Egypt battles landmines 75 years after El Alamein

The National

Fighting in the pivotal WWII battle of El Alamein may have stopped 75 years ago but Egypt is now waging another war against a hidden enemy: landmines. On a recent visit by foreign officials, personnel from the military's Western Desert Mine Clearance Regiment swept detectors across a stretch of sand as they showcased the painstaking work it takes to remove the deadly legacy left behind by the Axis and Allied troops who wrestled for control along the Mediterranean coast.

An explosion rang out as a remotely controlled vehicle drove over hidden explosive. Later, two mines were detonated from a distance, sending red and yellow smoke billowing skywards. The battle of El Alamein is heralded as a crucial victory for the Allies that decisively turned the tide on Italian and German forces in North Africa.

But for locals on the ground, the event that British leader Winston Churchill famously called the "end of the beginning" of the war has left a threat that remains three quarters of a century later. In a bid to tackle it the European Union has funnelled some $5.5 million (Dh20.2m) over the past few years after its military cut funding -- but despite some 1,000 square kilometres being cleared, huge swathes of territory remain untouched.

The battle "left behind a vast amount of unexploded ordnances that remain a major risk for the population", Ivan Surkos, the EU's ambassador to Egypt, said during a visit to mark the 75th anniversary. "2,680 square kilometres of the land in the North West Coast are estimated to still be contaminated."

Education efforts

Efforts to combat the scourge of the mines left behind are not just focused on the former battlefields. Educational programmes supported as well by the United Nations over the past decade have also sought to raise awareness of the threat. At a demonstration laid on for the visiting delegation of the sort of advice on offer, two boys read a poster hanging in a school with the words "The Hidden Killer" written across it.

Nearby pupils sat in a classroom listening to a student reading from a pamphlet about the WWII battle and the dangers of the mines it left behind. "Will I pick it up?" asked an official from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). "No", chorused back the class. "I'll leave it as it is," one boy said. Those conducting the perilous work scouring for mines say that the painstaking searches in the field and projects in the classroom are paying off.

So far in 2017 there has been just one casualty from mines, a decrease from previous years, said General Fathy Mansour, deputy commander of the Military Engineering corps. "If a deminer detects anything during the search, he pinpoints the area with a red flag," Gen Mansour said. The mine is then either removed or detonated where it lies, depending on the type.

Stunting development

For some people the project comes too late. Farahat Abdel Atie now works in a centre maintaining artificial limbs that has provided support for some 500 victims of mine blasts over the years. In 2001, Abdel Atie lost part of his leg while out grazing his sheep -- unaware of the danger lurking beneath the ground. "There was a mine buried," he told AFP.

The presence of landmines in and around El Alamein has not just exacted a heavy toll on residents -- it has also stunted economic development in a seaside region that could be a tourist draw. Explosives "constitute a huge obstacle to the socio-economic development of the region, which is known for its rich natural resources", said Egypt's ministry of international cooperation.

In a sign of the regeneration that can happen when the mines are gone, the clearance programme has helped allow for a new city to go up. Part of an ambitious government programme to create more than 30 cities from scratch around the country to alleviate Egypt's urban crush, new Alamein is being built on an area that has been cleared of explosives, said Richard Dictus, the UNDP representative in Egypt.

It is hoped that the city will provide a vital economic boost for the country, providing almost 300,000 jobs and attracting people from densely populated areas. "After paving the way for the establishment of the New city of El Alamein, we look forward to the rather promising future economic opportunities that the new city will attract," Mr Dictus said in a statement.