Soldier who was punished for doing his job

Air Force man was locked up in a block reserved for insane inmates, who let out harrowing screams every day and night for four years.

Being dishonourably dismissed from the Air Force is a pain that I can hardly put into words. The closest I can probably get you to that point is by asking you to close your eyes for a moment and try as hard as you can to imagine that all you have ever known as a man, all that you have loved for almost 20 years is taken away from you in the blink of an eye.

Nothing is left but emptiness and a pain so great that it feels like your heart is being ripped out of your chest. This feeling combined with the worry of what is going to happen to your wife and your three young sons leaves you at a point where no man should ever be taken to.

If at least I had been made to suffer for my own alleged wrong doing just like the late General Joseph Ndolo, it would perhaps be a different story altogether. But here I was, I had never attempted nor assisted anyone in trying to overthrow the government. Quite to the contrary, as soon as I received information of a planned coup from my commanding officer of KAF base, Nanyuki, I reported the matter to my senior officers in the highest office of the armed forces.

I gave comprehensive details including photographs of the plotters to my senior officers. This I believe was clearly the first step and an initiative to prevent the 1982 coup attempt from happening. Yet, about two weeks after the attempted coup I was arrested and put into solitary confinement in a prison cell. I was kept imprisoned until January 1983 and then subjected to a hastily assembled illegal court martial which abused me, my human rights, and humiliated me beyond comprehension.

The investigation that preceded the court martial clearly indicated that I was in no way involved in any of the planning or execution of the coup attempt. But since someone needed to be blamed for what had happened, the court martial came up with dubious charges of me failing to prevent and suppress a mutiny and refused my defence to summon my senior officers, who I had fully briefed about the impending coup, to testify in the court martial as witnesses.

I was sentenced to four years in jail, lost all I had worked for in the past 19 years plus all my benefits for something that I had not done, while years earlier General Ndolo who had actually actively planned to overthrow the government of the late President Jomo Kenyatta was quietly retired with all his benefits.

Immediately after the sentencing I requested to be given a private moment with my devastated family in the court room. My sons at that time were aged 14, 11 and nine years; it was crushing to leave them. I requested them to be strong and not lose faith during the next four years. Everyone was extremely worried about me and yet I was most worried about them.

I pledged to my family that the system may try to break my body, but that I would not allow them to break my spirit and mind. Little did I know of what was to follow in the coming years. Fulfilling that promise became the hardest thing to do and yet it was what kept me alive. And at that time, I didn’t know that they were just about to be bundled out of the Air Force like unwanted animals. It was terrible. The house in the farm was not yet ready for occupation and they had to seek shelter from wherever they could find it.

My wife was in business, running a restaurant in Nanyuki which also did some outside catering services. The strain upon her became extreme.

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT

I was again locked up in solitary confinement, but not among common thugs and perhaps even murderers, which in itself would have been bad enough. I was put in a cell at a block in Kamiti Maximum Prison, which is reserved for insane inmates. I was the only sane person in the entire block and you cannot even begin to imagine what life under those circumstances meant.

There were constant, harrowing screams from the mad inmates for 24 hours; there was no silence ever. My life was reduced to this 3×2 meter cell with a bucket for a toilet. My active mind was reduced to staring at the walls and listening to the bone-chilling sounds around me, as I was neither allowed to do any kind of work, nor was I allowed to read.

I was allowed into the cell block yard for an hour every day, but was not allowed to interact with any person; I was completely isolated. The lights were on 24 hours a day and all I could occupy my mind with while inside the cell was walking in circles in the cell or trying to exercise.

Twice a day during meal times I would be escorted to the kitchen yard to collect my food. That was the only time I was allowed to be among other people but since I was locked up in the block for insane inmates I would still not have any chance for any normal conversation. I was kept in worse conditions than for an animal.

After some time I started recalling books that I had read, reciting the stories in my mind just to stop me from losing my wits. It took a very long time and many months of struggle for me to be allowed to get a book to read. I was eventually given a bible which I read and read and read.

Once I had reached the end, I would start from the beginning. This continued for many months and frankly I cannot remember how many times I read the bible over and over again. It was only in the final year of imprisonment that I was allowed to read other vetted books as well.

The only times that offered me some kind of relief for a moment at a time were the visits of my family and my lawyer that were restricted to once a month and Christmas Day. The reason why I say that they offered me relief only for a moment was because I knew that I had to say good bye again after a short while and returned to the cell again to those horrible screams.

After two years in solitary confinement with interaction with other inmates having been reduced to eye contact only, I was finally allowed to mix with other inmates and also given some work to do. It was such a relief, as I was not the only man who had been locked up under dubious circumstances following the 1982 coup attempt.

I now had people I could talk to and relate with and they were just like me – they were not criminals. Finally the day of my release came. The media was informed of this event and they arrived to cover the event. As I walked into freedom I ignored all their questions. I was neither in any mental state to talk to anyone nor did I want any attention.

SPIRIT BROKEN

Here I was, four year later, having tried as hard as I could not to have my spirit broken and yet I was a changed man. On the outside I looked the same, just a little thinner than I already was, but on the inside I was hurting so badly. The pictures and sounds of Kamiti were still ringing in my head; they haunted me badly, especially at night.

It took all my strength to try and put the past behind me and at the same time be strong for my family. I was separated from my family for all those years and the “little sons” I had to leave behind had grown up. I had missed so much of their young lives and I did not know where to start picking up the pieces. Just as much as I had to suffer, my family was made to suffer in the outside world.

They went through such hard times and had it not been for friends who stood by them I don’t know what would have happened to them. I know it might sound strange but after four years of separation you need time to “learn” your family again. Family suffering was intense. In school, my boys were bullied and taunted about their father being in prison. My wife had to take over my duties in all family affairs.

DOING FOR A LIVING

It took quite some time for me to find myself and my family again. So much had changed and the life I had left was forever gone. Not only did I have to figure out where my life would go and what I would be doing for a living also, but I had to find my place in society again.

Many people who I would in the past have considered my friends had turned their backs on my family and me. Imagine a person that you had left as a friend four years ago seeing you in the street and crossing the road to avoid you.

This happened so many times and it was very painful. It, however, taught me that it is only when you are at your lowest point in your life that you really get to know who your true friends are, as they will stand by you no matter what.

I have learned to cherish true friendship so much more. It is those friends who also helped me to find a way of making a living again. First I started farming in Nanyuki which not only allowed me to earn some money but which also became therapeutic for me. I was finally free or so I thought; there were no walls keeping me locked up inside.

I would stand in the middle of a field, listening to the sound of wheat moving in the wind while the sun was warming my body. I was no longer in a filthy cell block with the smell of human waste and insane people screaming continuously day and night. I was breathing fresh clean air and there was nothing but the wind whispering. I was finally alive again.

Most of my struggles ended only with the change of government in December 2002. The previous regime was seeing ghosts in everything and interpreted totally harmless things in my life in most awkward ways. Its agents once invaded and disrupted a family get-together celebrating my birthday on suspicion that I was planning something sinister.

I was forced to sell a parcel of land which was on loan from the government’s Settlement Fund Trustees when I learnt that President Moi had issued orders to have the loan recalled. I sold it before the SFT could move in on me and used part of the money to establish the construction business that I have run to this day.

What remains for me, after all I have gone through, is for honest and fair justice to be done in order to remove the stigma that is attached to my name.

Only when that day arrives, and truth will have prevailed over injustice, only then will I finally been able to call myself a free man.

by Roy Gachuhi

Peter Kariuki and his wife.

Peter Kariuki and his wife.