Egypt still suffering from its World War II legacy
By Heba Kandil
EL-ALAMEIN: The guns that thundered across the desert of el-Alamein have long fallen silent, but Egypt is still suffering from the lethal legacy of landmines and ordnance left by the fierce World War Two battle.
Egyptian specialists say that in the past 20 years, some 3,000 people have been killed and 5,000 maimed by explosives of the 1942 battle in the Arab country, whose only role was to provide the open desert where the foreign armies fought. They say 18 million landmines and unexploded bombs still litter the Western Desert, prized by the warring armies because it was the gateway to the Suez Canal and Middle East oil supplies. Some of the countries who placed the mines say the figure is closer to two million.
Veterans from Britain and its allies joined Germans and Italians at desert cemeteries to pay tribute to the fallen last month. But, for some, the former combatants have for too long ignored the deadly problem they created.
“They come. They hold their ceremonies and they leave,” said Sami Ebadah, chairman of the Landmine Struggle Centre in Egypt. “We’re not asking for charity but only what is our right, that the landmines and ordnance be extracted,” he told Reuters.
It is not only human casualties that are causing Egypt to suffer. With most of Egypt’s roughly 70 million people crammed into a narrow strip of land along the Nile valley and its delta, the government wants to develop other areas such as the northern coast. But oil exploration, as well as agricultural and tourist development along the sparkling blue coast become all the more expensive when land has to be cleared of old bombs first.
Suffering continues: “Our message is that Egypt is suffering, from the end of the war until now, the human casualties. But now we are suffering more because we need the Western Desert for development,” said Kadry Said, head of military studies at Cairo’s al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies.
Elsewhere in Egypt, nearly five million landmines in the Sinai peninsula, left over from wars with neighbouring Israel, have also taken their toll on civilians and underline the imminent threats of the deadly weapon, Ebadah said.
Britain, whose Eighth Army turned the tide of World War Two by forcing German and Italian soldiers to retreat across North Africa, says it is working hard to ensure the area is de-mined. But its aid is generally channelled through a U.N. programme, which has pressing demands for de-mining all over the world. “The removal of landmines is an extremely important issue,” said Lewis Moonie, British undersecretary for defence, at the Commonwealth memorial ground in el-Alamein, where his own father fought.
“We feel that the appropriate way (for landmine removal) is under the auspices of the United Nations,” he said, adding that Britain had provided money, maps and equipment to help locate and extract the buried landmines.
Britain, Germany and Italy have also expressed readiness to help in a $250 million landmine-clearing project due to start next year. The project will be financed by a United Nations fund and the United States.
Prohibitive costs: Yet Egyptian experts say the support so far has been modest at best, and goes nowhere near covering the prohibitive costs of mine clearance that Egypt cannot afford itself. “According to U.N. estimates around $300 to $1,000 are needed to remove one landmine, so that’s a final sum of at least $6 billion. Egypt has only received a tiny fraction of that amount,” Ebadah said. But some European countries say previous donations of mine clearing equipment had gone missing and critics accuse some Egyptian officials of diverting the supplies for their personal use — a charge officials deny.
Angry at Egypt’s refusal to sign international anti-landmine treaties, some of the former combatants are also hesitant to inject more mine clearing aid into the country. Egypt abstained from the 1999 U.N. General Assembly resolution supporting a ban on anti-personnel mines and opposed the 1997 Ottawa Convention prohibiting their use.
The Arab country has said the 1997 convention ignored the responsibility of states that laid mines beyond their borders to clear or pay to clear them. It also said the convention ignored states’ needs to defend their borders.
As debate rages on, the Ahram Centre’s Said said the ageing explosives become more dangerous by the day because their fuses decay and become even more sensitive should anyone stumble across them.
Although some of the warring parties gave Egypt maps showing where mines were placed, shifting desert sands make the clearance task extremely difficult. Said said the estimated numbers of killed and maimed could also be far higher than recorded because bedouins in the area do not always report accidents.
But he said the campaign to clear the mines and bombs laid during the war could now become a cause for cooperation between Egypt and the three European belligerents of the past — Britain, Germany and Italy.
“The three countries are friends of Egypt. Actually, this issue can be, in my view, one of the confidence building projects between Egypt and the European Union,” he said. —Reuters