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Oduor Ong'wen: My arrest after 1982 failed coup and date with dreaded GSU

 Raila Odinga when he was arrested after the 1982 coup. [File, Standard]

Tuesday, August 17, 1982 began like any other. Since coming back home after campus closures, I had adjusted my waking up time from 4am to 6am.

This was to respect the reality of underdevelopment in this part of the world. I had to suspend my daily ritual of reading for an hour between four and five as there was no electricity and kerosene was used very sparingly. I got out of bed at exactly 6 o'clock that morning, splashed some water on my face, brushed my teeth and, in less than 15 minutes, I was off to our small cassava farm to help my mother with the weeding.

I had grown lazier or more disinterested in farm work as I grew older and progressed in my education. But I worked unusually hard at the farm that morning and after about four hours, I was done. I passed by the stream to bathe in the still clear water flowing lazily downstream before I went back home.

I was back in the homestead a few minutes after 11 o'clock. I took a foldable chair and sat under a shade to read a book as my mother prepared lunch. Maxim Gorky's Mother is a story of an illiterate peasant woman in pre-revolution Russia who takes after her son to socialism and works for it. Even though she has no idea about those theories of surplus value developed by Marx and Engels, her affection for and fondness of her son make her believe that whatever her son and his comrades were doing must be good.

My engrossment in Mother's story was interrupted by my mother's food. No sooner had I washed my hands to enjoy the delicious meal - fresh tilapia stew-seasoned in traditional ghee and ugali made from cassava and sorghum flour-than I received a totally unwelcome visitor. I knew Cosmas Okoth well. He was the Assistant Chief of Sanda-Ulawe Sub-Location. Cosmas was a friendly elder, whom 1 understand did not wish me ill. He had been asked by Chief Osowo to lead my 'guests' to my home in Udenda.

Since the Special Branch Officers' Subaru Legacy car had civilian registration, Cosmas had no idea the kind of guests he was leading to me. Being the President's direct representative in his village, I doubt whether the assistant chief would have acted differently even if he had knowledge of what the three guests were or their mission.

I had no doubt about the mission Cosmas and his 'guests' were on even before he greeted me. I composed myself and tried to be courteous to this elder. His 'guests' too tried to hide their evil mission by wearing plastic smiles, which fitted worse than a witchdoctor's monkey skin mask. The two men called me aside and whispered that they were Special Branch officers from Siaya and would like to go with me to just clarify a small thing that was not clear from the statement I had made at their office a week earlier, and that they would bring me back home in less than an hour. I told the two officers that I was not that naive and they could go and tell their ill conceived lies to the birds or to pigs.

"I have been expecting you for the better part of this week. I am ready. I only ask for one thing. Please let me have my lunch," I told them. They allowed me to proceed with the meal as they retreated to join the third officer in the car, which was parked a respectable 30 metres away. However, they made sure they positioned themselves at vantage positions to pounce on me or even shoot were I to try any trick, such as attempting to escape.

The appetite I had had for the tilapia lunch was gone. I tried but could not eat. I instantly gave up and rose to go and inform my mother that I was under arrest. As I made to my mother's kitchen, one of the officers ran to intercept me. "Where are you going?" he enquired, impatience written all over his face.

"To inform my mother that I have been arrested," I replied. "But you are not under arrest!" the officer protested. "Then let me go and tell her I am not under arrest." I retorted as I continued to the kitchen.

He gave up and stood there waiting as I went into my mother's kitchen. I informed her that I was under arrest and would be taken to Nairobi and that I would not be coming back soon, if at all. My mother tried to compose herself but did not do a good job of it. Tears welled up in her eyes, formed small round drops then burst their banks and defiantly flowed down her cheek. This was the first time in a long while that I was seeing my mother's tears.

Being a born-again Anglican, she was forbidden from weeping, even for the dead. The Anglican fraternity does not seem to have taken note of the shortest verse in the Bible. That is why nobody saw her tears even when my father died six-and-a-half years earlier. I went in to change from the farm clothes into a more presentable outfit. I bid my mother and other family members goodbye and walked into the waiting car, where I was sandwiched between two officers before speeding off towards Siaya, only stopping at Mwer for about a minute to drop Cosmas off.

