As luxury resorts spring up along Egypt's northern coast, many still living with the legacy of the second world war feel betrayed
Courtesy Jack Shenker [El Alamein - guardian.co.uk] - Monday 28 June 2010
Along Egypt's white-sand Mediterranean coastline, an enormous metal advertising hoarding is being hauled into place by the roadside. "Blissful indulgence, natural splendour," it declares in huge letters above a picture of a child snorkelling in azure blue waters. "Marassi: It's where you've always belonged.
Behind the sign lies a messy scrub of beach and desert, pockmarked with a few half-built houses on stilts. Across the highway is Egypt's Western Desert – and somewhere beneath the ever-shifting sands lie 16m pieces of unexploded second world war ordinance.
Eventually, this patch of land will become a 6.25m sq metre gated holiday resort incorporating luxury villas, artificial lagoons and an 18-hole golf course. To Egypt's government, Marassi is a symbol of regeneration in a beautiful region; to many locals, it represents marginalisation and betrayal.
"This sort of development does nothing for us," said Eissa Murgan, a 37-year-old Bedouin who used to work as a shepherd before his leg was blown off by a landmine. "There are no benefits here for those that truly need them."
Battles over El Alamein's future are nothing new; the town and its surrounding shores have long been contested by rival armies, most notably in 1942 when axis and allied forces met in a confrontation that changed the tide of the second world war.
Now a new struggle is taking place over how best to confront the legacy of that conflict: the buried ordinance that is estimated to have killed and maimed thousands of Egyptians over the past seven decades and has condemned the region to economic stagnation. Victims such as Murgan find themselves fighting for justice on two fronts: from their own authorities, whom they believe are more interested in extracting profits than in promoting sustainable development; and from the British and other European governments, whom they hold responsible for the carnage left behind.
Egypt's ministry of international co-operation has unveiled a $10bn (£6.6bn) plan which aims to bring 400,000 jobs to the area and expand the population from 300,000 to more than 1.5 million, easing the pressure on Egypt's overcrowded Nile Valley in the process.
"This is an area immensely blessed in natural resources," said Fathi El-Shazly, the official responsible for transforming its fortunes. "We're looking at highly significant oil and gas reserves under the ground, plus 3m acres of fertile land and a staggering potential for tourism. But all of these assets are difficult to access, at least until de-mining takes place."
The question of de-mining has brought the government into conflict with the Bedouin, who believe that the limited mine clearance implemented by the Egyptian army has been targeted at meeting the needs of the oil companies and resort developers seeking to exploit the region's riches, few of which are trickling down to those most affected by the munitions.
Last year a unit of specially trained soldiers cleared around 130 sq km of land but, with an estimated 2,800 sq km (more than 1,000 sq miles) of desert still infested with explosives, their efforts were a drop in the ocean. Officials say that with limited funding, they are trying to strike a balance between mine-clearing areas for commercial development and addressing humanitarian concerns, such as clearing access to farmland. "The north-west coast is completely free of any tension between the government and the local community," insisted El-Shazly.
Ahmed Kassim disagreed. In 1981, his two brothers and a cousin, aged 10, 11 and 12, were grazing sheep near the regional capital of Marsa Matruh when they spotted something shiny on the ground. Ignorant of what it was, they began to throw stones at it. "The explosion that killed them was so large that when I ran to the scene, I initially couldn't see anything," recalled Kassim, who was 18 at the time. "All that was left was small pieces of their bodies, no bigger than a cellphone."
Now Kassim, who has two young sons, is demanding to know why the mines around his home – the exact locations are unknown – have still not been cleared. "My family got nothing from the Egyptian authorities; there has been no compensation and no de-mining happening anywhere near us," he said. The 43-year-old works as a maintenance director for an Italian-Egyptian oil firm 209 miles away in the desert; the company's plant and access roads were all de-mined long ago. "It's very upsetting; they clear the mines for the sake of private profits, but not for the sake of our children," he said.
Kassim reserves his greatest wrath for the UK government, which has so far refused to compensate those injured by British munitions or offer any large-scale contributions to the clear-up. "Your war is over, yet ours continues every day," he said. "You have no idea what it's like to live always under threat, to never feel safe on your own land. We are innocent people: this was your war, not ours, and yet we are the ones dying."
It is a sentiment shared by the Egyptian government, which points out that Egypt is the most heavily mined country in the world, more so than trouble spots such as Angola, Afghanistan and Bosnia.
Officials have spent years lobbying their British, German and Italian counterparts for more funding to tackle the problem, largely without success. Although all three countries laid mines, most Egyptians identify Britain as the primary culprit. Egypt was effectively still under British colonial occupation, and many Egyptians believe Britain has a moral responsibility for bringing conflict to Egypt's shores. The other countries have also been quicker to offer financial help on the issue.
The Foreign Office said that it channels £10m a year globally to clear mines, but does not wish to enter any bilateral agreements with Egypt, while the latter refuses to sign up to the Ottowa treaty, which prohibits the use of anti-personnel landmines by national armies.
Trapped in the middle of a diplomatic row, the Bedouin community on Egypt's north coast has grown tired of waiting for answers. Last year a group of victims under the leadership of a local tribal mayor formed a non-governmental organisation which is planning to force the British government into the dock at the European court of human rights in an effort to win compensation for their injuries. They have already been in contact with lawyers in Cairo and London and aim to prosecute the British ambassador to Egypt through the Egyptian courts.
Such a move is unprecedented and its chances of victory are slim but those behind the legal challenge believe it could be the first step towards forcing Britain into offering a full financial settlement to those who have suffered at the hands of its army, along the lines of Italy's economic partnership with Libya.
"We have a local proverb here that we trust," said Omda Abdel Rahman, whose tribal lands witness the construction of more high-end private resorts every day. "It goes, 'No right can be lost as long as there are people still demanding it'. This compensation is our right, as is the de-mining of this area – de-mining for the benefit of those who live there. So we will fight for those things. Until then, we remain paralysed."
By July 1942, the allies were on the back foot in north Africa as General Rommel pushed his forces eastwards towards the Suez canal and the Arabian oilfields beyond.
With German U-boats sapping Britain's naval strength in the Atlantic, and axis forces taking control of most of western Europe and Russia, El Alamein was seen as a last stand for Britain if it was to avoid a rapid and potentially devastating loss of military momentum.
On the night of 23 October, Field Marshall Montgomery ordered his engineers into the Devil's Garden, the heavily mined stretch of land lying between the two forces, and clear a way for the tanks of the Eighth Army to approach Rommel's Afrika Korps.
After 10 days of fighting which claimed a total of 43,000 casualties, Rommel ordered a retreat.
Winston Churchill said of the battle: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat."
Today, those who lost their lives at the battle of El Alamein are commemorated at a number of European war cemeteries in the north African town.