A Kenyan herders' suit against British Army targets leftover bombs and may send militaries a warning.

Jeuna Lekilit was herding his family's goats when he discovered a shiny metal object lying on the ground. Intrigued, he decided to bang it with a stone.

In a flash, his world changed. Jeuna had stumbled on a white phosphorous smoke bomb - a device used by armies to disorient the enemy on the battlefield. Jeuna, however, was no one's enemy, but a boy whose home turf had been used for foreign war games.

Now, at age 10, with scars from burns on his left shoulder and left side of his head, he is part of what is shaping up to be a landmark legal action against the British Army. If successful, the suit could have far-reaching implications for British, US, and other military forces that train abroad.

The British Army conducts live-fire military training in 28 countries, including the US, Canada, Cyprus, Jamaica, Malaysia, and a dozen in Europe.

For the past 50 years, British soldiers have held military exercises on large swaths of savannah near Dol Dol and Archer's Post, two tiny towns some 150 miles north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

According to estimates from local health clinics, about 200 people - almost all children - have been killed, and many more injured, by exploding mortar shells, smoke bombs, and other ammunition left behind after the soldiers depart.

Pastoralists go to court

About 100 ethnic Masai and Samburu herders are suing the British Army in a case that is being brought in the United Kingdom by British lawyers.

The plaintiffs, though Kenyan, were declared eligible for British legal aid in April. Last year, the House of Lords - which acts as the country's Supreme Court - ruled that British entities could be held liable in the UK for negligent acts committed overseas.

"If (the lawsuit) was in Kenya, I don't think we would stand a single chance," says Simon ole Kaparo, program manager for Osiligi, a local community-development group whose activists are spearheading the fight for financial compensation for injured individuals and victims' families.

That's not all the communities want, says Mr. Kaparo: "The Army has used our land for quite some time, so we also expect some bit of compensation for the damages they have caused to the land. Thirdly, we want this training to come to an end. This is not government land, this is the people's land."

The training exercises have taken place on "group ranches" - large tracts of land owned collectively by pastoralist families. The Kenyan government decreed the properties could be used for army maneuvers and until now, the herders, mostly illiterate, felt there was nothing they could do about it.

"They don't realize they have rights on their land, and they are afraid of the government," Kaparo says. "The government has taken advantage of the communities and their ignorance."

A spokesman for the British High Commission in Nairobi says the plaintiffs cannot prove that their injuries are a result of British Army maneuvers. The Kenyan military also trains on the land, and in the past three years, so have American soldiers.

"While we believe there's no evidence to link the injuries and deaths to UK military operations, the legal groups have every right to bring their case," says press officer Rufus Drabble.

Mr. Drabble says the British Army's post-exercise cleanup procedures are adequate.

Martyn Day, the London lawyer for the plaintiffs, was in Kenya earlier this month to try to prove otherwise. He and David Taylor, an ex-British Army munitions expert, hiked across stony, overgrazed fields and around bushes with needle-sharp thorns looking for mortar shells and smoke bombs.

They didn't find many, however.

Day says that is because for the past month, the British Army has employed 60 local people to scour the ground for unexploded ordnance.

"It is only when they are threatened with legal action that the British Army is forced into taking the right steps that they should have taken many, many years ago," he says. "Call me a cynic, but it seems something more than a coincidence that the largest-scale cleanup operation ever goes on in Archer's Post and in the 10 days before we arrive, the British Army go to Dol Dol three times. If that is not attempting to cover your tracks, I don't know what is."

According to the British Army, however, this year's cleanup, called Operation Pineapple, was a routine annual procedure.

Mr. Taylor says a lieutenant-colonel would not let him look at the bombs that had been collected in the cleanup.

"Why couldn't they at least show me the items so I could confirm whether or not they were of British origin?"

Last Thursday, in the presence of journalists, local people showed Day and Taylor four bombs near Dol Dol, including a high-explosive fragmentation mortar.

Taylor pointed to the initials of a British arms manufacturer on one smoke bomb. "It's quite old, but it's still live and will still cause a hazard to people," he said.

"The fact that bomb is still here suggests their cleanup is not as good as it could be," added Day.

At a news conference in Nairobi on Friday, Day called on the British government to establish a compensation fund for the victims rather than fight the case in court. He says he expects as many as 300 more victims to join the suit and says proceedings could be initiated within two months.

Global alert?

While this compensation claim is targeting the British Army, Day says the case should also send a message to the US military. "There may be an issue to come in the future for the Americans," he says. "They will be very ill-advised not to learn the lessons from this."

Last year, the High Court in London ruled that Britain acted illegally in evicting people from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia in 1971 to make way for a US air base.

Puerto Rico continues to protest US Navy exercises on the island of Vieques. Rejecting allegations that the practice bombing causes health problems among the 9,400 residents, the Navy says the troops need the Vieques war games for adequate training.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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