Book Review

‘They Were Us’ gives voice to victims of Kenya police brutality

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Summary

  • The book is full of first-hand accounts of wanton killings, sometimes defined as murders, invariably seen as executions.
  • What does one do when the criminality comes directly from the supposed public protectors themselves?

They Were us embodies a painful cry for help as well as an unrelenting demand from mainly mothers for social justice against a most sinister and deadly enemy.

The book is full of first-hand accounts of wanton killings, sometimes defined as murders, invariably seen as executions (or EJE, short for extra-judicial executions), and always understood as flagrant violations of the social, criminal, and civil codes of police conduct, all of which are aimed at protecting the public from criminal behaviour.

Yet what does one do when the criminality comes directly from the supposed public protectors themselves? That is the question They Were Us tries to answer.

Initially, the answer came from one mother, Benna Buluma, more widely known as Mama Victor, who lost both her sons during the 2017 post-election-violence in one of Nairobi’s biggest slums, Mathare 4A. She got together with other mothers, wives, and parents (more than 50 at the last count) who had also lost their loved ones at the hand of ‘rogue’ police.

She then organised and founded the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network to demand accountability and justice from the State. The Network is also there to offer solace and solidarity so those left behind can find meaningful ways to carry on with their lives.

In the process of building the Network, Mama Victor met the young citizen journalist who had already begun documenting stories of EJEs in the slums and the impact of those heinous acts on the families traumatised by the loss of their sons, husbands, and brothers.

Together Kanyi Wyban and Mama Victor have interviewed and documented shocking stories of arbitrary killings, mindless maimings, brutal beatings, and Mafia-like slaughter of innocent men, many of whom were still in their teens yet treated like target practice for rooky police. The stories, told mainly through the eyes of the mothers, reveal the gruesome yet senseless cruelty of cops allowed to literally get away with murder.

“What gives these stories their credibility, impact, and depth of feeling is because they are told by those closest to the ones who’ve died,” says Wyban who assisted Mama Victor in collecting stories from all over Nairobi’s slums, from Mathare, Majengo, and Mukuru to Dandora, Eastleigh, and Kibera to Kayole, Kasarani, and Kiambu.

The former Daystar University journalism student not only edited and translated all of the accounts in the book, but he is also originally from Mathare’s Mlango Kubwa himself so understands the issues from a first-hand perspective.

The witness accounts are a stunning indictment of the Kenya police. For instance, why would police storm into Anne Anyango’s one-room mabati shack and start beating up small children? The 10-year-old survived a brutal beating but is now permanently deaf in one ear, and the little boy Silas who hid under the bed is dead for what reason, no one can tell.

Then there’s the young man who stayed late after a Bible meeting to chat with seven of his fellow Bible-reading buddies. Witnesses told his mother all eight were gunned down summarily by police and tossed into an outhouse to cover up their evil deed.

What makes They Were US so powerful is that there are more than 16 accounts of impunity, each of which is inexplicably painful and heart-wrenching. The argument that these killings and maiming somehow are State-sanctioned seems unavoidable. Yet even with the support of NGOs like the Social Justice Centre Working Group and Missing Voices, no means have been devised to effectively stop the impunity of men in uniforms who rove the streets of Nairobi’s major slums with a supposed “mandate to sweep away the trash”, meaning whomever they define as human garbage.

The one thing that is beautiful about They Were Us is that it gives a voice to the voiceless, accompanied by arresting images provided by the professional American photographer Betty Press who has been actively involved in human rights issues, both in the US and in Kenya for many years.

Above the law

The other aspect of the book that makes it valuable is its establishment of the Mothers Network of Victims and Survivors as an organised grassroots initiative of resistance to police brutality and impunity.

The book exposes the high-handed cruelty of police officers, be they rogue, renegade, or regular police officers who apparently believe they are above the law. And it also raises the open question, to what extent is police impunity sanctioned by the State? And if so, what is to be done?