Unexploded Ordnance Left on Kenyan Grazing Grounds

By Robert Otani

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 7, 2001 (ENS) - About 48 years old but looking 80, Lemura Kapisi ole Kipese remembers that August 1979 afternoon as if it is only yesterday.

As young boys do in the pastoral communities of Kenya's sprawling Rift Valley and Northeastern provinces, Kipese was grazing his father's livestock when he saw a shiny metal object.

"On close observation I realized that the oval object had a spring attached to one end," he recalls, the pain of the experience still etched on his furrowed face.

As he tried to pick up the object, the spring snapped and it dropped to the ground. "The next thing I knew was that I was in a hospital bed in excruciating pain. Even today I feel the pain whenever I remember the incident," he says.

Right now, in his disabled state, he cannot do a man's job of herding livestock or fighting off predatory wild animals.

"Since the poisonous bits of the explosive lodged in the lower parts of my body, my left leg had to be amputated. Besides, I lost the use of both arms, which were left paralyzed," he says forlornly.


Maasai people in Kenya (Photo courtesy Maasai Mara Game Park)
Swaili Mpopwoki, 16, was not so lucky. One sultry afternoon in 1979, as she fetched firewood near her home, Swaili picked up a harmless looking object and then threw it to the ground after realizing it had no value.

The object exploded and blew her to smithereens. Recalls her elder brother Ntenaywo, "She slammed the artillery shell on a rock, and it instantly blew up. Shrapnel lodged in her left breast, while pieces of metal hit her face making her blind and badly disfigured." She eventually died of her wounds.

Lemura Kapisi ole Kipese and Swaili Mpopwoki are just two of the hundreds residents of the Dol Dol and Archers' Post areas of the Rift Valley and Northeastern provinces who have been injured or killed by unexploded ordnance. Over the last five years, at least 12 people have died and 322 have been wounded by the explosives.

The explosives are said to have been left behind by British Army soldiers on routine practices in the area's Osiligi range permitted by an agreement between the British and the Kenya governments.

The practices have been going on since pre-independence days, although the latest round started in the late 1970s.

"As a result of the live explosives on the training fields, which serve also as our grazing grounds, hundreds of people have been maimed and an estimated 50 others killed in the last few months alone," says Simon Kaparo, the director of the newly formed Osiligi self help group, which is championing the residents' cause.

The Osiligi residents, mostly Maasai, are a poor community who depend on their livestock for survival. An inclement climate and poor vegetation make their situation more difficult.

The area, covering about 400 square kilometres owned communally, has low lying hills with occasional valleys, seasonal rivers with dry river-beds. The vegetation is sparse, mainly an open woodland of stunted acacia trees.

The soil is sandy, and water is a rarity, making it an ideal place for hardening soldiers in combat skills. Kenyan soldiers and their British and American counterparts have often used the area for this purpose.

The British Army contends that the unexploded ordnances are not theirs and that they are not accountable.


British soldiers in Kenya (Photo courtesy British Army)
But evidence of negligence on the part of the British Army consists of thousands of unexploded artillery shells and bombs strewn about the grazing grounds clearly marked with manufacturers' brand names and model numbers.

The people's poverty makes them easy prey for foreigners, and even locals, who wish to exploit them. "These Mzungus (white men) and even the Kenya military do not bother to consult us when they come to disrupt our source of livelihood," grouses Sainkairi ole Depe, a local civic leader.

During a recent workshop, Programmes on the Effects of Military Training Exercises on Pastoral Livelihoods in Kenya, Speaker of the National Assembly Francis ole Kaparo, drew the attention of the participants to the devastating effects of the program on the residents.

Kaparo noted that white owned ranches in the area were treated differently. "The [white owned] ranches are also used for the military training, but the owners are compensated handsomely by the British Army," he said.

A legal battle in Kenyan and British courts between international civil rights groups and the British Army will address the issue of compensation for the Osiligi residents.

In the coming months, international attention will be focused on the Dol Dol Maasai, a backward people who may not have heard of a place called London, or known where it is on the world map.

After four years of advocacy, British human rights lawyers, ballistics experts and members of the international press arrived in Kenya last week to assess the situation.

In collaboration with the Osiligi, which is the Maasai word for hope, the international civil rights groups are seeking compensation for the residents, compensation that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.


Maasai campfire (Photo courtesy Kenyan Insights)
Evidence of negligence on the part of the British Army is rusting away on the grazing grounds. Some of the explosives seem to have been left there a long time ago, judging by the thick coat of rust on them. It is this charge of negligence that is likely to form the core of the legal battle.

There is also a whole range of issues based on missed opportunities on the part of the community. The issues include environmental destruction as a result of heavy machinery, miscarriages by pregnant women due to the motor and gunfire swoosh during training.

There is also the accusation that the British soldiers show racist behavior towards the residents and their failure to contribute to the development of the area's infrastructure despite earlier pledges to do so.

But the most contentious matter is that of land ownership. "This land is registered under the Group Representative Act and has 13 ranches, each with its own title deed," says Johnson ole Kaunga, an Osiligi founding member.

"At the same time, the land is designated as a military training area. All the same, our community arrived here first. We were not consulted when it was converted into a military training area," he says.

Osiligi chairman Francis ole Nkai Dur argues that were it a military ground, it would be fenced off, which is not the case.

In November last year and after research by, among others, America's ActionAid, the Danish Agency for International Development, MS Kenya and the International Working Group in Indigenous Affairs, another Danish body, Osiligi shot a film spotlighting the situation of the victims.

Titled "The War Games," the film was widely shown in Britain last December, igniting the campaign embers.

Amazed by the human rights violations shown by the film, British law firm Leigh, Day and Co. contacted Osiligi in January. British human rights lawyer Richard Stein came to Kenya on a fact-finding mission in early March.

"After seeing the victims on the ground, the lawyer said the case is very strong and that he would pursue it in Britain," says National Assembly Speaker Kaparo.