The Subaru had been joined by a Land Rover with civilian registration. Even though they still didn't formally tell me that I was under arrest, there were no more pretences and niceties as they drove me straight on to Siaya Police Station where I was locked up in a cell alone without any entry being made into the Occurrence Book. This worried me.

My arrest, I was later told, caused quite a stir in the village. Within a few minutes of our departure, word had spread in the entire village and neighbouring ones that I had been arrested in connection with the coup. But the accounts of the events that unfolded differed, some quite juicier, depending on the narrator. At Siaya Police Station, policemen and women took turns to come to my cell and have a good look at me. I could not understand why I was being treated like an animal in a zoo. Apparently, word had gone round the police station that one of the coup plotters had been brought in.

After about an hour and a half in the cell, two of the three Special Branch officers who had arrested me came back. They had brought me a companion. A visibly terrified Steven Omondi Oludhe had been arrested at his home in Ng'iya in the same fashion as I. The difference was that I had anticipated my arrest. Oludhe had not. The officers asked Oludhe if he knew me and he replied in the affirmative.

Oludhe and I knew each other, but had not been particularly close. We lived in the same hall of residence, Dag Hammarskjold Hall, or Hall 10, as it was popularly known. He was a Third Year student in the Faculty of Arts majoring in Economics and Political Science. Fourteen years later, Oludhe would dominate national news headlines when he surrendered the leadership of his then briefcase National Development Party (NDP) to Raila Odinga, who went ahead to transform it into a formidable political machine.

We spent the night in Siaya police cells and left for Kisumu the following morning escorted by the same Special Branch officers. This time round, we were driven in one of the Land Rover caravans instead of the Subaru that had ferried us the previous day. Like the Subaru, the Land Rover had a civilian registration. The matter of whether or not we were under arrest had not cropped up since I was locked up in the cell the previous afternoon, even though Oludhe and I had not been booked into the Occurrence Book. The reality of my being indeed a prisoner was to dawn on me when we reached Kisumu.

On arrival, we were taken straight to the Provincial Police Headquarters. I needed to use the toilet and told my guards as much. Alas! I had to be escorted to the toilet. As I was being led to the public convenience, I spotted my friend and classmate Eunice Omanga, whom the Special Branch had summoned to record a statement similar to the one I wrote on August 10, and made to greet her.

She was warned not to talk to me something 1 loudly protested against. Fearing the public attention that my protest against this grossly illegal order was attracting, he timidly 'allowed' the two of us to talk, 'but would you make it short?" When I came back, the other officer had returned with instructions to lock us in the police cells. A cell had been emptied purposely for us and when ushered in we found a team of university students from the then South Nyanza District already locked in. Among them were David Kasera, Ochuodho and Julius Ouma Ogutu. Thereafter, a group from Kisii, which included Manson Oyongo Nyamweya and John Ombui, joined.

Later in the afternoon, the Kisumu District group among whom were Samuel Hongo, Samuel Anyanga, George Ger Nyanjom, Ken Obimbo and Victor Onyango joined us. By the end of the second day in Kisumu, there were 16 of us in the cell. We conversed throughout the night, filling each other in over the events of the past fortnight. My comrades and I spent two nights in Kisumu police cells.

On Friday, August 20, at around 6am, we were each served with an early breakfast comprising weak tea with very little milk and three slices of bread. As we had not been booked into the Occurrence Book, the policemen at the station exempted us from the morning rituals which involved cleaning the cells, offices, toilets, brushing officers' shoes and such other chores to which they daily subjected inmates. A team of Special Branch officers stood by the door of our cells at exactly 7am. A uniformed constable was at hand to unlock the cell, and we streamed out in pairs.

After a head count of the prisoners, we were led into two Volkswagen Kombi vans parked outside the cells. Besides the vans, there was also a Subaru station wagon similar to the one used during my arrest two days earlier, but it bore a different civilian registration. We were all ready for the Nairobi trip. The ride to Nairobi proved uneventful. At 3.15pm, the three vehicles parked at the entrance of Carpet House (now Kingsway House) at the junction of University Way and Muindi Mbingu Street. The house was named Carpet House because of the main business on its ground floor, Turkoman Carpet Emporium, specialising in the importation and sale of Persian and other oriental carpets and rugs.

