"The Hunt for Kimathi" is the third episode in the BBC TV Series "Empire Warriors". It tells the story of the Mau Mau's charismatic guerrilla leader, Dedan Kimathi, who fought against British rule in 1950s Kenya and was executed days before the country gained independence. Written by
Although British TV still has a reputation for producing excellent documentary series, there's been a lack of variety in a lot of the recent output, with a glut of series on the Second World War or the Pyramids, or ancient mummies in Peru. With Empire Warriors, the BBC has bucked the trend and managed to produce a fascinating series that casts light on some important, but forgotten episodes of 20th Century history.
With only 4 self-contained episodes, Empire Warriors doesn't place too many demands on the viewer either. Each one deals with a different terrorist war in the last days of the British Empire, and although the programme makers don't force too many comparisons, the parallels with the situation in Iraq are there for all to see.
With this in mind, the first episode centres on the British retreat from Aden, in the Middle East. Other episodes deal with Palestine, Malaya and the Mau-Mau in Kenya. In a way this is a slight mistake, as this series really tells the story of the birth of modern terrorism, and how a western government tried to deal with it. As such, it probably would have been better if the episodes had been more chronological.
There are some pretty grizzly images in this series, with mangled bodies, severed heads and caved-in skulls among others, and some of the brutality is shocking even for those jaded by TV pictures from Iraq. Several of the terrorists are interviewed for the series, and it's strange to see them as old men and women, expressing pride in their actions, or disappointment at their eventual defeat.
Particularly interesting are the Jewish terrorists who murdered more than a hundred civilians in the King David Hotel bombing. Now, of course, they're heroes of Israel and in light of the suicide bombings in modern Palestine, it seems ironic to hear them explain how they had no choice but to resort to terrorism. The British were unable to deal with the Israelis' brand of terrorism which proved particularly brutal at times, but learned from this and other experiences and had some surprising successes in some of their later wars on terror.
In Malaya, it took half a decade to turn the tide against the communist guerrillas. But after the early failure of regular army units and aerial bombing, a combination of improved intelligence, generous bounties on dead terrorists and a deliberate policy to deprive the enemy of food and starve them out of the jungle provided a much-needed victory. When the Americans faced some of the same problems in Vietnam, they failed to learn the lessons from Malaya and attempted to use the same kind of military tactics that had failed for the British a decade earlier.
After their eventual success in Malaya, the British followed the same tactics in their war against the Mau-Mau terrorists in Kenya, with equal effect. Again, recruiting local people to infiltrate the enemy and being prepared to move whole communities out of harms way proved to be the key. In Malaya and Kenya white settlers armed themselves with rifles and machine guns when they left the house and there's some surprising footage of an English housewife carrying a basketful of hand grenades while doing the gardening.
The Europeans fear of the Malayan communists and Mau-Mau was well-founded, and it was the high-profile murders of European families that first brought the Mau-Mau to world attention. As always however, it was the native Kenyan population that really suffered and whole villages were massacred at a time. 2,000 Kenyan civilians were killed and another 8,000 of the Mau-Mau. Considering the war was supposedly being waged against the white settlers, surprisingly few Europeans actually lost their lives. In all, 32 were killed, about the same number as were killed in road accidents in Nairobi in the same period.
Although these are surprisingly neglected stories, in the west at least, the value of this series goes beyond it's obvious modern parallels. It gives a better understanding of how the modern world came to be, as well as some clues as to how the west could still win its war on terror.
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