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NLC offers last hope for community displaced by World War 1

It is a harrowing tale of displacement and dispossession.

In 1916, at the height of battle between British and German forces during World War 1, a German spy made his way to the hills of Kasigau where British soldiers had established a hidden camp.

One local innocently disclosed the location of the camp to the German spy who went away only to return with a contingent of German soldiers. The invaders destroyed the camp, routed the Britons before melting in the bush. Their mission was accomplished. By the time British reinforcement arrived, they found smoldering ruins of a camp and bewildered locals.

The retribution was as swift as it was brutal. Three local elders who were associated with divulging the information to the enemy spy were ordered to dig their own graves. Moments afterwards, they were executed on the spot.

Kasigau Hill where the Kasigau community returned after their 21 years of exile

Thousands of others were frog-marched for days to Maungu Center where they were forcefully boarded into cattle wagons. They were hauled to Mombasa and later stowed in dhows that dumped them in Malindi. Dozens reportedly died in the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean during the crossing.

The survivors would live in exile for 21 years before they were permitted to return to their homes in Kasigau in 1937.

“This is the history that few talk about. We are a community scarred from this historical trauma of being evicted from its land over a fight we knew nothing about,” says Ezra Mdamu, a rights’ defender and a member of Kasigau community.

It is from this act of displacement that descendants of those who were displaced are drafting a petition to National Land Commission (NLC) to document this Historical Land Injustice before the lapse of the deadline set for 21st September, where all such cases that occurred between 1895 and August 2020 must have been submitted to the commission.

After the lapse of the deadline, the commission will no longer accept cases of such nature.

Mr. Mdamu says that the two decades in exile pushed the community to the edge of extinction. In Malindi where they were taken, hundreds more would die from toxic drinking water after a fearful local community poisoned a water well. The community had been convinced that the newcomers were cannibals.

“They were misinformed that our diet consisted exclusively of humans. They poisoned the well where our grandfathers fetched water,” explains Mr. Mdamu.

Even after their return home, there was no respite. Their large tracts of land had been taken over by other communities that led them to being confined to a small area near the Kasigau hills.           Pockets of the community members settled in Malindi, Maungu, Mwatate and even some parts of Tanzania.

Mr. Mdamu argues the displacement scattered the community and shattered the communal ties they had shared long before the war broke out.

“When our grandparents came back, they found their land was no more. The twenty years in exile was devastating. They came back strangers in their own land,” he said.

There have been efforts in the past to have the British Government acknowledge the atrocities committed on behalf of the empire by the soldiers during the war. However, such efforts have been in vain. This is attributed to fears that such admission would open floodgates of similar complaints from across the world leading to compensation claims amounting to billions of pounds.

The NLC’s call for presentation of such cases presents Kasigau with a unique opportunity to have this injustice brought into official record. Mr. Mdamu has been coordinating the community to prepare their petition including compiling testimonies of the century-old atrocities.

“We are optimistic that the government will recognize this as an injustice which will be the first step towards righting a wrong,” he said. Mama Alice Wali, who was the last of the children evicted by the British soldiers in 1916, died in October 2018 aged 114 years.

NLC has stated there will be no extension of the deadline to receive the petitions. By July, the commission had received 740 historical land injustice claims from across the country.

The Taita-Taveta County government is pushing for more cases including the question of Tsavo National Park and large-scale landowners in the region.

Mr. Mwandawiro Mghanga, County Executive Committee Member for Lands, says Tsavo National Park occupation of over 63 percent of the county’s total land mass is a land injustice that needs to be remedied.

“The park is bigger than the land left for settlement. This is an injustice that NLC must address,” he said. He added that a few individuals owned massive tracts of land while thousands of locals were cramped in tiny plots.

“There is also a need to look at redistribution of land and review how the large landowners gained their vast tracts at the expense of local residents,” he said.

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