Dozens of girls attacked on night-time march in worst school sexual violence since 1991. Wachira Kigotho reports
It began as a protest against repressive conditions in their school - and ended in mass rape.
At midnight on Sunday last week all 700 girls at Kangubiri secondary 100 miles north of Nairobi, broke out of their boarding school to march 11 miles to the Nyeri district education offices to protest against alleged high-handed treatment by the school's authorities.
They claimed they were being caned, in breach of a government ban on caning in schools; that their demands for wake-up time to be moved from 4.30am to 5.30am had been refused; that they were being fed an unbalanced and inadequate diet; and that there was chronic absenteeism among teachers.
They wanted an end to the practice of punishing those who failed to get certain grades by refusing them permission to go home in mid-term break.
They also wanted better sanitation.
The girls set off in darkness, when they expected that the school's staff were asleep.
But they were attacked by a gang of villagers right outside the gate, where some of them were raped as the rest scattered.
As many of them ran towards a local market centre, they were intercepted by another gang of villagers who raped them.
"Our screams could have been confused with the excited shouts of protesters and attracted more thugs and village idlers," said a 16-year-old form three student who was on the march.
Doctors confirmed that at least 20 girls had ben raped, but education officials believe the real number is higher. "In this case, there is nothing we can do, unless the rest come forward," said an education officer who requested anonymity.
Three of the girls from Kangubiri secondary remained in Nyeri general hospital last Friday. Scores of other schoolgirls were also treated for injuries which they had sustained in their bid to escape the attackers.
The girls were rescued from further attacks, when a concerned villager called the police. But they had walked about six miles before the police managed to round them all up, taking the injured to the hospital and returning the rest to the school in buses.
The rapists fled but police have now arrested eight suspects - five of them boys from a neighbouring day secondary school.
Monica Kagume, the headteacher, has been suspended while investigations continue. She denies pupils' allegations about the conditions at her school and also denies she had prior knowledge of the mass protest. Police are also investigating why the students walked out.
Police spokesman, Joseph Ngesa said: "Some of the teachers including the headmistress reside within the compound and it is not clear why they failed to inform the police of the midnight incident."
It is the worst incident of school- girl rape since 1991, when 300 boys attacked a girls' dormitory at St Kizito mixed secondary school, in eastern Kenya, and raped 71 girls. Nineteen others were trampled to death in the stampede to escape.
* At least 13 pupils of Kabarole Islamic primary school in western Uganda were burnt to death when their dormitory caught fire. The blaze broke out shortly after midnight last Friday in Fort Portal. Police blamed the fire on a candle left burning after power cuts. Thirteen pupils are reported to be dead, with 20 unaccounted for.