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British finally agree to help Kenyans injured by their munitions - 2002-07-25

In Kenya, victims of improperly stored munitions are finally getting help. The arms were abandoned by the British army 20 years ago. The 228 Kenyans – mostly pastoralists -- were wounded in a number of different incidents near the old artillery grounds near Archers Post and Dol Dol. Last week, a British law team helped them reach a six and a half million dollar out-of-court settlement with the British Ministry of Defense. And now their law firm wants to help the new millionaires in how to invest, get medical treatment, and generally make the best use of the money.

A lawyer from the British law firm Leigh, Day and Company says the money will help improve the lives of those who suffered the worst injuries, including loss of sight and limbs. Carol Hatton says according to the deal with the British Defense Ministry, payments should be made by November. Meanwhile, the law firm will now give expert advice to its clients, some of whom will get six figure sums of money in British pound sterling.

Ms. Hatton said: "What we will be doing between now and November is to be speaking to each of the 228 claimants to advise them on how that money might be paid, you know and how perhaps if they want to, they might choose to have some of it as a capital fund and perhaps some to invest in new deals or some sort of income that may come by in a longer period of time, because obviously we are aware that some of these people, it’s a very large sum of money, some of them have a six figure sum in English, in sterling terms, obviously a lot more in Kenyan shillings. So, we need to advise people on how they can best use that money, how they can get the treatment which a lot of them will want be wanting to have, so our real work in the next few months is advising those people and making sure they are fully prepared when then money comes through."

Kenya’s Nation newspaper says the British law firm was able to take the matter to British courts because of a landmark ruling in the House of Lords in 1997. It said cases involving British companies -- or the government -- can be taken to court in Britain if it is established that "substantial justice" cannot be obtained in the country where the incident occurred.

Archers Field and Dol Dol were training fields for the British soldiers from 1945 until independence in 1963. During that time, soldiers reportedly fired various types of ordnance, some of which did not explode and were left behind.

The victims are mainly pastoralists in Laikipia, Samburu and Isiolo districts of Kenya. Most of them children who came into contact with the munitions while herding cattle.

Some of the victims, like Beatrice Lelekong, now lead a life of permanent dependency. She was five years old when she stooped down to pick up a shining metal object -- it exploded, blowing away both her hands and legs. Lawyers say by far the most victims are thought to be children like Beatrice who could not read the signs warning them not to touch things they find on the ground. Now at age 26, Ms Lelekong and many others who suffered similar or even worse injuries, will have funds to help improve their lives.

Ms. Hatton denied that her law firm would also take the Kenyan government to court – although many people say it is equally to blame for not removing the munitions:

"No, we can not actually operate against a foreign government in that way. This is actually another reason why the case is very novel because we were able to take an action against the British government for their actions in Kenya. That’s only been possible in legal terms within the last couple of years. We are fairly sure that portions of munitions that were found there are obviously of the Kenyan army, we are just hoping that they will take a leaf out of the same book and their cleaning up operations will improve as well. We won’t be able to take action against the Kenyan army in legal terms anyway."

The Kenyan government had said it would take no responsibility unless lawyers could prove that it caused the injuries. The cartridges retrieved from grazing fields in northern Kenya all have British Ministry of Defence markings.

Ms. Hatton said the agreement reached with the British Defence Ministry last week specifies that no new claims will be considered for the victims at Archers Post and Dol Dol. But the landmark settlement is seen as setting a precedent that may open floodgates for similar action by victims of abandoned live ammunition by British troops in other parts of Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.