World War II mines still a threat on Egypt's coast





It has been more than 65 years since the guns fell silent, but the World War II desert battlefields where Allied forces defeated German General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps are still claiming lives. Each year the casualty count grows, as bedouins planting crops, herding livestock and collecting scrap metal are killed or maimed by rusting land mines and munitions hidden beneath the baking sands of Egypt's North West Coast.

More than 670 Egyptians have been killed and 7,500 injured by land mines in this underdeveloped region during the last 20 years, according to the Landmines Struggle Center (LSC), a Cairo-based NGO that collects data on mine victims. "There are dozens of casualties every year, most of which go unreported," said Sami Abada, the center's director.

The Allied and Axis armies that fought pitched battles in northern Egypt in the summer of 1942 left behind vast quantities of mines and shells. Some 16.7 million land mines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) contaminate the coastal plain between Alexandria and the Libyan border, posing a threat to local bedouin residents and an obstacle to the region's economic development.

In 2006 Egypt's government and UNDP initiated a joint program to fund and implement the development mega-project, breaking it down into bite-sized chunks more appealing to foreign donors. The first phase is a pilot project to establish an administrative unit, procure equipment and de-mine 13,000 hectares of land. The government and UNDP covered 27 percent of the phase's $3.2 million cost. Foreign donors supplied the rest.

The team has also conducted field surveys and reviewed existing case files to create a comprehensive database of land-mine incidents and casualties. So far, 647 land-mine survivors, including 206 amputees, have been identified. "Whenever we identify new survivors who were not available when we made the survey we add them," he added.

While Egypt's development drive promises to rid the North West Coast of its deadly legacy, it could be over a decade before the funding is in place to complete the mine action program. In the meantime, efforts should be made to improve medical facilities in mine-infested areas, and secure the welfare of land-mine victims and their families, argues LSC's Abada, who accuses Cairo of neglecting these victims because they are generally poor and marginalized people living far from the policymakers in the capital.



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