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In Cold Blood | The Nation

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In Cold Blood

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Elkins doesn't shy away from the survivors' stories, no matter how gruesome. One chapter opens with a man staggering to his feet with blood oozing from his mouth and nose, lifting his head from a bucket of urine, feces and sand only to see a double image of his torturer looming over him with a club, ready to strike another blow. A settler recalls taking a suspect to the Mau Mau investigation center, then sticking around to help "soften" him up: "By the time I cut his balls off he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him." This book is not for the faint-hearted.

Daphne Eviatar has written on Africa for the New York Times Magazine and the Boston Globe, among other publications. She last wrote for The Nation on Angola.

About the Author

Daphne Eviatar
Daphne Eviatar, a Brooklyn-based lawyer and journalist, is a senior reporter for The American Lawyer.

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By the end of 1954 more than 52,000 Kikuyu were imprisoned in the growing British gulag. But if the camps broke some into cooperating, they drove others further into the anticolonial resistance. The only way Britain could hold on to its empire was through intensifying repression and brutality. "The hypocrisies, the exploitations, the violence, and the suffering were all laid bare in the Pipeline," writes Elkins. "It was there that Britain finally revealed the true nature of its civilizing mission." And though the colonial authorities did their best to conceal the camps' conditions, by the mid-1950s their harshness was well known in London. When these abuses could no longer be denied, Anderson points out, the British government attributed them to poor judgment by a few misguided low-level individuals--another familiar story.

That story unraveled in March 1959, when eleven prisoners mysteriously died while digging ditches outside the Hola prison, home to many "hard core" Mau Mau. The official explanation was that they had accidentally died from drinking contaminated water. It took three separate investigations to reveal the truth to the British public: All eleven had been clubbed to death by African guards under the supervision of European warders. Britain's "civilizing mission" in Kenya was over.

In 1961 Jomo Kenyatta returned home to lead a bitterly divided country. Ever a moderate, he urged Kenyans to forgive and forget the past. "In Kenyatta's Kenya," writes Anderson, "there would be a deafening silence about Mau Mau."

It's impossible to read these harrowing accounts without noting some striking parallels between the British response to Mau Mau and the American response to the threat of terrorism: the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib; the denial of basic rights to Al Qaeda suspects at Guantánamo Bay; the confusion of insurgency, rebellion and terrorism; and the ongoing assaults on Iraqi civilians in the name of democracy. These two substantial books not only offer an important corrective to the long-distorted story of the end of British empire in Kenya but also serve as a stark reminder of the cynical justifications that fear can foster and that history eventually lays bare.

For the sake of unity, Kenya's leaders (which included many British loyalists) chose to bury the truth about the assault on Mau Mau, the methods used and the people ultimately responsible for the movement's violent suppression. Given history's tendency to repeat itself, one must question the wisdom of such a path--then, and now.

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