70 years on from El Alamein, the desert battle that still claims lives

Devil's Garden is home for thousands of Bedouin farmers – and millions of unexploded Second World War mines

El Alamein

Seventy years ago today, the Allied forces launched the offensive that would be immortalised as the Battle of El Alamein, the decisive Second World War clash in which Germany's Erwin Rommel – the "Desert Fox" – was finally routed by Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Eighth Army.

For the veterans who marked the anniversary on Saturday at a ceremony at the El Alamein War Cemetery, where 7,240 Allied troops are buried, the battle is a proud, poignant memory. But for thousands of Bedouin Arabs who live and farm in the desert around El Alamein, the story is not over.

About three hours' drive west of Cairo, south from Egypt's Mediterranean coast, is a vast expanse once called the Devil's Garden.

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

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

The number of victims rises every year. This year, 17 people have been maimed, many losing arms and legs, after stumbling across 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, hoped a Nazi victory might bring them independence. The British prevailed, but for Bedouins like Abdullah Salah – one of 725 survivors of landmine explosions – today's anniversary is a stark reminder of how distant history still impinges on the present.

"A lot of people think World War Two is still being fought," Mr Salah, a father-of-three who set up an NGO for Bedouin landmine victims in February, told The Independent. 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 the West should do more to help. "Britain and Germany are now friends," said the father-of-six, "but we are still victims."

Some assistance has been forthcoming. An Egyptian demining programme, established in collaboration with the United Nations Development Fund, has received donations of hundreds of thousands of pounds from Britain, Germany and a number of other nations involved in the war.

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

Ahmed Hussein, who runs Egypt's demining programme, said a new phase of clearing began in April. But with officials estimating that the cost of the operation could run into many millions, he criticised the British Government for not offering more financial assistance. "I feel offended by the British response," he told The Independent, comparing the UK's one-off donation of £250,000 in 2007 with successive pledges from the German government totalling more than €2m. "I expect the British to be as generous as the Germans."

British officials counter that the lack of help emanating from Whitehall is due in part to Egypt's refusal to sign the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines – a reluctance which stems from the delicate security situation in the eastern Sinai Desert, the location of three wars with its eastern neighbour, Israel. There is also the thorny issue of corruption. The area of land contaminated by Second World War explosives harbours huge reserves of oil and gas, while officials also hope to develop agriculture and tourism in the region.

Prior to last year's Arab Spring uprising, the EU's Cairo delegation had pledged $1m towards Egypt's demining project, money that was frozen while Egypt's government dealt with the chaos surrounding the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak. According to one diplomatic source, European officials did not sign off on the initiative due to fears that any land cleared of mines could be sold to remnants of the Mubarak regime.

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher, Permanent Role in Ashford

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad urgently seeks a qualif...


£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BI CONSULTA...

Infrastructure Manager - Southampton - Up to £45K

£35000 - £45000 per annum + 36 days holiday and more: Deerfoot IT Resources Li...

Drama Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: We are looking for someone who can t...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice