Kenya: Ghosts of Solai Dam Tragedy Haunt Victims Three Years Later

An aerial view of Patel dam in Solai, Nakuru County. The dam collapsed on May 9, 2018 killing more than 40 people (file photo).

At the Solai -Nyakinyua trading center in Subukia sub-county, life appears to be normal as residents are engaged in a bee hive of activities under the sun in a bid to achieve their different goals.

Boda boda operators are busy ferrying passengers to different destinations, traders are attending to customers while numerous vehicles are seen cruising the newly tarmacked Bahati-Solai - Subukia road.

Just like any other trading center, men and women both young and old are focused on meeting their own objectives before the day ends.

However, beneath this normalcy lies a wound whose pain is shared by almost every member of the small society.

The memories of a horrific disaster that befell the community three years ago, which led to the death of 48 people, displacement of hundreds of families and destruction of property worth millions of shillings is the hallmark of agony in the lives of the community's members.

Read: Dark day as Solai dam victims left to lick their wounds

Also read: Uproar as court sets free owner of killer dam and eight others

It is the infamous Solai dam tragedy that now describes the region which was initially defined by its agricultural economic background.

The disaster occurred on May 9, 2018 when Patel dam broke its banks and let its waters flow downstream sweeping across three villages of Energy, Solai and Nyakinya.

Normal life was disrupted and the aftermath of the tragedy created friction between the community members and the dam owner Patel Mansukh after they differed on how to handle the mess.

In a bid to push for justice, a number of cases both civil and criminal were entertained before courts in which some have already been determined while others are still pending

Violent demonstrations also rocked the area as the victims protested what they claimed to be unfair actions from the police and administrators in handling the affairs of the victims.

Little achieved

However, three years down the line, very little has been achieved in terms of compensation and restoration of the victims lives.

After years of fight, the victims now appearing either defeated by the justice process or simply a change of heart seem to be slowly taking a reconciliatory path.

Mr Joseph Gathogo, who is one of the victims, for instance, only wants to see his life back again.

After losing four children in the tragedy, Mr Gathogo says he is ready to move on with life provided he is compensated accordingly.

Speaking to Nation, Mr Gathogo who was a bodaboda operator narrated how life has been tough for him and his family for the last three years as they struggled to survive while at the same time pushing for justice.

The push for justice has not been a smooth ride while the developments in courts have not been encouraging. Some cases are being dismissed while others taking long to start.

After the tragedy, Mr Gathogo wanted the dam owner to be held liable for deaths of his children and compensation for his lost property.

"I had built a semi-permanent house where I lived with my four children aged 8, 6, 3years and one month respectively. The tragedy took away everything I had worked for and loved in life and left me with nothing," said Mr Gathogo.

The man narrowly escaped death after he climbed a tree only to see his house and children being swept by waters. His wife was rescued from drowning by the locals.

The house which he was built by the church and the Kenya Red cross still stands unoccupied on his bare ¼ an acre parcel of land in Nyakinyua village.

"My wife could not stand living in this house as it gives her nightmares and painful memories so we went to live at my father's compound," said Mr Gathogo

Determined to start over again, Mr Gathogo rented a motorbike so as to sustain his family which now has an additional member.

He said the case in court has taken a toll on him and his hopes of getting justice through the courts are diminishing by day.

According to him, the government should intervene to ensure that the victims are compensated so as to continue with their normal lives.

"Let the government work with Mr Patel on ways to compensate us so that we can move on with our lives," said Mr Gathogo.

Long court battle

John Maina Mwangi, a retired teacher on the other hand, lost his wife in the tragedy. He has been in the forefront in the fight for compensation in court.

However, he claims there has been a lot of interference in the court process to a point that he sees no hope in the outcome.

Mr Mwangi said the victims are ready to negotiate with Patel on an out of court settlement provided the process is undertaken in an open and transparent manner.

"I am almost giving up in this case. As you can see my age is fast advancing and the case seems to be punishing us more. We have tried reaching out to Mr Patel to find out how the matter can be settled out of court but our efforts have been unsuccessful," said Mr Mwangi.

He noted that the victims have incurred a lot of expenses in terms of medication for those who were injured in the tragedy and endured a lot of psychological trauma in the fight for justice.

"There is a good number of our members who have died after they could not afford medication and proper care. Apart from housing all other constitutional rights relating to the victims have been denied," said Mr Mwangi.

Veronica Wanjiku, 71, whose house was swept by the waters during the tragedy is trying to re-establish herself by trying out farming on the ground which was left swept bare by the waters.

She has decided to try out planting some crops on a small part of the farm which she managed to dig as the rest is rocky.

The waters had also left huge gulleys in the farm which are still widening and almost eating away the house she was built by the Kenya Red cross.

"What I want is to be given my service benefits after working for Patel for close to 30 years. I want my farm rehabilitated so that I can continue cultivating it," she stated

Similar stories are shared by the majority of the victims who seek to move on with life.

Out-of-court settlement

Kabazi ward Member of County Assembly Peter Mbae in his statement noted that the tragedy victims are ready to settle the matter peacefully out of court.

He explained that it is the company which should take the first action of formally making the application in court.

"The victims have made their stand known that they are ready for an out of court settlement with him if he formally requests for one in the compensation case. such an arrangement should involve the director of Public prosecution in Naivasha criminal case. all that the victims want is fairness, justice and compensation," said Dr Mbae

Dr Mbae noted that the over 400 hundred victims are yet to get their justice three years on as efforts to settle the matter amicably with the Patel family being unsuccessful.

The Tindress Patel Coffee estates, the company operating the dams through farm manager Vinoj Kumar on their part also expressed the company's willingness to have the matter concluded.

Mr Kumar said the company's wish is to have the lives of the community improved as well as have a working relation as before.

The manager further said the company has lined up a number of programs aimed at helping the victims and the community at large to rebuild their lives.

"As a company we know we cannot exist without the community and for years we have established a symbiotic relationship with them. they are our people and we have to take care of them," said Mr Kumar.

He explained that the numerous cases filed in court have negatively affected the operations of the company as well as ruined the good relationship between the community and the company.

Role of rights groups

According to Mr Kumar, outsiders operating as human rights groups and other organizations have complicated the matters for them.

"we would be so glad to have the matter out of court but our hands are tied in court, there are many organizations which have sued us claiming to act for different victims. We are not sure about some these organizations," said Mr Kumar.

He however, explained that the company has done whatever it can to help the community especially during the Covid-19 pandemic where he said the company took in more than 1000 locals so as to offer them employment to be able to sustain their lives.

"We added these employees despite the company not doing very well due to the pandemic. We also continued with our feeding program in a school where over 1000 pupils got their meals daily," he said.

The manager dismissed claims that the company was in plans to refill the two dams which were decommissioned by the court.

"Even though we are facing a serious challenge of water shortage, we have not stepped there since the area is still a crime scene. We shall only do as directed by the court," said Mr Kumar.

Mr Kumar, his boss Perry Mansukh and seven others are battling 48 charges of manslaughter following the tragedy.

The case which was dropped last year is set to begin afresh after the DPP successfully challenged the judgement by Chief magistrate Kennedy Bidali at the high court.

A case filed by Dr Peter Mbae which was seeking restoration of the environment that was degraded by the May 9, 2018 Solai dam tragedy was dismissed by the Lands court last year for lack of jurisdiction.

Early this year, the 400 victims, through the human rights commission, have filed another case seeking compensation for the loss of life and property.

as they mark the third year anniversary since the tragedy the victims hopes that the matters resolved amicably so that to continue with their lives

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