The reception at Carpet House was deceptively cordial. One of the officers, whom I had never met before, called me by name as he sarcastically said, "Comrade Ong'wen, welcome." I did not take kindly to this agent of repression calling me his comrade, but I did not want to create a scene of it. I was just too anxious about what fate awaited my 15 comrades and me. At around 5pm, we were led down to three waiting Volkswagen Kombi vans parked exactly at the same spot the ones that had brought us from Kisumu had dropped us off. We were divided equally into the three vans, with the captives in each being accompanied by three Special Branch officers.

As we took University Way, turned onto Uhuru Highway and traversed the Industrial Area and headed towards the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I could not help but feel sorry for myself I watched Nairobi residents returning home from work in their offices, different factories, shops and hawking. As the vehicles turned left from Mombasa Road into the North Airport Road, one of the Special Branch officers announced that those who had never travelled by air should be prepared.

I was one of those who had never been inside an aircraft. I at that point concluded that we were to be flown to a detention camp in Manyani or some such other remote detention facility. One of my fellow captives burst into a song, which we all joined, a welcome comic relief as the tension in that van had built up to a climax. My heartbeat increased as we approached the gates of the old Embakasi Airport, which had been converted into a military base and was now occupied by the Kenya Air Force and the Kenya Army. It housed an army unit known as the Ground Air Defence Unit or GADU.

I had just been to this facility about 10 days before the attempted coup. We had gone there as the university basketball team, nicknamed 'Terrorists', to play the Kenya Air Force side. We enjoyed having friendly games with military sports teams because at the end of the game, we would converge at the Armed Forces Canteen (AFCO) and drink to our fill. But that particular simple game basketball would later become a major issue during the interrogations in the days that followed. I was relieved and confused at the same time when the leading van passed the KAF gate and turned left while the one in which of I was riding followed.

Soon, we were at the gates of the GSU Training School, Embakasi. I cannot quite recall what happened when my comrade prisoners and I were ushered into the GSU compound. I guess my blood stopped flowing. Everything about me just stopped. Even the fear I had felt earlier just vanished. I was like a statue. I had been into a few battles with the police. It was always fun engaging the General Duty policemen in riot gear, but not the GSU. We dreaded the GSU. I had grown up with the fear of this paramilitary force from tales I was heard as a little child of the misadventures of the majoni, as my villagers referred to them. But I did not encounter them until I was at the university - in action. I died many times over when I realised that our destination was the GSU Training School.

I do not know how long it took at the administrative block as our particulars were recorded. When particulars had been recorded for each of us, we were led, in a single file, to Sungura Barracks, which would be our dormitory. There, we found fellow students from different parts of the country. Among them were Evans Vitisia, Captain Majani, Ken Sagalla, Musalia Mudavadi and Kibisu Kabatesi from Western; Isaac Kiprono Ruto, Philip Murgor, Eliab Some and Joseph Nkadayo from Rift Valley; Mwandawiro Mghanga, and Kimonye from the Coast; David Murathe, Njoroge Mutonya, Njoroge Njathi, David Mambo and Ephantus Kinyua from Central; and Frank Ngotho Kasyoki and David Mutie from Eastern.

By Sunday, August 22 there were 71 of us occupying two sections of Sungura Barracks at the GS Training School, Embakasi. The provisioning at the Training School was bare, simple but adequate for our stay. Each captive was given a brand new sisal mat, two new blankets and a plastic mug.

My two months' detention at the GSU Training School completely changed my perception of the Unit. The personnel guarding us were non-aggressive some even friendly. The image I had of all GSU personnel as heartless, brutal and aggressive was replaced by a new one of human beings with a the good and bad traits each of us has, but trained, conditioned and deployed to engage in bad and unjust behaviour by rogue regimes.

Every day, a contingent of Special Branch officers would come to Embakasi to question us about what we knew of the coup attempt and our involvement in it. They would float many names to 'jog your memory'. Their frustration began to show when it became obvious that they were not getting anywhere in their attempt to link the university faculty and students to the attempted coup. I could read frustration from their faces and voices. And I enjoyed it.

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