Peace Time: Explosive History


October 25, 2009: Since the French Army turned over 1960s maps of their Algerian minefields to Algeria, local army engineers have removed over 420,000 mines. France laid nearly 11 million mines between 1954-62, as they fought Algerian rebels. Since 1962, the Algerian military has found and removed about three-quarters of these mines. But when the French left in 1962, they did not leave behind the maps of where their mines were planted. Two years ago, the French finally agreed to provide these maps. This enabled Algerian engineers to double the number of mines they removed per month.

France provided Algeria with maps of where three million French mines were planted in the late 1950s in remote border areas. There, 1,200 kilometers of mine fields were created to make it more difficult for Algerian rebels (against the French colonial government) moving across the Tunisian and Moroccan borders. Most of those mine fields are in unpopulated areas, and have never been cleared. But each year, shepherds, and others moving along the border areas, are killed or injured by the mines, as are their animals. The mines in more traveled areas have been removed over the decades. But now, with the maps, the mines in remote areas can be cleared.

 The mine maps were always an irritant in relations between the two countries, as France never offered to provide them before. Now, however, the French army sees an opportunity to improve its relationship with Algeria. Since the 1950s, the French army has been particularly hated by Algerians, because of the rough tactics used during the late 1950s and early 1960s, before France finally left and Algeria became independent. But over the decades, the hatred has died down.

 Over the next few years, the Algerians expect to have removed over 90 percent of the mines shown in the French maps. Many mines have moved, as the sand or earth they were buried in, moved due to wind and water action. Some of these will never be found, and many of those are now so deep in the ground that animals, or people, walking by will not set them off. But these mines will remain lethal for decades more. Such was the case with World War I munitions that didn't go off when used nearly a century ago. Shells, grenades and aircraft bombs still explode when a farmer, or construction crew, digs them up. Fortunately, most of the remaining French mines are in remote areas of Algeria. There, they are probably a danger only to future archeologists, seeking traces of ancient civilizations.


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