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Stone pillar with a rich history of World War II

A block weighing 12 Tonnes is seen at War Memorial Catholic Church in Nyeri,where was placed after transported from Ndarugu area in Thika in 1919. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

In 2007, Mike Harries, a descendant of a British settler living in Gatundu, mentioned to an Italian diplomat, Aldo Manos, the existence of a stone pillar monument, with illustrations of war drawings on its sides.

“He was a member of Limuru Gun Club just like me and he took me to the site where he showed me a beautiful structure with illustrations on its side. It was a few metres away from a small church,” recalled Dr Manos.

In May 1941, Italian soldiers were captured in Ethiopia by the British forces as they tried to establish Italian East Africa. After the Italian Commander Prince Amedeo, the Duke of Aosta, surrendered, he and his troops were flown to Kenya as prisoners of war.

In Kenya, the Prisoners of War (PoW) were put in sorting camps before being transferred to their final destinations, which included 10 locations in Kenya and one in Uganda.

Among the 11 camps was Ndarugu (Juja), which was known as camp 360 Ndarugo, which held 10,000 prisoners. Prince Amedeo, who hailed from the royal family, passed through the camp.

The soldiers worked in road construction and as farm labourers. Those held at Ndarugu worked in coffee plantations.

Manos, the keeper of memories of the Italian PoWs in the World War II (WWII) said while most of the camps have since disappeared, the wooden barracks destroyed and the sites are now occupied by other buildings. Ndarugu camp still stands.

The captives who were held in Ndarugu built a little church in the valley which is still in use today by the local Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA).

In a show of epic talent of artistic work, the prisoners also built the commemorative stone pillar weighing 12 tonnes, measuring three-by-three feet, with its geographical measuring 01”05499S, 037”02588E as indicated in the gazette notice of September 6, 2011.

The history of the pillar has never been known, with the historians majoring more on the small church and the brick manufacturing plant, which was also started by the Italian prisoners.

According to Manos, the history of the pillar was only completed in 2019 when its photograph was found in the South of England in possession of the family of a former guard at the camp 80 years after the pillar was built.

“When I found the pillar, it was a little bit ruined but the miraculous discovery of the full photo from South of England made the pillar have its full meaning,” said Manos.

The drawings in the monument explain how Italian soldiers were captured in Ethiopia and show the area where they were before the attack.

On the first panel of the pillar, there are drawings showing a steep road rising from some huts to a forest. The road, according to Manos, led to the Uolchefit Pass (a town in Italy) built by the Italian military in 1936 and 1937 where the last but one resistance took place before the final surrender at Gondor area.

On the second panel, a fully uniformed military officer is shown waving the Italian flag and two military positions camouflaged in the typical Ethiopian vegetation.

When the photos of the monument were found, Manos, who had been reconstructing the history of a prison camp for Italians in Kenya, escorted the Italian television crew to cover the story but found the monument badly destroyed.

The structure is now lying outside the Italian War Memorial Church on the outskirts of Nyeri town near the military officers who built it and whose remains are preserved inside the church.

Joseph Mutugi, the caretaker of the war memorial church, said they hoped those interested in Italian history would visit the church to learn more about the prisoners of war and their contributions while in Kenya.