Mirror (UK): Clearing the Sahara's bombed berm
- Clearing the Sahara's bombed berm
THIS week campaigners around the world are calling on their governments to back a global ban on lethal cluster bombs. These deadly devices that disperse over vast areas have killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians. They lie unexploded on the ground long after a conflict has ceased and are primed to detonate at the mere touch of a child's footstep. The Mirror visited Western Sahara - occupied by Moroccan forces - to see one of the world's worst-hit regions first-hand. British charity Landmine Action is behind a UN-backed mission to map the worst cluster bomb strikes in this forgotten warzone. It hopes Foreign Minister David Miliband will be at the forefront of a treaty to ban cluster bombs at a conference in Vienna next month.
By Tom Parry in Tifariti, Western Sahara. Pictures by Roger Allen 07/11/2007
The metal casings of thousands of lethal cluster bombs glint in the scorching Sahara sun.
Manufactured years ago in countries like Britain, these innocent looking objects have turned an area the size of the UK into a total no-go zone.
Our guide, a combat veteran of one of the world's longest-running conflicts, points to an invisible line in the sand a few yards from where we stand.
"Don't step beyond there," he warns. "There are hundreds of cluster bombs buried in the ground. You can't see them. If you're lucky enough to tread on a small one, you'll only lose your legs."
This is the Western Sahara berm, the longest continuous stretch of anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions in the world.
The 1,500-mile long earth wall built by occupying Moroccan forces is protected by an unbelievable seven million explosive devices.
That's more than in Bosnia, Vietnam, Somalia and Zimbabwe.
It separates hundreds of thousands of people from their former homes.
But for decades, while innocent children have been getting blown up after stepping in the wrong spot, it has been ignored by the outside world.
Only now, more than 30 years after the outbreak of war here, is a British company making the first concerted effort to clear up the life-threatening litter of landmines that scar the landscape.
Landmine Action, backed by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, invited the Mirror to be the first newspaper to see its groundbreaking project.
Miles from anywhere in temperatures of up to 55 degrees Celsius, their brave clearance workers must have one of the world's toughest jobs.
Their unenviable work will take decades to complete.
We are met at Tindouf on the Algerian border with Western Sahara by officials from the rebel Polisario Army, who are fighting for an independent state.
They are technically still at war with Morocco following the neighbouring nation's military invasion in 1975, but have observed a UN ceasefire since the early 1990s.
Like 300,000 other refugees, our driver, 59-year-old Ahmed Mokhtar, lives in a squalid camp stretching for miles across the arid, rocky plains.
Clad in military fatigues and with his head wrapped in the traditional black head scarf to protect against sandstorms, Ahmed points to the city of tents laid out below.
"Most of the people have lived here for more than 30 years, whole generations have never known a life outside the camp," he tells me.
"They had to leave their homes on the coast of Western Sahara. There are children of fishermen here who have never known anything but desert.
"When the Moroccans invaded we had no choice but to flee. There was nothing to eat and we had to walk all the way to Algeria to seek sanctuary.
"People were bombarded with cluster bombs by Moroccan planes as we travelled to Algeria. A lot died then. It was genocide."
It was this initial onslaught of bombs and mine-planting in 1975 that is still maiming and killing today.
The retreat route across vast white plains is unbroken except for metal chunks of shrapnel, rocket and unexploded bombs.
Close to the Smara refugee camp is a ramshackle museum that pays testament to the pointless waste of human life in Western Sahara.
Thousands of defused landmines are piled high in the corner of a dusty hangar.
We stand waste-deep amongst anti-tank mines, vehicle mines, cluster bombs and anti-personnel devices.
It is an exhibition of mankind's most inhumane inventions.
Hassana Sidibrahim, who looks after this brutal collection, says: "Everyone is very uncomfortable that these mines are still here. The people that are getting injured now had absolutely nothing to do with the conflict.
"In February this year two little boys activated a cluster bomb near here. One died and one was very badly injured. There are accidents nearly every week."
