Landmine compensation sought

Egyptian Bedouins ask Britain for compensation over devices left after the Second World War.

Hag Ali
Bedouin farmer Abdelaziz Hamed’s daughter lost her foot in a landmine blast [STANFORD]

A group of Egyptian Bedouins is threatening to sue the British government over the rising toll of deaths and injuries caused by British landmines and unexploded ordnance left in the Egyptian desert after the Second World War.

The Organisation of Landmine Victims for Economic Development is seeking cash settlements for the victims of explosions caused by British landmines, bombs, mortars and artillery shells still buried beneath the sand on Egypt’s north-west coast.

There are said to be some 17 million such explosive remnants of war remaining today, testimony to the fierce fighting between Allied and Axis forces in the battle for North Africa.

The group threatening the action represents some 660 registered survivors located along the Mediterranean coast from El-Alamein to the border with Libya, many of whom have lost limbs or been blinded.

Due to chronic under-reporting of incidents, the true number of injured persons may be in the thousands. In addition, several thousand Bedouins are likely to have been killed in explosions over the past six decades, according to the Egyptian government.

Friendly approach

The survivors’ group says it is planning a “friendly” approach to the British government in the first instance, in the hope of reaching an agreement in principle and opening negotiations on compensation levels.

If this initial approach fails, the group says it will seek to prosecute the British government for damages under international law, although it has yet to formulate a detailed legal strategy or indeed confirm which court it might approach with its grievance. It seems likely that they will have to prove their case in the Egyptian courts before taking their claim further afield.

The first volley in the group’s campaign takes the form of a letter sent to Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, during his visit to Egypt last month.

Om Da Rahouma directs the victims’ group [DIFFIDENTI]

The Prince lay a wreath at the Commonwealth cemetery outside El-Alamein on October 24, before moving on to Cairo where he met with Ahmed Nazif, the Egyptian prime minister, various government ministers and a number of British investors in Egypt.

As the Prince prepared to lay his wreath, the survivors’ group sent him a letter outlining their stance and detailing the plight of those victims who have lost their livelihoods and “need assistance to perform very simple functions required for survival, such as eating, walking or even using the bathroom”.

The group is banking on the Prince’s influence as the UK’s special representative for international trade and investment.

However, they have not yet received a reply to their letter.

Leading the campaign is Om Da Rahouma, the director of the victims’ organisation, which is based in the seaside holiday town of Marsa Matrouh.

“In the letter, I introduce the problem of the victims and ask for appropriate compensation that would provide a comfortable life for them,” Rahouma said.

“This is a friendly request. If there is no response, we will go to the international courts, and we will file a case to obtain the rights of our people.”

Consulting lawyers

Rahouma says that his group is in the process of consulting lawyers from Cairo on legal strategy, and has yet to come up with even a ballpark figure for the proposed settlements.

“First of all, the British government should approve and admit the general principal of our claim, which is compensation. Then we will negotiate details,” he said.

Typical of the landmine victims is Jacob Mohammed Jali, a Bedouin farmer from the village of Negeila. He lost a leg in 1988 while out grazing his sheep in the desert.

He says he stepped on an object beneath the sand, which exploded. The prosthetic leg provided by the authorities is uncomfortable, he says, so he would rather not wear it.

What he needs more than a leg is money to re-start his business. Now unable to take his sheep out grazing, he wants the cash to purchase 50 sheep and enough dry feed to fatten them up in his garden.

He estimates that it would cost around $8,000 to get him going. Such an investment would enable him and his five children to escape poverty for good, he says.

One potential complication for any legal claim is the fact that landmines and unexploded ordnance were also left behind in large numbers by the Axis powers, Italy and Germany.

The mine that removed Jacob Mohammed Jali’s leg may well have been of Italian or German origin. The same applies to the large majority of victims, who are rarely able to identify the nature of the device that caused their injuries.

The Egyptian government has long sought compensation from all three nations, as well as New Zealand and Australia, which had troops under British command during the fighting.

Since the 1990s all five nations have responded with a range of individual donations, typically in the form of landmine detection equipment and technical training.

Huge sums

However, the total offered has been small in comparison to the cost of clearing the bombs and mines entirely, estimated by the Egyptian army to be around $250mn, not to mention the potentially huge sums that might be required to compensate the thousands of victims.

Jacob Mohammed Jali lost his leg to a landmine [STANFORD]

The British government has perhaps been singled out as the primary target for legal action because it is the only nation to have ruled out any further funding to the Egyptian government, either for landmine clearance or the compensation or rehabilitation of victims.

In 2007, Britain’s Department for International Development made a donation of £250,000 accompanied by a letter stating that due to Egypt’s status as a middle-income nation, no further contributions would be made.

Egyptian officials are said to have found the British government’s stance unreasonable and the letter itself “offending”.

Egypt may well be a middle-income nation, they say, but it is one struggling with a plethora of other social and economic issues. The issue of landmine survivors ranks low in the hierarchy of concerns for the ministries responsible for health and welfare.

The British Embassy in Cairo points out that the UK spends approximately $17mn annually on clearing landmines and other explosive remnants of war worldwide, and has a policy of focusing efforts on poorer nations.

For both the Egyptian government and the victims’ organisation, this is not the point. For them, it is a matter of the former combatants taking responsibility for the harm they have inflicted.

No precedent

The decision to present the case to Prince Andrew during his recent visit appears to have been made after discussions between the victims’ organisation and Egyptian government officials.

Both parties will no doubt be aware of Prince Andrew’s role in promoting British business interests abroad, and the issue of compensation might well form part of wider discussions on the nature of British investment in Egypt.

They will also be aware of reparations made by Italy to Libya last year for 30 years of colonial rule. The compensation took the form of a $5bn investment package, including the provision of pensions to those injured by landmines laid by the Italian army during the Second World War.

Om Da Rahouma, says he knows of no case in which landmine victims have sued a foreign nation for damages. However, he says he is not daunted by the challenge facing him.

“I am obliged to do this because it is my duty,” he says.

“We received millions of promises and supposed solutions, but nothing has happened. I will go to court anyway, regardless of the consequences. At least our voices will be heard all over the world.”

Source: Al Jazeera