairobi, demanding to see High Commissioner Sir Edward Clay. One of them is 74-year-old Mau Mau veteran Wanyake Mucharia(ph). A half-century ago, he was sentenced by the British without trial to five years in detention camps after being captured in battle.

Mr. WANYAKE MUCHARIA (Mau Mau): We were treated as low-class--not only citizen, but low-class prisoners, you know, sometimes going three, four, five days, even a week without food, without water, without washing. Or anything you did, the only thing to tell you was, `I will beat you,' or they punish you.

McGUFFIN: The veterans are suing the British government for tens of millions of dollars, alleging atrocities ranging from summary executions, forced labor and torture. For the first time, they have the support of the Kenyan government. For its part, the British stance on the Mau Mau demands is a firm `no comment.' British authorities burned most documents pertaining to that era on the eve of Kenyan independence in 1963. The embassy in Nairobi is declining all interview requests on the subject.

(Soundbite of protesters)

McGUFFIN: It was the Kikuyu more than any other Kenyan tribe who were displaced by the arrival of 60,000 white settlers beginning at the turn of the last century. So it was the Kikuyu that led the fight to kick the British out. In response, the British forced almost the entire population of over one million Kikuyu into detention camps, reservations and secure villages. Harvard Professor Caroline Elkins explains.

Professor CAROLINE ELKINS (Harvard University): I mean, imagine, you're rounding up a million and a half people, what kind of operation that is, and it's very reminiscent of purges that have happened all over the world in history. Homesteads are burned with them in it. People are escaping from the flames, carrying whatever they can carry, forced into emergency villages with barbed wire.

McGUFFIN: Caroline Elkins' new book, "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya," is the first in-depth study of life in the detention camp system. Her book was the result of a decade of research and interviews with survivors. What she found is that possibly more than 100,000 Kikuyu died as a result of the forced resettlement, primarily from disease, starvation and the effects of slave labor and torture. The British will only admit to 10,000 dead and lay the blame for that on warfare.

(Soundbite of voices)

McGUFFIN: In the shadow of Mt. Kenya, heartland of the Mau Mau rebellion, Mali Warimu(ph) remembers what she went through. Arrested for being married to a rebel, she was detained without trial from 1956 to '63. She spent much of her time on burial detail, seeing up close the effects of the repression of her people.

Ms. MALI WARIMU (Former Detainee): (Foreign language spoken)

McGUFFIN: `I couldn't keep up with counting them,' she says, `because bodies were being brought in from all over by the truckload. With the beatings and the hard labor, it wasn't unusual for prisoners to die in large numbers.'

By the early 1960s, the British realized the price of keeping Kenya in the empire was unsustainable, and independence was granted. The new government of Jomo Kenyatta decided to keep the door on Kenya's painful past closed, primarily by keeping the Mau Mau movement banned. The ban was only recently lifted when a coalition of opposition parties finally took power here in 2002.

(Soundbite of protesters)

McGUFFIN: Back at the Mau Mau rally, the only person to emerge from the British High Commission is the head of security, carrying a letter saying the veterans should talk to the Foreign Office in London.

Unidentified Man: It is colonial arrogance, colonial arrogance.

McGUFFIN: The veterans are upset. Fifty years is a long time to wait for an apology. But they're also hopeful. If their lawsuit is successful, its impact will help do the talking for them.

For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Nairobi.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David McGuffin