Kenya : Wachira Waheire meets his torturer 20 years later

13.06.17

International Center for Transitional Justice
Wachira Waheire : “You don’t forget your torturers. These memories are so vivid it’s like they just happened.” Wachira Waheire : “You don’t forget your torturers. These memories are so vivid it’s like they just happened.” ©îctj

Wachira Waheire strode into Nairobi’s Sankara Hotel, made his way to the café attached to its lobby and scanned the room carefully. He was meeting someone he had not seen in 20 years, but as he sifted through the faces in the café he was confident all he needed was a glimpse and he would recognize his guest.

“You don’t forget your torturers,” he says. “These memories are so vivid it’s like they just happened.”

Wachira is something of a professional interviewer of torturers: as a Human Rights Officer at Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) from 2010 to 2012, it was one of his responsibilities to collect testimonies from victims and perpetrators of state violence in Kenya. As a survivor well-familiar with victims’ needs, he was uniquely suited to the role.

But all his interviews hadn’t prepared him for this one.

Wachira recognized his guest immediately. He steeled himself, then made his approach.

He greeted the man warmly and invited him to sit, ordering a pair of ginger teas. Nerves dissipating, conversation flowed quickly and amicably, as it always does with Wachira: he has the kind of slow, infectious laugh that puts people at ease. They asked about one another’s families, their jobs and the paths their lives had taken in the decades since they had last seen each other. Chatting over their teas, the two men could have been mistaken for old friends meeting after many years.

But it was immediately clear that much had changed. In 1986, Wachira says, this man “controlled my life.” He ordered Wachira to be stripped naked, had participated in beating him senseless, and coerced a false confession from him. He had consigned Wachira to a hellish prison with the power of the state firmly behind him. In his heyday as a Senior Plainclothes officer, he had brimmed with confidence.

The man before Wachira today scarcely resembled the ghost of those memories. He seemed haggard and downtrodden, a sleek suit replaced with simple, weather-beaten clothes. Had his facial features not been embedded into Wachira’s memory after weeks held in the bowels of Nairobi’s torture chambers, the two might have passed each other on the street as strangers.

The man himself was unemployed; ironically, it was Wachira who was now working for the state as part of the TJRC. It was now Wachira asking for answers, imploring his former torturer to testify before the commission.

As they chatted, Wachira’s guest hinted that he had no way to get home. He couldn’t afford bus fare and it was too far to walk. Wachira didn’t hesitate, reaching into his pocket and handing him enough money to get home. The ride was on him.

The man before Wachira today scarcely resembled the ghost of those memories. He seemed haggard and downtrodden, a sleek suit replaced with simple, weather-beaten clothes. Had his facial features not been embedded into Wachira’s memory after weeks held in the bowels of Nairobi’s torture chambers, the two might have passed each other on the street as strangers.

Retelling the story, Wachira offers that same slow laugh, shaking his head in disbelief. “At one point your life depended on him,” Wachira says, “but now even his return home depends on your wallet.”

A History of Violence

When Wachira says his life at one point depended on this man, he means it: at the time of his arrest in 1986, Daniel Arap Moi ruled Kenya with an iron fist. Moi ordered the Special Branch of the Kenyan police to round up all his enemies, real or perceived. Over the next two years hundreds of Kenyans, Wachira among them, were taken to the Nyayo House, a now-infamous government building in Nairobi home to a torture center. There, they were subjected to horrific violence at the hands of the security forces– people like Wachira’s future tea companion – who sought to coerce “confessions” to trumped-up charges. Once victims confessed to their role in these fabricated crimes, they were passed onto compromised prosecutors and magistrates, who then stage-managed sham trials. Most of these trials lasted mere minutes, culminating in stiff prison sentences.

And that’s just those who made it out of Nyayo House alive. Not everyone did.

Wachira survived, but his life today is radically different than the one he lived before his arrest. In 1986, he was a young professional with a wife and infant daughter. He had graduated from the University of Nairobi two years earlier and had landed a promising sales and marketing job. His life was comfortable and, for the most part, secure: while he knew that Moi’s regime abducted and tortured those suspected of being political dissidents, he felt safe because he was not an activist at the time.

However, Wachira soon learned that grounds for suspicion under Moi were not especially high. “I read Marx in college as part of my studies. They said that because I read him, I was part of [the anti-government group] Mwakenya.”

The accusation was baseless, but that didn’t matter: Wachira was whisked from his office in Nairobi’s industrial area to his house, where police conducted a thorough search without a warrant. From there he was taken to the nearby Jogoo Road Police Station before finally being transferred to the Nyayo House late in the evening. Amidst the damp, putrid halls of the torture chambers, officers stripped him naked and began their gruesome, systematic work. Beatings with tire strips, broken table legs, chair legs, and hose pipes. Merciless slaps, kicks, whips. Death threats that carried the weight of the lives already claimed by the state.

The next 16 days were hell for Wachira, and what emerged was a broken man and a false confession.

“That’s how torture works,” Wachira explains. “The information extracted through torture is useless, people will tell you whatever you want to hear.”

But the veracity of the confession was beside the point. Police dragged Wachira before a magistrate for a perfunctory hearing just before Christmas. The ruling was handed down in less than ten minutes: four years in prison.

“I was in solitary confinement for basically all of it,” Wachira says. He describes the sentence as another round of torture. They gave him two books and then left him to rot: “For many years the Bible and the Quran were my only friends.”

This testimony was published by the International Center for Transitional Justice

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