Kenyan women win legal aid to sue MOD over rape claims

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The Independent Online

Elizabeth Rikanna weeps when she recalls the day two wandering British soldiers destroyed her life. Two decades later, she may finally see justice.

Elizabeth Rikanna weeps when she recalls the day two wandering British soldiers destroyed her life. Two decades later, she may finally see justice.

The Masai woman, then a 22-year-old student, was collecting water from a river near her village in northern Kenya when the uniformed men walked up. First they greeted her in Swahili and helped her to draw water. But then they raped her, while a third soldier holding their guns watched quietly.

"I thought they were trained to be disciplined and good. But those people were bad," she said, sitting in dusty yard with 150 women who also claimed to have been raped by British soldiers. "I felt so wasted, so ashamed."

The Masai, with their coloured beads, shawls and elongated ear lobes, are one of Kenya's most distinctive peoples. For years foreign tourists have flocked to admire their unique way of life, virtually untarnished by modernity. But it is alleged that for three decades some of one group of foreigners - visiting British soldiers -had more sinister designs.

More than 650 Masai and Samburu women claim they were raped by British soldiers over the past three decades near military training grounds on Kenya's remote northern plains. Yesterday they were awarded free legal aid to bring their multimillion-pound claim against the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to a British court.

Their lawyer expects the caseload to swell to up to 1,000 by the time it comes to court. If successful it could cost the British taxpayer up to £20m.

More than half of the women allege gang-rape; at least 40 say the attacks resulted in mixed-race children being born. They say that, over the years, they complained to local police, chiefs and British officers. For the most part, they were ignored. Many have stories similar to Ms Rikanna, now a 41-year-old schoolteacher.

In a conservative, rural community such as the Masai, rape brings more than personal pain. The women are often ostracised.

In Ms Rikanna's case, her father kicked her out, calling her a prostitute. Nine months later she gave birth to a light-skinned baby girl. Now a teenager, the girl is known in school as "mzungu", or "white woman".

Ms Rikanna cannot pluck up the courage to tell the girl about her father. She said: "She wants to be a journalist. I think she wants to find out."

According to local documents, the British Army has known of these allegations for almost 30 years. But, until this April, it apparently did nothing about them. Now the women have been able to employ a lawyer. Martyn Day won £4.5m from the Ministry of Defence last year for injuries and death caused by exploding military ordnance in the same area.

He said of the rape allegations: "What's amazing is that so many people knew about these complaints for so long, but nobody did anything about them."

Amnesty International is calling for a formal inquiry into the alleged incidents. In a report published yesterday, it said the failure of the British Army to investigate repeated allegations "may amount to institutional acquiescence [and] have contributed to perpetration of more rapes".

One of the most disturbing allegations concerns Gurkha soldiers training near Lekiji village between November 1999 and March 2000.

At least 27 rapes were reported, usually of women fetching firewood or water. At least four mixed-race children resulted. One woman told researchers that her aggressors had Asian features, dark hair and spoke a language of "sharp and short sounds".

Another, attacked while collecting food for her goat, said she was gagged and sodomised. She remembered the soldiers "panting like dogs" before she vomited and passed out.

To compound the indignity, the victims were subsequently treated as outcasts in their own community. Some said their husbands wanted to beat them as well as take revenge on the soldiers; one refused to stay with "the leftovers of the Gurkhas".

According to local records, the manager of nearby Mpala ranch, where the Gurkhas were training, subsequently asked local police to patrol the stream bordering Lekiji village. But, apparently, no British inquiry followed.

A spokeswoman for the MoD said she could not comment on the allegations until a Royal Military Police investigation, which started last April, was completed.

Simon Ole Kaparo of Impact, a local advocacy group helping the women bring the cases, said that, of the 650 rape claimants, some could be jumping on the compensation bandwagon. They live in communities where some families survive on about £20 a month. He said: "Up to 30 per cent may be bogus." But any fake claims should not detract from the urgent grievance of genuine cases, he added. "Their lives are shattered. Some have no families; others have large medical bills. They have no standing in the community and this is to help them start living anew."

About 3,000 British soldiers train on two grounds, Dol Dol and Archers Post, in northern Kenya every year. The British Army claims that it first heard of the rape allegations in November 2002.

But documents collected by Mr Day suggest that the Army knew much earlier.

A local chief complained to the commanding officer in a letter dated 10 August 1977.

And in a meeting between local leaders and British officials six years later, the minutes record a named army captain, saying he was "very much sympathetic" to the rape victims.

All rape allegations should be notified to the Royal Military Police in Britain but according to Mr Day, no such report came from Kenya.

He said: "Either the atmosphere in Kenya was such that the rulebook was thrown away, or the officers were told not to make a fuss, because nothing ever happens there."

THE BRITISH ARMY IN KENYA

Olive-green Land Rovers roaring up the dusty streets of Nanyuki, a northern town with a British military base near the site of the alleged Masai rapes, testify to the long-standing ties between the British Army and Kenya.

British troops moved to East Africa in the late 19th century, when Kenya established the port of Mombasa and the interior as its territory. The soldiers squashed resistance from the Masai in the 1890s, allowing white settlers to penetrate the fertile "white highlands". But the bloodiest chapter was during the 1950s. The Kikuyu tribe resented the 42,000 white settlers and launched the Mau Mau resistance. By 1956, 55,000 British soldiers had quelled the uprising, sometimes brutally. Human rights abuses, particularly against Mau Mau detainees, have left a swell of resentment in Kenya.

Since independence in 1963, thousands of British troops have trained in Kenya on the remote northern plains of Samburu district.