Author: Amany Soliman
As the world observed the Annual Day of Landmine Victims the last 4th of April, Egyptians still suffer from millions of landmines that were implanted in their soil in the 1940s, harvesting lives and limbs of Egyptians for decades.
The vicious battles of the Second World War in North Africa all the way to Alamein in North West Egypt were named by the Nazi leader Rommel “War without hate”. However, one should wonder how the absence of hatred caused more than 450.000 causalities among both the Allied and Axis troops between 1940 and 1943. Neither was that the end of the story, as both sides made use of Egypt as a fighting arena to implant millions of landmines and explosives. Those devices were discretely buried, and are still waiting for Egyptians, who pass by what seems like a historical war theatre, to die because of a war that ended 75 years ago. Unfortunately, neither the victorious nor the defeated cared to clear the explosives and the landmines that they left, threatening the lives of humans and animals that cross the area every day. It is estimated that 23 million landmines are still lying under the Egyptian Western desert sands, of which only 10-15 % were cleared starting in 1980 until 2018.
The situation in Egypt, especially in the North West region, is very unusual as the minefields were not placed in a recent conflict, which the case for most of the countries in Asia, Africa, The Balkans and East Europe where people are still threatened by minefields. Egypt is considered to have about a fifth of the world total landmines and unexploded ordnance. The Devil’s Gardens, as they are called by Egyptians, have been a continuous threat since the 1940s. Time is not kind when it comes to that threat; as sands and dunes have been moving for decades to make the few military maps that are left irrelevant, making it harder for Egypt and international agencies to clear those vast minefields.
Despite suffering from the landmines buried in its own soil, Egypt has refused to sign the Ottawa Treaty (The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction). The Ottawa Treaty has articles that assert the physical and psychological rehabilitation of the victims of landmines. The Treaty raised three obligations to signatories: mine clearance, stockpile destruction and assisting the victims. According to Egypt, the first obligation is not binding and thus leaves the door open for those who originally placed landmines to refuse the clearance duty which would cost those countries hundreds of millions of US dollars. On the other hand, Egypt was criticized for being itself a manufacturer and stockpile holder of millions of landmines. Egypt acknowledged this accusation and stressed the importance of this weapon to secure its long desert borders with neighboring countries. However, Egypt insists that while it manufactures landmines, it refrains from planting them in inhabited areas and argues that the current situation is radically different than what happened when Europeans implanted mines in its soil in the 1940s. Egypt announced in 2004 that it has imposed a moratorium on production and export of antipersonnel mines, claiming that the production was stopped in 1988 and all export activities stopped in 1984.
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claim that the registered and reported landmines explosions in the North Coast area since the end of the Second World War has reached a total of 8313 victims in 2014, with more than 600 people killed and many more injured.
There are no accurate sources or statistics to confirm the numbers of the victims, whether dead or disabled because most of the victims are Egyptian Bedouins whose relationship with the urban centers close to them were not well established until recently, limiting the flow of information. Additionally, their reliance on tribal structures does not entail a lot of accurate record-keeping or reporting. It was not until the 1980s that the Egyptian authorities started monitoring, registering, assisting and compensating the victims and their families. The most accurate and systematic campaign to register and assist the victims was carried out in 2015 by the Egyptian government and the UNDP Egypt officials.
In 2017, Egypt established an agency dedicated to the problem of landmines and its victims called the National Center for Mine Action and Sustainable Development, replacing the Executive Committee for Supervising Mine Clearance and Development of the North West Coast, which had existed since 2007. The new agency determined that in addition to demining, clearance and development of the infected areas, their primary objectives also entailed assisting the victims and raising awareness of the problem of landmines among the local population. With the updated database of 2015, the Center managed to offer assistance to the Egyptians who were injured or disabled due to the landmines or other explosive remnants. The efforts focus on physical rehabilitation, which is especially needed as most of the victims in the area have lost limbs. Artificial limbs, wheel-chairs, hearing aid sets are supplemented by psychological support offered to the victims and their families. The UNDP in Egypt supports those efforts financially and technically and it insists on creating livelihoods and sustainable means of support for the victims. This is a goal shared by the Red Cross and the Red Crescent in Egypt. Together with the Egyptian government, these donors and other international organizations support the victims with micro-credit loans and in-kind support like sewing machines and vending kiosks as well as livestock and farm animals for the families who are willing to continue their grazing activities in safe locations. Additionally the organizations provide assistance to the victims in order to improve their living conditions; ensuring clean water supplies, building roofs and providing electricity are all tools to support the victims.
Raising the awareness about the dangers of landmines has also been a priority for the Egyptian government as well as civil society in the Western North coast region. A recurring program for schools and university ensures that people have access to lectures and practical lessons on how to avoid, treat and report landmines. Additionally, similar training, albeit in a less organized manner, is provided to shepherds and truck drivers whose everyday activities require crossing those dangerous fields.
The United Nations coordinator in Egypt, Edmund Cain, declared in 2000 that the situation in the North West Coast of Egypt was hindering the efforts undertaken to develop the area: “Egypt needs to use this land. The population is growing. Some of this land is potentially very fertile land. In fact, part of the land off the Mediterranean in the El-Alamein area used to be the breadbasket of previous civilizations … But if you go out there now you can see the sand littered with unexploded ordnance, shells that have not been fired.” This was a confirmation of Egypt’s stance, as it had always raised the demand for the clearing of the minefields as both a humanitarian and a developmental need for the area. The area’s natural resources are not put to full use either; with extensive mineral reserves including limestone as well as crude oil and natural gas reserves amounting to some 4.8 billion barrels and 13.4 trillion cubic feet respectively still lying in the area. Furthermore, potential available water resources also remain untapped, failing to use the area’s to help change the lives of the inhabitants by improving agriculture or providing water for house-hold use. The Egyptian government argues that its efforts to initiate projects in agriculture, irrigation and tourism in the area are constantly paralyzed by the presence of the landmines and the explosive remnants. The landmines are a danger no one is ready to face even if those developmental projects have the potential to change the lives and income of the Bedouins who are at the forefront of the suffering caused by these mines. Both inhabitants of the area as well as other Egyptians are well aware of the situation and they are afraid to work or invest in the area and face a sudden explosion.
– Egypt: the National Center for Mine Action and Sustainable Development http://mineaction.eg/
– UNDP Egypt cooperation with Mine Action http://www.eg.undp.org/content/egypt/en/home/operations/projects/climate-and-disaster-resilience/support-to-the-north-west-coast-development-plan-and-relevant-mi/
– Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, 18 September 1997 https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=XXVI-5&chapter=26&clang=_en
– UNDP Egypt: Climate and disaster resilience, http://www.eg.undp.org/content/egypt/en/home/ourwork/climate-and-disaster-resilience/overview.html
– Monitor: Landmine and cluster munitions, Monitoring progress in eliminating landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive remnants of war. http://www.the-monitor.org/en-gb/home.aspx
– “UN takes stock of landmines in Egypt”, Daily Graphic: Issue 147833, February 14th, 2000
– Said Megahed et al, Egypt Landmine Problem: History, Facts, Difficulties and Clearance Efforts, Conference: International Symposium: Humanitarian Demining 2010, Šibenik, Croatia, 27 – 29 April (2010)At: Šibenik, Croatia