Hearts and Mines

(First published by Delayed Gratification, April 2015)

On a cool Tuesday morning in August 2009 Campbell Bridges awoke to shafts of dawn light falling across his plank-walled bedroom high in the boughs of a white flowering mwarange tree. At seventy-one years old Bridges was still a fit, strong, bear of a man. He shuffled out onto the rickety balcony to stand in the brisk morning air.

From his treehouse Bridges gazed out across a sweeping landscape of red earth and thorny acacia trees. The sun rising behind the three thousand foot high face of Mount Kasigau disolved the chill of another cloudless, silent star-bright night.

When Bridges first made his home in southern Kenya in 1971 the treehouse protected him and his wife Judith from army ants, huge tusked elephants, black rhinos and ferocious maneless lions but decades of poaching had decimated the local wildlife.

Decades later Bridges was facing a new threat, this time from human predators.

A trained geologist, Bridges had discovered a brilliant green emerald-like gem in 1973 and named it Tsavorite. It made his reputation as a gem hunter and his fortune as a dealer but others wanted a piece of the action. In recent years trespassing miners, known as zururas, had begun encroaching on his 600-hectare prospecting area.

The death threats began soon after the latest group arrived. Usually it was a terse phone call in Swahili but sometimes they threatened in person. Recently they had stopped his car on one of the area’s seldom-used rough roads.

“You’ll be dead within a month,” they said, clutching machetes in their hands. “We’re coming to kill you. We’re coming to take your head.”

Campbell Bridges below his treehouse. Photography courtesy of the Bridges family.

Bridges had been born in Britain to a Scottish mother and an English father. He had been taken to South Africa at the age of two and was brought up in a Calvinist household that valued hard work, discipline and playing by the rules. A life lived outdoors was etched on his craggy face and still-fit body. His snow-white hair and beard betrayed his age but Bridges wasn’t about to be intimidated by thugs.

He owned his first mine — signed over to him by his father, a leading geologist in South Africa — when he was just six years old. As a boy he used to marvel at the violet amethysts that shone from the ground. He never lost that early sense of wonder.

Bridges studied geology at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University and learned to cut and polish gems in Germany. In the early 1960s Bridges first spotted an unusual green grossularite garnet in the forested hills of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

In 1967, he quite literally stumbled across it again in Tanzania, when a charging buffalo drove him into a narrow ravine where the green gem sparkled in the dank light. “I had never seen a green like it. It was pure in every sense,” he later wrote.

Soon afterwards Bridges lost his Tanzanian mine in the country’s socialist nationalisation programme and headed for Kenya. He used colonial maps to trace the geological seam northwards, hoping for a repeat discovery. He found it 220 miles east of the capital on the edge of Tsavo. It was an area that was still famous for the man-eating lions that killed dozens of Indian workers in the early 1900s as they laid the tracks of the Lunatic Line, the Mombasa-Nairobi railway that opened up East Africa to white settlers.

For years Bridges worked in secret, digging square prospecting pits by hand and sifting through the gravel searching for gems. He was determined and circumspect. He hid out in the acacia forest covering his tracks carefully and when he found a few of the tiny bright green stones he would set a python — named Patrick — to guard the cache from thieves.

Bridges named the deep pits that led hundreds of feet underground Scorpion Mine after the inches-long venomous insects that lived there. Deep in the tunnels that were dynamited into the earth and braced with wooden beams the miners would sometimes encounter poisonous snakes.

“The sun had just risen when several workers jumped down into the pit,” Bridges wrote of one run-in with a spitting cobra. “The snake… raised his head almost a metre, spread his hood and angrily slithered toward the nearest man. A spray of wet venom struck him on the side of his neck, where his eyes had been just a split second earlier.”

When he left the camp for more than a few days in search of his prized green gem, Bridges would return to find antelope bones strewn across his bed, left by leopards who would occupy the treehouse when he went away.

