El Alamein – the desert battle still claiming lives as veterans mark its 70th anniversary

Devil's Garden is home to Bedouins and millions of mines. By Alastair Beach
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The Independent Online

Exactly 70 years ago today the Allied forces launched the offensive which would later become immortalised as the Battle of El Alamein, the decisive Second World War clash in which Germany's Erwin Rommel – nicknamed the "Desert Fox" – was finally routed by his British foe, Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Eighth Army.

The battle is now a distant memory for the veterans who marked the anniversary at a ceremony at the El Alamein War Cemetery, where 7,240 allied troops who died during the North Africa campaign are buried.

But for thousands of Bedouin Arabs, who live and farm in the vast expanses of desert around El Alamein, the story is anything but over.

About three hour's drive west of Cairo, in a hardscrabble stretch of desert running south from Egypt's Mediterranean coast, lies a vast expanse of emptiness which was once called the Devil's Garden.

Now, still laced with millions of unexploded bombs, its deadly sands remain one of the world's biggest minefields; a lethal legacy of the Second World War, when Britain and her allies fought a Saharan tank war to prevent Egypt – and the rest of the Middle East – from falling into Nazi hands.

Following the celebrated victory in 1942, many hundreds of Bedouin Arabs have been killed and thousands more injured by some of the 16 million shells and landmines dotted around the desert. The official figures point to a total of more than 8,000 casualties, though this is a conservative estimate given that records only began in 1982.

The number of victims keeps rising every year. This year alone 17 people have been maimed, many losing arms and legs, after stumbling across the unexploded bombs in and around the Devil's Garden.

Seven decades ago, as the battle to repel Hitler was raging across the Western Desert, many Egyptians, angered by Britain's colonial presence, were hoping a Nazi victory might bring them independence.

The British eventually prevailed, but for Bedouins like Abdullah Salah – one of 725 survivors of landmine explosions still living – today's 70th anniversary is a stark reminder of how distant imperial history is still impinging on the present.

"A lot of people think World War Two is still being fought," said Mr Salah, a father of three who set up an NGO for Bedouin landmine victims in February. He was blinded in one eye and had his right leg blown off after stepping on a mine in 2007.

Fayez Ismail, who also had his leg blown off by a mine, said he felt the West should do more to help. "Britain and Germany are now friends," said the father of six, "but we are still victims."

Some of that assistance has been forthcoming. After the creation of an Egyptian demining programme – established in collaboration with the United Nations Development Fund – Britain, Germany and a number of their wartime allies have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds.

A portion of the money was spent on supplying hundreds of artificial limbs, while much of the rest went towards demining equipment. By the end of 2009, more than 300,000 unexploded weapons had been removed from across the Western Desert. But more than 16 million shells and mines remain unaccounted for.

It seems the legacy of El Alamein will continue long after the sun goes down on the anniversary commemorations.