Landmines in the Sahara

Matthew Porges · Landmines in the Sahara

Daha Bulahi, sixtyish, is a Sahrawi, born into a nomadic family in the northwestern Sahara. One of his eyes is fake, the eyelid mangled, and he’s missing a couple of fingers. None of this prevents him from brewing tea, which he did throughout our interview in the Sahrawi way, aerating the tea by pouring it from glass to glass and accumulating bubbles on the surface. He worked in landmine clearance for several years, and Yago, a Spanish demining technician who was working with him, told me the story of Daha’s mutilation. Lacking sophisticated equipment, he would dig underneath each mine and pick it up from below with his bare hands, avoiding the pressure-plate triggering mechanism on the top. Then he would throw it over his shoulder, letting it explode, and move onto the next one. This is about as safe as it sounds. He had cleared a vast number of mines successfully, but one day a mine exploded as he threw it, spraying him with shrapnel. Daha’s survival strained the bounds of credulity, but there he was, brewing tea with what was left of his hand.

There are something like seven million unexploded landmines in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony now mostly occupied by Morocco. Daha, along with thousands of others, fled the Moroccan invasion in 1975 and has lived in a refugee camp in Algeria ever since. Most of the landmines here are antipersonnel mines, which are light enough to move around in the dunes with changing wind and rain patterns. In 2015 and 2016, there was unprecedented flooding. This made the issue of mobile landmines even more pressing, and Daha’s organisation, the Asociación Saharaui de Víctimas de Minas, was busier than ever.

The Spanish never got as far inland as the refugee camp where Daha now lives, but when people fled the war with Morocco, they took their languages with them, and when they built new institutions, they did so partly in the language of the former colonists. ASAVIM’s main office, in Rabouni, Algeria, consists of a single low building with four rooms. It isn’t a mine clearance operation; instead, it supports local landmine victims and their families. One of the rooms is filled with gruesome photographs; I was told there are about fourteen incidents in Western Sahara each year. In the hallway, there are prosthetic legs in flowerpots, limbs sprouting from the soil. Maybe this was meant as an artistic statement of some kind, but I didn’t ask.

ASAVIM’s director, Awala Lahbib, has a prosthetic leg. He and Daha were full of stories about nomads and landmines. One concerned a man who was herding fifty or so camels across the desert when he stepped on a mine. His camels scattered and his leg was blown off. Alone in the desert, bleeding heavily, he lit a fire and cauterised his wound, surviving the incident. According to Awala, he was 73 years old at the time. Yago, as usual, ruined a good story with his precision, probably a good quality in a demining technician: landmine explosions, he said, often cauterise wounds almost immediately anyway.

I had no way of knowing if the story was true, but, like the landmines themselves, the stories about them have an effect independent of their correspondence to reality. Like mythological monsters, mines can act on the world, close off certain spaces, even when they don’t exist. The anthropologist Eleana Kim has described landmines as ‘rogue infrastructure’: once placed, they may outlive their initial purpose and take on new meanings, entangle themselves in new social configurations. ‘In their persistent, if hidden, existence,’ Kim writes, the landmines emit ‘a different kind of ambient noise or background hum than that of conventional infrastructure’. Kim’s interview subjects, near the Korean DMZ, speak of mines ‘lying in wait’ like predators, with ‘distributed agency’ that can be ‘redistributed over time’. Like biological predators, the mines’ agency has a seasonal pulse. In winter, some of the Korean minefields freeze over, and are safe to cross on foot.

Like a lot of the problems that humans make for themselves and each other, landmines are easy to create but difficult to put back in the box later on. Polisario, the Western Saharan independence movement which administers Daha and Awala’s part of the desert, has made an effort at clearing them: in December 2017, the Sahrawi Mine Action Co-ordination Office destroyed 2446 landmines, the last ones that Polisario had placed during the war. Morocco has not done this, nor has it shared the positions of its minefields, so the location of most of the Moroccan mines remains a mystery until someone steps on one of them. The United Nations Mine Action Service has a role in Western Sahara (and partially funds some of ASAVIM’s projects), and frames its success in numerical terms: ‘139,096,031 square metres of hazardous areas released’; ‘7798 landmines removed and destroyed’; ‘69,502 local and nomadic people received mine risk education’. It’s difficult to envision what this last figure in particular might mean. I was told, however, not to even bother contacting the UN mission in Western Sahara to request an interview.

When the Moroccan army planted the mines, they were aiming not only to slow the advance of Sahrawi military raids, but also to make Sahrawi nomadism harder. The mines were placed at oases, or on hilltops, and Sahrawi camels were slaughtered in vast numbers. After the war, when Sahrawis began reconstructing their livelihoods, building a new, post-tribal space in which the nomads might move, they also had to engage in demining. Mines are meant to be cheap, quick, and easy to place, but expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous to remove. Some mines are intended specifically to target de-miners, so the usual procedure is not to remove them, but to blow them up. This (like leaving them in the ground) has obvious environmental impacts; demining, like the postwar reconstruction of Sahrawi nomadism, is a kind of purification of the land, a return to the (nomadic, ecological) past. Cleansing the land of mines, making it safe again for nomads, means asserting nomadic right-of-access. It’s a political assertion about what, and who, the land is for.

Now the landmines are part of the ecological backdrop of the Sahara, just another obstacle the nomads face, like the heat and the drought and the blowing sand which both constitutes and penetrates the desert. (A sign near Tindouf Airport strictly forbids the export of sand; two Algerian soldiers tried to search my bags for rocks.) A lot of the most fertile places in the desert are the most dangerous. Avoiding them means that it will be a lot harder to feed livestock – a problem compounded by the changing climate. Putting up signs doesn’t really work: ‘Camels can’t read,’ I was assured repeatedly.

Landmines aren’t the only problem. They are a subset of the much larger categories of ‘unexploded ordnance’ or ‘explosive remnants of war’. All sorts of explosives can be found occasionally in the desert, often encircled by small stones placed as a warning. Yago pointed out that, once lost, submunitions – the component parts of cluster bombs – basically act as landmines, becoming part of the landscape and exploding without warning, but also without the semi-predictable patterns, and specific removal techniques, associated with minefields.

My last interview with Daha, with Yago translating, was interrupted by news of the birth of a couple of lambs. One of ASAVIM’s projects involves supplying livestock to the families of landmine victims, helping to get livestock co-operatives off the ground, and Daha was hoping to get some good pictures of the event. He drove us there, somehow, with his one good hand and his one good eye. The lambs, wobbly-legged and fragile, lived in a paddock next to a small garden where somebody had planted tomatoes. This is a new development in the camps: hydroponic agriculture is beginning to replace nomadic grazing. On the way back to the Land Rover, Daha laughed and held up a tiny red tomato, about the size of a fingernail. ‘That’s one small step for man,’ Yago said, laughing. The sun was setting behind the mud-brick houses, and the desert was bearing fruit.