In 1973 Bridges and his friend Harry Platt, the then boss of jewellery company Tiffany & Co, named his discovery Tsavorite.

In an advertising campaign that followed the naming Bridges bears a striking resemblance to Ernest Hemingway. The bearded, rugged adventurer glares sternly from the pages of the New York Times. “For centuries only giraffes and other African animals knew about Tsavorite, an incredibly brilliant green gemstone,” read the advert. Now it was available to everyone — at a price.

Bridges climbed down from his treehouse for a breakfast of pancake-like chapattis and sweet strong masala tea. He was joined by his 31-year-old son, Bruce and security men Amos Kiamba and Philip Cheruiyot. Together they left the mine and headed for the regional town of Wundanyi in a battered Peugeot 504 pick-up. It was a little after seven and the sun was already hot.

The red dirt road to Voi. Photograph by Tugela Ridley.

They bumped along a dusty and uneven single-track road through a large sisal estate. The day before the driver of a Toyota pick up had blocked the way with his truck. Men armed with clubs and machetes sat in the back.

Bridges recognized the car as one used by rival mining company Tia Akili, part-owned by a local politician. The zururas who had been making threats were all Tia Akili miners.

Six-foot-three and built like the American football quarterback he was in his college days, Bruce grabbed a heavy club that he had taken to keeping in the car. There were shouted threats before the men drove off again. Afterwards Bruce told his father: “This time we managed to stand them down but they’ll just calculate that next time they need two or three times as many people.”

Wundanyi is an unmemorable town of mud brick, tin roofed buildings in the Taita Hills. Two of Bridges’ guards, or askaris, were in the local jail. The askaris had been seized by Tia Akili miners who accused them of trespassing on their land.

A day of frustration followed as father and son worked their way through Kenya’s creaking judicial bureaucracy to free the men. As the afternoon wore on Kiamba received a call from a neighbouring landowner who warned that a gang of men had dug deep trenches across the track leading into the Bridges’ prospecting area.

Some years earlier the unlicensed miners had sought to claim the territory by nailing a metal sign to a post and digging trenches to block the Bridges from entering, so this latest news was not a surprise, but it was worrying.

The local police refused to give Bridges an armed escort. In the late afternoon the six men — Bridges, Bruce, Kiamba, Cheruiyot and the two askaris — began the drive back to Scorpion Mine.

The first roadblock they met was a pair of shallow trenches and a pile of rocks dragged across the track close to Leopard Hill, a spot that Bridges had named after a cat that used to sun itself on rocky slab at the summit. Bridges had once mined there. After he moved the zururas had begun digging, turning the hill into a cratered moonscape of hand-dug shafts and gravel piles.

Bridges drove around the trenches, skirting the far side of the hill. A couple of miles on there was a bigger barricade of deep trenches and thick acacia tree trunks completely blocking the track. Bridges stopped and a group of eight men ran out of the thick bush behind them.

“They were running at us with spears, machetes, clubs, knives, bows and arrows,” said Bruce. “They were screaming at the top of their lungs in Swahili, ‘We’ve come to kill you all’. It was either fight or die.”

Bruce grabbed his club and an ancient, heavy bayonet that he had also stashed in the car and opened the door. His father leapt from the car, shifted his feet wide raised his fists. Kiamba and Cheruiyot jumped out of the pick-up and stood ready. As many more men armed with crude weapons appeared from either side of the road the two askaris fled.

The gang descended on the four men and Bruce realised with horror that he was too far from his father. A moment later a man with a long knife lunged at Bridges who was fending off another man armed with a spear.

“I made the wrong tactical decision,” Bruce said. “I could have saved him if I hadn’t made the wrong choice. It was my job to defend him and to stay at his side and I was further away than I should have been.”

