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Britain Apologizes For Colonial-Era Torture Of Kenyan Rebels

Mau Mau leader Gitu wa Kahengeri, right, poses with British High Commissioner to Kenya Christian Turner at the end of a news conference announcing the settlement last week.
Ben Curtis

A 60-year-old wound in Kenya has finally found its recompense.

Last week, the British government finalized an out-of-court settlement with thousands of Kenyans who were tortured in detention camps during the end of the British colonial reign. The historic apology — and the unprecedented settlement — has been years in the making.

It started with a Harvard graduate student named Caroline Elkins. She became fascinated with the Mau Mau — Kenyan rebels from the tribe called Kikuyu — who fought in the '50s and '60s for independence from the British. Back then, in the British press, the Mau Mau were seen as murderous criminals. But Elkins discovered that much more violence was committed by colonial authorities.

Caroline Elkins, shortly after winning the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for her book on British abuse of the Kenyan Mau Mau.
Bizuayehu Tesfaye / AP
Caroline Elkins, shortly after winning the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for her book on British abuse of the Kenyan Mau Mau.

"In fact, in total [only] 32 Europeans died," Elkins says. "As opposed to that, nearly 1 1/2 million Kikuyu were put into some form of detention, where they were tortured and forced to labor."

Elkins took the testimony of survivors from those camps, poured through logbooks and police records chronicling the abuses, and published her dissertation in 2005 as a book, Imperial Reckoning, the Untold Story of the British Gulag in Kenya.

Four years later, when a team of British and Kenyan lawyers filed a case on behalf of the Mau Mau veterans in the British High Court, they hit a wall. Elkins' research, from testimonies to written logs, was not enough to meet the court's standards for evidence.

The case idled for years in legal purgatory until a breakthrough last fall, when a judge ordered the British Foreign Office to release its own classified records from those colonial detention camps. Elkins says those official documents confirmed, in explicit detail, the systematic torture of male and female detainees.

There was "forced sodomy with broken bottles and vermin and snakes and just horrific, horrific things," she says. "And the documents confirmed, almost verbatim at times, the kind of oral testimonies I had taken 15 years ago.

"So not only was it absolutely wrenching to read these, but it was also validating on so many levels and particularly that the British government had been calling them liars," she says. "All the while sitting on the evidence proving that they were actually telling the truth."

In a luxury hotel ballroom in Nairobi, hundreds of Kenyan survivors, now in their 70s and 80s, came to celebrate the case's conclusion. Under an out-of-court settlement, the British government agreed to pay more than $20 million in damages to the living survivors, about $4,000 per person.

And just as important to some who had waited so long for it, the British High Commissioner Christian Turner was on hand to express an official apology.

"The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration," Turner said at a news conference. "The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place."

A survivor of that abuse, now head of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, Gitu wa Kahengeri urged his members to accept the offer.

"This is a beginning of reconciliation between the Mau Mau freedom fighters of Kenya and the British government," he said.

Not all were cheering the outcome, however. Kenyan editorial writers grumbled about the modest size of the payout. On the British side, the biggest concern was whether this precedent would spur claims from all corners of the former Empire.

"As historians," Elkins says, "we have plenty of evidence that the systematized violence that happened in Kenya was honed and brought throughout the empire, from Palestine to Malaya to Kenya to Cyprus to Aden to Northern Ireland."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation , a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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