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Kenyans sue the British army over fire at wildlife sanctuary

By Emmanuel Onyango

BBC News, Lolldaiga conservancy

image copyrightBATUK

image captionThe fire that broke out in March destroyed almost a quarter of the conservancy

Linus Murangiri was crushed to death by a vehicle as he rushed to help put out a fire at a Kenyan wildlife sanctuary which was hosting a training exercise by the British army.

Despite all the publicity over the fire in March, his death has not previously been acknowledged.

Although there is no suggestion the British army was directly involved in the death of Mr Murangiri , his widow has now told the BBC she wants a speedy investigation into how her husband died and the cause of the fire, and for the findings to be made public.

The fire, which has been blamed on the military exercise, destroyed about 12,000 acres of land at the privately-owned Lolldaiga conservancy in central Kenya, home to animals such as elephants, buffalos, lions, hyenas, jackals and the endangered Grevy’s zebra.

One British soldier allegedly wrote in a Snapchat post: “Two months in Kenya later and we’ve only got eight days left. Been good, caused a fire, killed an elephant and feel terrible about it but hey-ho, when in Rome.”

The official cause of the fire has not been made public but the incident is at the centre of an environmental lawsuit brought by a lobby group and almost 1,000 local residents.

Residents say the scale of the wildfire at the conservancy was unprecedented – they say it lasted for at least four days as thick plumes of smoke filled the sky, making it impossible to move.

They say it smelt like a barbeque, although the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has denied claims that five elephants and a calf were killed.

Some elderly people say they suffered burning eyes, while local preacher Duncan Kariuki, 43, said his one-year-old child had to be hospitalised for smoke inhalation.

A spokesperson for the British High Commission said the army had conducted an internal investigation into the fire but because “this is part of an ongoing court case, it would be inappropriate to comment any further”.

image copyrightAFP

image captionThe location on the equator is ideal for harsh environment training

The Lolldaiga conservancy – about 49,000 acres of hilly bushland with a backdrop of the ice-capped Mount Kenya – is part of the Laikipia plateau, where hundreds of thousands of acres was seized by the British during the colonial era, leading to land disputes which continue to this day.

It is just 70km (45 miles) from the Lewa conservancy, where Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in November 2010.

A few kilometres to the south are the newly refurbished Nyati Barracks, a £70m facility also known as British Army Training Unit Kenya (Batuk), that hosts thousands of British troops every year for massive exercises in Lolldaiga, which offers ideal conditions for harsh environment training.

It has been used by the British army for over a decade, according to local residents. There are also joint exercises with Kenyan soldiers.

But local support is dwindling – at least among residents living nearby who spoke to the BBC. They said they had become accustomed to hearing loud explosions, gunfire and low-flying aircraft near their homes, throughout the day and night.

image copyrightAFP

image captionBritish soldiers hold military exercises at the Lolldaiga conservancy every year

The 994 signatories of the lawsuit have several complaints:

  • Their right to a clean and healthy environment has been violated
  • Military standards on the safe conduct of training – including ignoring sustainable use of the environment and the health of the immediate community – were broken
  • Wildlife escaping artillery fire at the conservancy have invaded their homes and destroyed their crops
  • They want the British army and the conservancy to bear responsibility for ecological damage to a water catchment area

The community is hoping to use an environmental impact assessment report that they commissioned to back up their claims.

“Living near this training camp has been difficult, especially because of the wildlife that has been destroying our farms and attacking our school-going children. The number of wild animals roaming in the village increased significantly after the fire,” said Mr Kariuki, who is one of the petitioners.

Macharia Mwangi of the African Centre for Corrective and Preventive Action (ACCPA), which is also part of the lawsuit, said he was not opposed to the presence of the British army in Kenya, and nor did he want the training to stop completely.

“What we oppose is continued devastation of the environment and ecosystem of close to 5,000 people.”

Lawyers for the British army in June asked the environment court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the Kenyan courts lack jurisdiction over the matter. The court will rule on the request later this month.

Karen Gatwiri has not yet signed the petition, but she has been struggling since she lost her husband during the fire.

image captionLife has been hard for Karen Gatwiri and her sons since her husband died

The BBC found her with her two boys, aged four and two, in a small town about an hour’s drive from the conservancy. They live in a rented three-room wooden shack whose interior is lined with pieces of tarpaulin to keep out the cold. She has converted one of the rooms into a kiosk for selling household items, but business is slow.

There were no goodbyes with her husband, she said, and there has been no communication about his death from the conservancy or any authority.

Her husband’s workmates told her that he died after he fell from a vehicle and was run over. Records at the local morgue indicate that he died instantly from head injuries suffered on impact. The conservancy has now admitted the death for the first time, but says it wasn’t obliged to publicly announce it as it happened on private property.

image captionKaren Gatwiri is selling household items from her wooden shack

“I feel bad that his death was unacknowledged because I have all the documents [death certificate and burial permits] to show that he died. They have not respected me as the mother of his children by not telling everyone how he died,” Ms Gatwiri said with a trembling voice.

“I want the truth to be known – investigations should be done and justice sought for me and my children. Because the truth is that he died at the conservancy [during the fire].”

The UK High Commission in Nairobi told the BBC that “we were saddened to learn of the death of an employee of Lolldaiga conservancy” and that the conservancy had “been in close contact with the family”, making all necessary arrangements.

“Linus was a valued member of the conservancy and our thoughts remain with his family, to whom there have been several private ex-gratia payments,” the conservancy’s general manager Harry Hanegraaf said in a statement.

Ms Gatwiri however insisted she had not received any money from the conservancy.

“We are no longer eating as we used to, I’m not able to educate my eldest child, and I can’t pay the rent – I have to beg from my relatives. If Linus was still alive I wouldn’t be struggling like this.”

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