Down memory lane: Italian prisoners of war in Kenyan camps

Aldo Manos and his wife Elena at Village Market promoting his book Campo 360 Ndarugu.

He came to Kenya in 1973 to help establish the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) headquarters in Nairobi and fell in love with the country.

Forty-five years later, Aldo Manos lives in Nairobi in a house he bought in 1976, and has been documenting hitherto-ignored details of 50,000 Italians who sojourned in the country as prisoners of war.

Aldo, an Italian national, believes he is the only one residing in Kenya among the initial 25 officials who were transferred from Stockholm, Sweden, to Nairobi to work at the then newly-designated Unep headquarters.

Unep was founded in 1972 and was based in Stockholm. During the search for its headquarters, Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta conducted a diplomatic campaign at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York and won against a number of competitors, including India.

As such, Unep became the first international organisation to be located in a developing country.

Aldo, 86, says he was present when the 1972 Stockholm declaration that gave birth to Unep was made.

He says he was later transferred from his initial engagement in the UN to Unep. When Nairobi was granted the headquarters status, he was transferred there.

“I came as one of the 25 officials sent to Nairobi to start the new organisation. Initially, we were housed at Electricity House, then in four floors of Kenyatta International Convention Centre while the first set of modest buildings were being erected on a former coffee plantation at Gigiri. Two more sets of buildings that were more modern and spacious were added later,” he remembers fondly.

“Yet it’s only last year when the spokesman of the group of 77 developing countries requested the UN secretary-general to provide funds for modernisation of these ageing facilities,” he adds.

Aldo’s life story starts in Europe, where he was born in April 1933 during turbulent times. His birthplace is the small island of Zlarin at the Dalmatian coast.

At the time, Dalmatia was part of the Venetian empire that was later taken over by the Astro-Hungarian Empire until 1919, when the state of Yugoslavia was created.


Since his family did not want to take up any new nationality, they lived as foreigners in their own country and eventually fled to Italy in 1945 in search of safety.

In Italy, Aldo pursued a degree in law and a second degree in political science at the University of Genoa. He then worked in the private sector for five years.

His first job was at Piaggio, makers of the ubiquitous Ape tuk-tuks in Nairobi, then later with Ingersoll-Rand, the firm which dug a tunnel that connects France and Italy.

Aldo met and married his wife, Elena, in 1959. In March 1962, Aldo joined the United Nations in New York, where he worked in the technical assistance field.

In 1967, he was transferred to Bangkok, the seat of the UN Economic Commission for Asia, to co-ordinate regional projects such as the Asian Highway, the precursor of today’s New Silk Route.

“Our only son was born in Bangkok, Gaspare,” he says with a smile.

Italian prisoners of war. They built roads,
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Italian prisoners of war. They built roads, bridges, dams, irrigation canals, private homes, small churches and the Wajir hospital. PHOTO | COURTESY

After he was transferred to Nairobi, he bought a house in 1976, where he lives with his wife and their son, who often oscillates between Italy and the United Kingdom.

Despite their long stay in Kenya, the Aldos are still waiting for a permanent resident status. They keep renewing their residence papers each year.


At Unep, he was in charge of the Environment Fund, which is made up of voluntary contributions.

The fund supported projects worldwide, initially through the UN’s specialised agencies and later with governments directly.

After a brief stint in Geneva, Switzerland, as acting director of the Unep office for Europe, Aldo moved to Athens in 1982 as the first co-ordinator of the Mediterranean Action Plan, then the largest Unep undertaking involving all the 20 coastal states and the European Union.

“It gave me great satisfaction to be able to supervise a marine monitoring programme in which over 70 marine research laboratories participated, to have stopped the dumping of polluting substances into the Mediterranean Sea and incineration at sea, and to have witnessed the building of sewage treatment plants in the major coastal cities,” he says proudly.

“Unfortunately, that spirit of Mediterranean co-operation has been greatly endangered by political upheavals, civil wars, among others, in Lebanon, Syria, and Libya,” he adds.

