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

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.