We get as close as we can to the berm on the bumpy seven-hour journey from Tindouf to Landmine Action's base in Tifariti.
There is a buffer zone packed with anti-personnel mines on either side.
From a distance, the construction blends so well into the flinty terrain it is barely visible.
The wall is lined with sentry posts from where Moroccan soldiers peer at us. There are over 100,000 patrolling the berm.
They look desperately bored as they bow their shrouded heads against the fierce Harmattan wind that blows sand into your eyes and ears.
It has to be one of the least appealing duties on the planet.
From there, Ahmed, who used to lead guerrilla ambushes against the berm, somehow navigates with no landmarks, no roads and no signs of human civilisation.
He takes sudden turns when he spots particular spiky trees where herds of camels take shelter.
The Landmine Action office is in an abandoned school building in what was once the important trading town of Tifariti.
Bosnian Zlatko Gegic heads the clearance team in this remote outpost. He works alongside ex-British Army officers based in London.
He and his colleagues are completely isolated from the outside world for months at a time. Their only neighbours are UN peacekeeping troops and occasional passing Bedouin tribesmen.
Landmine Action's ambition is simple: to clear and map as many mines and cluster bombs as possible.
Zlatko, a veteran of the Bosnian war, is under no illusions about the enormity of his task.
"When we arrived here last year nobody knew anything about the location of the minefields," he says. "We are the first to properly record all of the dangerous areas, particularly along travel routes that local people have always used.
"As long as people are afraid to use the land or perceive a threat, they will hold back from living their normal lives. The aim of this project is to help these displaced refugees one day re-establish themselves.
"Less than half the total number of mines have been discovered in the last 12 years, and less than 20 per cent have been cleared.
"We have to do a lot more work here in the coming years otherwise there will be a huge amount of death and injury when the refugees return.
"The mines were planted here to deliberately make the area uninhabitable."
A convoy of equipment was driven from Landmine Action's office in London last year after the Western Sahara project received financial backing from the Diana Memorial Fund.
Prior to their arrival, there had been no organised attempt at clearing the minefields. Now the campaign is being lauded at the UN headquarters in New York.
"This is part of Landmine Action's wider strategy to concentrate on the world's forgotten conflicts," director Simon Conway says. "Very few people in Britain and across the developed world will have even heard of Western Sahara, let alone know there is a war here.
"The idea of this project is not to completely clear landmines out of Western Sahara. That would take decades. What we want to do is prove to the people that they can better themselves and one day start returning safely to their country."
Out in the empty desert, we watch as Landmine Action's newly trained mine disposal squad, wearing heavy flak jackets, painstakingly drag metal detectors over rocks and sand.
In the two-hour period we spent with them, they find five cluster bombs.
Three apparently British-made rockets are safely detonated in a dry river bed regularly used by local nomads.
A pile of rocks painted red and white marks the edge of the danger area, as large as four football pitches.
In this alien environment - where it hasn't rained for 18 months - it is difficult to imagine the outside world pitching in to help Landmine Action.
But all that could change soon.
Polisario and Moroccan delegates held their first peace talks for ten years recently under pressure from the UN and the American government.
Western Sahara is perceived as a potential training ground for al-Qaeda-linked extremists, especially with the stockpiles of explosives lying around.
Back over the Algerian border at a rehabiliation centre, the plight of these forgotten people is stark.
Wheelchair-bound Lankjelha Hamden, 40, tells us how she lost both her legs while walking to work last year.
She stepped on a Belgian-made PRB M35 anti-personnel mine, a tiny black plastic disc, smaller than the palm of her hand.
Now she relies on her children to push her around the junk-filled courtyard as she seeks out shade from the baking heat.
"You can't imagine the impact something like can have on you," she says. "Now I will never be able to lead a normal life."
She anxiously scours the ground as her children run ahead. Seven million cluster bomblets are still out there, waiting for an innocent victim.
To find out more about Landmine Action's work in Western Sahara, or to make a donation, log on to www.landmineaction.org