In 1991, Aldo took early retirement from the UN after 29 years of service. He moved to Venice, Italy, where he pursued a teaching career at the University of Trieste.

Here, he taught Environmental Diplomacy alongside doing consulting jobs for the UN, the EU, and the Italian government.


He later returned to Nairobi several times as a member of the Italian delegation to Unep governing councils.

His career as the keeper of memories of the Italian prisoners of war (PoWs) in the Second World War (WWII) started by chance in 2007 at Limuru Gun Club, where he shoots clay targets every other Sunday.

“Mike Harries, a friend, mentioned the camp at Ndarugu situated between Thika and Juja towns, where his mother was the secretary to the commanding officer. This made me discover the Italian church and the monument.

I was shocked that no one had ever mentioned the prisoners or the camps to me in all the years we had been in Kenya. Their memory had been erased. But it is said that memories never die; they fall asleep. My wife Elena and I took it as our mission to reawaken them,” he says.

Aldo badgered the Kenyan and Italian authorities until the Italian church — the prisoners of war pillar at Ndarugu and the first brick kiln built by the prisoners at Thika — were declared as “monuments of historic interest to Kenya” through Gazette Notice No. 11252 dated September 6, 2011.

In spite of the gazetting, which makes tampering with a monument an offence punishable with a prison term and a fine, the Italian pillar was destroyed by unknown persons early last year.

“We were shocked to find it lying down 100 metres from its base when we took an Italian television crew to the spot. On October 12, 2019, the Italian television aired a programme on Ndarugu camp and the destruction of the monument as part of a popular series called Rai2 Storie.”


“Thanks to the Italian Embassy’s prompt intervention and financing from the Italian Association in Kenya, the main decorated block weighing over 12 tonnes was moved from Ndarugu to the Italian Memorial Church near Nyeri with the authorisation of Kenyan authorities,” he explains.

For over 10 years, he has been researching on the internet for publications, memoirs, photographs and any mention he can find of the 55,000 Italian PoWs who were in Kenya between 1941 and 1947.

Aldo has been able to name and locate all the 15 PoW camps, document events that took place there and place them into a virtual museum on

“I had the book Campo 360 Ndarugu published in Italy early last year. It’s available through Amazon at around $20 a copy and is in the process of being translated into English,” he explains.

Last year, Aldo spoke at various conferences on this subject in four Italian cities — Parma, Padova, Trieste and Brescia — and met many descendants of the prisoners, who contributed anecdotes and memorabilia.

“I had the honour to meet in person a former prisoner, who is now 100 years old,” he says.

Aldo has uncovered amazing stories about the Italian prisoners of war and provided insights into the churches and many other monuments that they built.

He discovered that the Italian prisoners of war camps were only 1,500 metres wide.

“Being a prisoner was not easy …” he explains. “They were humiliated and beaten up. However, life was easier in Kenya than those in Soviet Russia, India, and Burma.”


Prisoners of war were fighters or civilians captured by an enemy and, rather than be killed, they were taken hostage and subjected to harsh conditions.

The prisoners of WWII wrote letters to their families abroad from Kenya.

The letters are a testimony of the suffering experienced by the prisoners and their families during the long years of separation.

The news of the imprisonment of their loved ones arrived to families in Italy with much delay.

Many prisoners tried to escape; some succeeded while others failed and the escapes ended in tragedy.

In almost all armies, military prisoners are obliged to try by any means to escape from captivity to return to their own lines.

Despite the enormous distance that separated Kenya from the colonies of neutral states such as Mozambique, a Portuguese colony, there were numerous escape attempts from the camps.

“The most well-known escape is from Nanyuki camp 354 narrated in Felice Benuzzi’s book Fuga Sul Kenya: 17 Giorni di Libertà (which translates to No Picnic on Mt Kenya: 17 Days of Liberty) from which two films were shot.

