Unexploded bombs being found in schools no longer news in Samburu

An unexploded military mortar bomb is pictured in Shabaa, Samburu County, where it was detonated on June 6, 2021.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Ondieki | Nation Media Group

Deep in the pastoral fields of Archer’s Post, Samburu County, herdsmen and boys pass time by making ornaments from metals and other objects collected.

This rather ordinary pastime almost turned tragic at a local school near Laresoro village last year when a group of boys was found playing with a sack full of what turned out to be explosives.

“Were it not for the instincts of one of our workers, it would have been a disaster like no other,” an administrator at the school told the Sunday Nation.

The staffer said he was drawn by playful chatter of boys who were hurling stones at the sack.

“I was curious, given the age of the boys. I thought they were up to mischief. I drove them away and took a look at the contents of the sack,” the worker said.

Though his instincts were right about the boys’ mischief, nothing had prepared him for what he was about to discover. The bag had 16 bombs.

The school administrators called local authorities and British Army officials to get the explosives.

The bombs were later detonated by the British Army about 800 metres from the institution.

Upon investigations, it emerged that the munitions had been collected by pupils from grazing fields early in the week.

Some boys took the “items” to scrap metal dealers but were turned away.

Unfortunately, it was not an isolated incident in this area that has been a military zone for British and Kenyan soldiers for more than 80 years.

The military exercises involve high grade explosives, largely by the British Army.

The drills have turned the bustling town of Archer’s Post in Samburu County into a minefield. Locals are in danger of injury or even death. Livestock too have not been spared.

In this expansive rangeland, one step could easily be the last one.

Military units have been leaving behind unexploded ordnances in the training areas, which also double as grazing fields. The bombs can also be found in residential areas and even schools.

While most of the bombs are usually left behind during training, others are said to be remnants of bombs from the 1940s when British and Italian armies fought in the area.

The British military arrived in Archer’s Post around 1940 during WWII. The resulting war involved heavy munitions and bombs.

After emerging victorious, the British military set up base at Archer’s Post. It eventually became a strategic training area.

Even after Kenya gained independence in 1963, the British military never left the area.

Archer’s Post would eventually become a key training area for the British military, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and paramilitary units of the National Police Service (NPS).

About 5,000 soldiers are sent to Kenya by the UK government for training every year under the British Army Training Unit (Batuk).

Archer’s Post also attracts nomadic pastoralists whose source of income is their animals.

Incidents of children and herders being maimed or killed by bombs have become common.

The situation threatens relations between Archer’s Post residents and military organs, particularly the British.

So dire is the situation that children as young as those in Grade Two have to constantly be taught and trained to identify bombs and what to do when they see them.

“Children are normally very curious. At their age, they should be allowed to play and explore things out there, not learning about bombs,” a teacher at the school said.

In that same year, KDF experts were called to another distressing situation – a bomb had been discovered on the playground of a private school.

The bomb was found over the weekend by pupils who alerted their matron.

“The KDF experts told us that the bomb was old, rusty and inactive. They said it had been buried at the playground for many years,” a worker at the school said.

Almost every adult in Samburu County has had an childhood encounter with a bomb.

The residents have unknowingly collected unexploded bombs that are either remnants of military training or are from the colonial era.

Not much has changed over the years  as their children are still exposed to the risks they faced eons ago.

In Laresoro village, a live bomb remains planted in the ground. Detonating it is a complex procedure, local experts say.

Known as Laga Mines, the area the bomb is buried lies on an all-weather road frequently used by those travelling to Baragoi.

It is enclosed by five metallic rods, erected decades ago. Most of the barricades have been vandalised. With soil erosion, this is a ticking time bomb literally.

The village was the scene of the WWII East African Campaign that began in  1940 and ended the following year.

The British and Commonwealth forces battled Italians,  leaving behind hundreds of bombs.

Apart from unearthing bombs from another era, residents also face the hazards of unexploded ordinances left behind by British or Kenyan armies during training.

One primary school has over the last two decades reported four cases of unexploded ordinances.

For two of the incidents, about seven years ago, the origin of the bombs remains a mystery.

“KDF said the bomb did not belong to them,” said a former teacher.

The misfortune of the school started during its construction when a tractor that was preparing the land dug a bomb from the ground.

The school administration and locals then invited the military to “mop” the compound, but that was not the end.

A few years later, the school reported three other incidents of bombs found by pupils, the most recent being in 2016.

During rainy season, bombs buried for years make it to the surface.

Children often collect unexploded bombs in grazing fields or while playing.

“The shiny explosives attract children,” a resident said.

Some children sell them to scrap metal dealers while others attempt to get what is inside by hitting the bombs on rocks. The results can be catastrophic.

The British Army has admitted the gravity of the situation. It has even publicly said that the military exercises pose a fatal threat to civilians.

In an investigative report following an incident involving a bomb that crippled a 13-year-old boy,  the British Department of Defence admitted that the safety of locals is not guaranteed.

“The complexities of maintaining safe areas during and after conducting live firing and dry training...are considerable. They are even greater when areas are frequented by farmers, villagers and nomadic tribespeople,” the report reads.

This was more evident in 2022 when British military officials revealed to the Daily Nation that a range clearing at the end of an annual training by had resulted in the discovery of 54 unexploded bombs.

The live bombs were found in an area covering 230 square kilometres.

The British Army says it has put in place protocols to prevent injuries but recent findings tell a different story.

Batuk Commander, Duncan Mann, said the British Army works with locals as part of the safety protocols. That involves asking residents to move out of their homes every time soldiers need to train.

“Because we are using live ammunition, there are no civilians in those areas. We apply safety protocols to clear those people and wildlife,” Col Mann said.

“We notify people when the exercise is happening. The locals know we create employment and they want us to be here.”

Batuk spends three to six weeks every year in the area where, hiring up to 140 locals on temporary terms. Each worker takes home Sh800 a day.

While Col Mann admitted there are risks of bombs being left in the field, he added that the British Army has an agreement with Kenyan authorities to collect and dispose abandoned bombs.

“We bring our experts to dispose unexploded ordinances in areas used by Batuk and Kenyan soldiers,” he said.

The Batuk top command has been quick to blame KDF.

“It is difficult to tell whose is whose since we use similar ordinance,” Col Man said.

But even after having to pay out millions of shillings in compensation for injuries and death, it appears little has been done to remedy the situation.

As part of the response to the mess, the British and Kenyan armies have opted for sensitisation programmes in Samburu County. The awareness campaigns mainly target schools. Children are told the dangers of picking such items.

TOMORROW: Read why Nanyuki women love to hate British soldiers