Inside holding camps where detainees faced dreaded tormentors

One of the schools that was used as a detention camp. [Getty Images]

When some researchers’ quest for the release of Britain’s classified colonial records yielded, the details contained in some of the documents were horrific.

Desperate to extract confessions of suspected Mau Mau freedom fighters and cripple the unconventional army, their interrogators used crude extra judicial methods.

In one hair-raising example of the methods used on detainees, a special branch officer pushed pins into their sides, buttocks, fingers and, on at least one occasion, the head.

Some of the horrendous acts were committed in Mwea camps under the instructions of Terrence Gavaghan who pinched the sides of their bodies, penis and scrotum with pliers. He crushed the fingers of one detainee.

The files revealed the extent to which colonial officers went to force confessions, or to compel detainees to agree to be admitted in “rehabilitation” camps. Some of those centres, had, however, been set up as concentration camps in the early years of the emergency, and were used to contain an entire population in Central.

Shortly before the state emergency was lifted in on January 12, 1960, thousands of detainees set for release were transferred to centres that served as halfway houses before they could be released to the community. The state of emergency had been in force since October 10, 1952, when the government arrested Jomo Kenyatta and scores of other senior politicians accused of being leaders of Mau Mau.

Mwea was one of these rehabilitation camps where one of the cruelest experiences under the hands of government officers awaited them.

Torture methods

Governor Evelyn Baring praised Gavaghan, saying he had devised excellent ways of dealing with the hardcores implying that his torture methods had been sanctioned by the colonial government which had already got the approval from London. Attorney General Eric Griffiths-Jones had the finer details of the brutal methods which he immortalised through a memo to Secretary of State Alan Lennox-Boyd in 1957.

Griffiths-Jones wrote: “Anyone who showed any reluctance or hesitation to do so (change into camp clothes) were hit with fists and/or slapped with open hand. This was usually enough to dispel any disposition to disobey the order.”

After a visit to Mwea, the AG said three or four of the European officers immediately converged on a detainee “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.” Gavaghan explained to Griffiths-Jones, claiming the hardcore ones started the Mau Mau “moan”, which was promptly picked up by other detainees and had to be stopped first.  “…Accordingly, a resistor who started it was promptly 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 forced unconscious.”

The AG added: “The purpose is to compel immediate submission to discipline and compliance with orders, and to do so by a psychological shock treatment which throws off balance and overcomes any disposition towards defiance or resistance.”

Justified violence

He justified the violence, saying the use of “orthodox methods of non-violence persuasion and normal camp punishments would be quite useless and ineffective in their case.”

Griffiths-Jones knew that such use of force was illegal, and was only allowed in law under special circumstances such as stopping prisoners from escaping. “It cannot be overemphasised that the use of force on persons in custody is abhorrent and illegal, and even within the strictly limited confines discussed above, potentially dangerous,” he wrote. He told his seniors such violence, was, however, justified for reforming the most hardcore detainee. Gavaghan who was at the time living in Putney, South-West London, when interviewed, denied he had committed atrocities.