The knife blow that killed Bridges broke three ribs, punctured a lung and passed through his heart. He slumped to the ground immediately, blood seeping into the red earth. As Bruce swung his club at the assailants Kiamba and Cheruiyuot fought back too and the tide of the battle began to turn. “We were starting to gain the upper hand. These were cowards, it was 30 men on four, and they ran,” said Bruce.

But the damage was already done. Bruce used a shirt to staunch the bleeding and hauled his father onto the flatbed of the Peugeot. He sped the car back down the road towards Voi, a larger town an hour’s drive away where there was a hospital and an airstrip.

At the hospital Bruce burst into the emergency room, grabbed a gurney and hefted his father onto it. When the doctor told him there were no signs of life he made him check again. And again. Four times. Even then he couldn’t quite believe his father was dead.

“When I could walk I was at the mine,” said Bruce when I first met him in the days after the attack that killed his father. “I have pictures of me swinging a pick and shovel when I was four years old.”

In his father’s Nairobi office family photos and watercolour portraits hung from the walls, lumps of rock and small sealed plastic bags of gems were scattered on the tables and the floor was covered with boxes and piles of paper.

As Bruce spoke his fingers wandered to an angry red line that ran across his neck, the result of a glancing machete blow.

“Gems were always my father’s passion in life,” said Bruce. “He would look at the landscape and to him it was like a book, he could read it and tell you this is here or that is there.”

Bruce and his sister Laura, two years older, were both born in the United States but their childhoods were lived among Tsavo’s wild beauty. “We were with him at the mine [and] in the treehouses, we went with him on his safari adventures prospecting. It was really a fantasy childhood, things you read about in books,” said Bruce.

“He always had a beard, for as long as I can remember [and] he reminded me of a big male lion,” he said. “We knew that no matter what happened he would always look after his pride.”

When I visited Scorpion Mine not long after Bridges’ murder the treehouse stood watch over a silent camp. The compound was an oasis with sprays of red bougainvillea and pink desert rose but the mine shafts were padlocked and most of the workers had been sent home. A handful of guards and a pair of armed police officers were there to ward off thieves.

“This is where they killed our father,” said Kiamba, who had agreed to show me around. His heavy shoulders shook and his broad chest heaved with grief and anger as he pointed to the spot where Bridges had died. Scars as thick as a finger protruded from his neck where a series of machete blows had landed during the attack.

“I wake at night and see him in my dreams and I remember 30 years of growing up with him from a boy until the adult I am today. I boil with rage,” he said. “If I see one of those killers, if I am without a weapon, I would tear his throat out with my teeth.”

Bridges’ murder shocked many, but not his fellow miners. “It’s not just us who have had problems. These are organised bandits not aimless wanderers, it is a mafia system down there,” said Bruce.

Guards at Scorpion Mine. Photograph by Tugela Ridley.

The dust devils that twist across the bone-dry plains and the surrounding rocky hills make this area feel like the Wild West, and that’s how the miners live too: a lawless, frontier existence. Daud Osman Sidi, a fellow miner and old friend of Bridges, also chose to dig for his fortune here. From the hilltop home that doubles as his mining company’s office and plant he looks out across a carpet of dark green sisal plantations towards the hazy blue of the Taita Hills.

Bridges used to stop by for Sidi’s spicy chicken curry, sometimes spending entire nights talking in the moonlit dark. “Campbell was like family. He was a great friend, a good man, but strict!” said Sidi. “For your business to survive you must be strong and strict. He had it.”

Over the years Sidi has had his own run-ins with illegal miners. “They ambushed me three times. They said they would cut my throat!” said Sidi. He used to warn Bridges: “Watch out, they’re not after me alone”.

In his younger days Sidi was a hunter, tracking the Greater Kudu with its twisting, three-foot long horns. Now his guns are for self defence. “I have guns. I can kill 20 people,” he said. “But they will kill me also.”

Dangerous as they can be, Sidi said, the zururas are just the footsoldiers. The real criminals, he said, are local ‘Big Men’.