Three prisoners, Felice Benuzzi, Dr Giovanni Balletto and Enzo Barsotti climbed Mt Kenya and planted the tricolour flag on Lenana tip at 4,895 meters.


They returned to the field alone, where they suffered a 28-day punishment in the cell.

“In addition to the flag, British climbers also found a bottle with a message left by Benuzzi,” he explains.

From field 356 of Eldoret, Prince Vanni Corsini, who spoke English, managed to impersonate a British officer, take possession of a truck and flee with four companions, reaching Mozambique, which was 2,800 kilometres away.

Their adventure is told in the book Long Flight to the South: The Incredible Escape of Five Italian Prisoners.

“Apart from their escapes, Italian PoWs proved to be very resilient and resourceful. Instead of becoming desperate and downtrodden, they organised themselves in such a way that they became sustainable and self-sufficient,” he says.

They set up orchards and farms and even schools inside the camps, where many Italian prisoners learnt how to read and write.

“This was unusual,” he explains, “because in other places of the world, prisoners were not allowed to do the same. And in Eldoret, two prisoners opened a university.”

Aldo provides many other findings of the Italian prisoners of war and explains how they greatly contributed to the growth and development of Kenya.

“From mid-1943 onwards, these prisoners were given the choice of signing a collaboration agreement with the authorities because Italy had removed itself from World War II,” he explains.

“Many refused to sign and wanted to remain as prisoners because of their allegiance to their country. However, a large number signed and were allowed to work and live outside the camp.


They continued living in Kenya and even started working here.

They were paid in shillings and the salary rate was fixed by the governor — Sh1 a day for qualified personnel while unqualified personnel were paid six pence, which was double the rate of the local African unskilled labour,” he says.

Kenya hosted more than 50,000 prisoners, who were rich and diverse in their professions.

They were masons, architects, engineers and musicians among others, and thus many local expatriates took advantage of this and employed them. They built a number of private houses and other structures.

“They even built irrigation canals for Grogan, who started Gertrude’s Hospital in Taveta,” he says.

“Louis Leakey employed them to help him in his discoveries, and they even repaired aeroplanes and engines at Eastleigh aerodrome with a group of Polish refugees.”

Italian PoW scientists worked at the National Museums of Kenya and discovered two new species. The prisoners built dams to store water in Mt Kenya and roads down escarpments. They also built the famous church there.”


Aldo goes on to give a curious insight into the church and its documentation in Kenya.

“The paintings inside the chapel were done by an Italian prisoner of war, who signed his initial “A” at the bottom of each painting with the word ‘pintori’ right next to it. Many Kenyan journalists thought “A Pintori” was the painter’s name and were wondering why they did not recover any other paintings by this name. But they were wrong, his name is unknown!” he says, giggling.

Almost all the prisoners were repatriated by August 1948. On their return to Italy, they often encountered indifference, if not hostility.

They found that the money they had saved by working in captivity was worth very little.

Aldo’s next ambition is to have his book translated and published in English so as to reach the Kenyan public, and to see a memorandum of understanding signed between Trieste University (a public research university in Italy) and a Kenyan university to promote studies and exchanges on the contribution the prisoners made to the building of modern Kenya.

The PoWs built roads, bridges, dams, irrigation canals, private homes, small churches and the Wajir hospital.

They also rebuilt St Andrew’s School, Turi, after its buildings were razed by fire.


More than 50 localities in Kenya have a connection to the prisoners’ work. Many returned to Kenya after WWII, got married and started businesses here.

“I hope that some younger persons will take over and continue the quest. This is my message to your readers: if you have any information, photos or objects made by the Italian PoWs, please let me have a copy. They will enrich the virtual museum that I have started. The address is,” urges Aldo.

“In Italy, I ended all my conferences with this line: ‘when they returned to Italy, the prisoners of war wanted to forget, but they did not want to be forgotten.’ And every time their relatives nodded in agreement and applauded,” he says.


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