Unexploded bombs: The British army’s deadly legacy in Kenya

Declassified meets Kenyans affected by British military exercises, including a boy maimed by a bomb who suffers 'continuous endless torture' and women who claim the army's use of white phosphorus causes blindness and miscarriages.

21 December 2022

Lisoka Lesasuyan in Dol Dol, November 2022. (Photo: Phil Miller / Declassified UK)

In 2015, a teenage boy stumbled across a strange metal object while playing football. Lisoka Lesasuyan, 13, had unwittingly found a mortar fuze.

“It exploded in his hands,” his father Lawan tells me as we sit on the outskirts of Dol Dol, a dust swept settlement three hours drive down dirt roads from a UK military barracks in Kenya. “After the blast, the British army came and took the debris and gave him first aid.”

Lisoka is perched nervously next to his dad, wearing a white shawl to disguise his injuries. 

The damage was so severe that Lisoka lost both arms below the elbow. His right eye was gouged out by shrapnel, and his chest covered in burns.

I’ve written about Lisoka’s story several times before, but it’s the first time we’ve met. He was keen to see me and got up at 3am to start walking towards Dol Dol. Apparently it’s too dangerous for foreigners to visit his village without armed security.

There’s a severe drought in northern Kenya – some areas haven’t had rain for two years. People are starving and some resort to shooting passing cars to steal water. It’s an incredibly difficult environment for anyone to live in, let alone a double amputee. 

And yet this is where the British army has one of its oldest firing ranges in Kenya, known as Archers Post.

“The British soldiers are always training around there,” Lisoka’s father explains. “These days they come to warn people there will be a risk of explosions, but they didn’t use to do that before the accident. Sometimes we’re not able to avoid the area because we have to graze our cattle.”

The area is frequented by the Samburu and Maasai, two of Kenya’s best known nomadic communities. For them, Archers Post has become notorious for unexploded ordnance or UXO. This is military jargon for mortars that fail to detonate on impact and nestle in the ground like a landmine. 

More than 50 such items have been found this year alone. A British army commander in Kenya, Paul Longwell, said in October: “This is really encouraging news for us because we have seen a steady decrease in the number of finds year on year, and what are being cleared now are often legacy munitions, going back decades or more.”

Lisoka leaves Dol Dol with his father and a friend. (Photo: Phil Miller / Declassified UK)

The hazard became so prolific 20 years ago that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) had to pay £5m in damages to 1,274 farmers who had suffered death or injury. At least 560 people were killed. 

A further set of claims was prevented, on the basis the incidents happened too long ago. These days, the British army tries to avoid liability by saying some of the shells were fired by Kenyan troops, who now use Archers Post as well.

But Lisoka’s case shows the problem has not gone away. When he was injured, his father flagged down a passing British army vehicle, which took them to hospital. There, the MOD interviewed Lisoka to ascertain what had caused the explosion. “He couldn’t hear anything when the soldiers asked him questions in hospital – Lisoka has no memory of it,” Lawan tells me.

Based in part on that hospital interview, the MOD claimed the mortar fuze was just as likely to come from Kenyan forces, so they would only award limited damages of £67,000. “The compensation isn’t enough for the medical care he needs throughout his life,” Lawan says. “He doesn’t have prosthetic arms and needs constant care.”

It astonishes me that Lisoka was questioned in those circumstances. Even today, seven years on, his hearing appears badly affected from the blast and he looks mentally vacant – impacts ignored in the payout. 

I need two interpreters to put questions to him and his father, as my English is translated into Swahili and then Maa, the Samburu’s language. How the army managed to have a meaningful interview with him so soon after the explosion is extremely dubious.

What’s more, Lisoka’s family were not shown the army’s own investigation. Obtained by Declassified through freedom of information requests, it shows the mortar fuze almost certainly came from British troops. Worryingly, the fuze contained a type of explosive that was known to be faulty, and was recommended to be withdrawn from use before the accident.

“We didn’t have the capacity back then to prove our case beyond any reasonable doubt, so that’s why we accepted whatever compensation came out of it,” Lawan commented. “But now God has provided this evidence, we wish to be able to have a review of the case, because it seems to put the liability squarely on the British.” 

Lisoka’s story is shared by many Samburu, including those at Umoja, a women only village near Archers Post. It was set up by British army rape victims, although their claims were rejected by the MOD. 

One of the women, Paulina Lekuireiya, blames UXO for the death of her brother, Joseph Lolbenyo. “The British army left bombs in an area where cattle pass,” she says. “My brother touched one of the bombs and he died immediately.” 

Her neighbour Rose Lakanta agrees: “Sometimes when we are looking after the cattle, we walk on an unexploded bomb and it blows off one of our legs.” 

Lantano Nabaala, a Samburu politician and speaker at the county assembly in Laikipia, where the British army is based, is outraged at Lisoka’s plight. “He will live a very long life of suffering because he doesn’t have hands and one eye isn’t working,” he comments. “It is like putting people into a continuous endless torture.”

Paulina Lekuireiya says her brother was killed by unexploded ordnance. (Photo: Phil Miller / DCUK)

White phosphorus

Unexploded ordnance is not the only hazard British troops create around Archers Post. This year Declassified revealed the area is used for firing white phosphorus, an incendiary device akin to a chemical weapon. The MOD argues this practice is permissible, as it’s not aimed at civilians – but their attitude is very different when Russia uses it in Ukraine or Syria.

The women in Umoja are extremely worried about the health effects. “I’ve seen white coloured smoke in the sky which affects the people,” Rose recalls. “Some go blind, others get breathing difficulties or back problems with their spine. It’s from the pollution of the bombs.

“Others are having abortions,” she confides. “We have three ladies in Umoja who had miscarriages because of pollution from the bombs. It was causing pain in their stomachs and their babies died.”

The British army has fired white phosphorus in this part of Kenya on 15 occasions since 2017. Paulina recalls: “When we see the bombs bursting, our people get a cough from the ground and when cattle eat the grass they might die.” Her friend, Lucy Lesootia, added: “When they fire their bombs, the pollution affects our people. Some go deaf or develop chest problems. I think they contain poison.” 

Lantano is highly suspicious of these training exercises. “Before I knew they were firing white phosphorus, I asked why so many people had eye problems and organ failure? They told me the sun is very hot in the area!

“But we share the same sun when we are in Kenya. It’s not only dry in northern Laikipia, it’s dry all over Kenya. So why don’t people get the same effects as we have here? It’s because of the phosphorus used by the British army.” 

The Ministry of Defence did not address, when asked by Declassified, the alleged health impact of white phosphorus. Instead, a British army spokesman said they “routinely use white phosphorus illuminant rounds on training exercises in the UK and overseas, where and when conditions permit their use.”

He added that they were “used to provide white light illumination for training at night. The British Army does not use white phosphorus mortar rounds as a weapon.”

Despite Lisoka’s intense suffering, his father is incredibly forgiving of the British presence. “They can continue training but in a more responsible way,” he suggests. “Someone like Lisoka could be a great guide. He’d be a good ambassador for such activities, because people could easily see the danger if they met him.”