“Local people destroy our mines and our equipment, but the inciters are the MPs, the ministers,” said Sidi, his speech flitting between Swahili and heavily-accented English. “The local politicians are greedy for the votes, they encourage it.”

A call to evict foreigners is a vote winner for politicians seeking support among the area’s impoverished locals. For some, however, the involvement is much deeper.

Andrew Calist Mwatela was the local MP and assistant education minister in the Kenyan government when Bridges was killed. He was also a 51 percent shareholder in Tia Akili. When I met him in his Nairobi office Mwatela said he had very little to do with the mining operation and insisted he had nothing to do with the murder, and that he would not stand in the way of justice.

“I didn’t know Bridges, I never met Bridges, I’ve never been to the mining site,” Mwatela said. “I feel very aggrieved. Why do [the Bridges family] insinuate my involvement just because my name appears on a company [listing]? It is unfair.”

“If people from Tia Akili were involved, let them prove it. I am not protecting anybody,” he said.

A police officer investigating the case saw things differently but would only speak on condition of anonymity. “The killers are being protected by politicians who have an influence over the security system in the area. When they say something it is immediately done,” he said.

The police officer’s view echoed Sidi’s. “If the criminals have hidden in the cover of these politicians it is difficult for us to make an arrest. Big names like Mwatela and other businessmen here in Voi are involved, they are the managers and the supervisors, the others are the workmen,” he said.

When six illegal miners were arrested just weeks before Bridges’ murder, the officer said, a phone call from Mwatela brought their immediate release. Some of the freed men are alleged to have taken part in the subsequent ambush.

“I don’t remember phoning the police to tell them to release anybody,” Mwatela told me. He sought to distance himself from the attackers, even if they did work for his company. “To be an employee there has to be an arrangement between you and those people and I don’t remember signing any agreement or employing those people,” he said.

Amos Kiamba at the scene of the murder. Photograph by Tugela Ridley.

After surviving the ambush Bruce and Kiamba became both witnesses and investigators. They helped police identify, track down and arrest suspects but the case moved at a glacial pace.

“I was closer to the men who did this than me to you,” Bruce once told me as we sat either side of a narrow wooden table. “I saw them. I know them. I know who funded it, who organised it and who carried it out.”

Frustrated with the repeated delays, Bruce submitted a 30-page dossier of allegations and evidence to the Kenyan government in April 2010. Days later Kiamba’s daughter and son-in-law were attacked and killed in the coastal town of Kilifi, close to Mombasa. The assailants took nothing but the victims’ identity cards.

In April last year seven men were put on trial in Mombasa and on December 18th — five years and four months after Bridges’ death — four were found guilty of murder. Mohamed Dadi, Alfred Njuruka, Samuel Mwachala and James Chacha, all in their 40s and 50s and all employees of Tia Akili, were sentenced to 40 years each. The three others were acquitted. The court released the man Bruce had identified as the gang leader, and no efforts were made to investigate who might have been behind the attack.

During sentencing the judge, Maureen Odero, said the murder was the culmination of a long-running dispute over mining rights. She said the killers, “viewed the deceased as an outsider who had been given a license to exploit the mineral wealth on their land.”

Soon afterwards I spoke to Bridges’ widow Judith on the phone. Her voice was strained, the stress of her husband’s killing and the years-long struggle for justice competing with the elation of victory in court. “I’m so thankful that justice has been done for some of those involved,” she said. “I’ll certainly rest easier knowing they are in jail.”

Judith said “a message has been sent” and that the ruling was, “a victory for law and order over cartels and violence”.

For Judith and Bruce justice was welcome, but partial. Taking the phone from his mother Bruce told me he would continue to press for the “remaining perpetrators” — the killers and their backers — to be put on trial. And he said that he hoped to reopen his father’s Scorpion Mine at last, returning to the treehouse deep in the Tsavo wilds to ensure his father’s legacy and honour his memory.

Originally published at www.slow-journalism.com on April 1, 2015