By Robert Fisk
Originally published in The Independent.
The first time I saw one, my first instinct was to pick it up. It shone in the sunlight, bright green, something new and fresh amid the dry grass of the south Lebanon hills. The little cluster bomblet seemed to have been made to hold in the hand. No wonder the little children died.
Israel rained more than a million bomblets into the orchards and fields of southern Lebanon in 2006 – after the ceasefire to the 34-day Israel-Hizbollah conflict had been announced. So far, post-war, they have killed more than 40 men, women and children. Some of the mine disposal men and women who turned up in Lebanon found that the cluster bombs had themselves been dropped on minefields left behind by the Israelis in 2000.
And these minefields, in some cases, had been laid over old Palestinian minefields. And some of these minefields – and here the 20th century’s most titanic war threatens us yet again – had been inadvertently placed over carpets of mines dug into Lebanon’s red earth by French Vichy forces in 1941, as they awaited British and Free French invasion from Palestine.
As usual, the Second World War turns out to be the foundation for so many of the Middle East’s present-day horrors. In Tripoli, they publish a “White Book” on Libya’s legacy from the 1939-45 war, the tens of thousands of mines buried in the sands around Tobruk and Benghazi by the Italians and Germans, the British and the Australians and New Zealanders and South Africans.
“The Italians lay mines,” says the caption beneath a photograph of Berti’s engineers placing landmines in the desert. “The British lay more mines. The Germans lay more and more mines. Then they leave but the mines are still there!”
Twenty years after the war – when at least 800 Libyan farmers and family members had already been blown up by mines – an Italian journalist was describing the continuing carnage during mine-clearance.
“These mines are so sensitive that a light footstep is enough to make them jump into the air like a grasshopper – all we found of the two men were a few rags of flesh and clothing.”
Egypt calls its own Second World War minefields “the Gardens of the Devil”, and they run from El Alamein to Mersa Matruh, east of the Libyan border. Add to these the vast minefields laid by Egyptian and Israeli forces in the eastern deserts in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 – the Israelis have maps of 5.5 million landmines they planted in Sinai and the surrounding area after 1967 – and you have a good idea how deadly, how poisonous the sands remain.
As the Egyptian Mail pointed out last month, we in the West remember the dead of Alamein every year. But who remembers the dead of Egypt? And just for the record, although the British and Italians and Germans have all forwarded their ancient minefield maps to the Egyptians – and although the Egyptian army cleared 2,976 mines between 1983 and 1999 – there remain about 17.6 million landmines beneath the Egyptian coastal strip, according to the country’s clearance organisation.
Since 1982 alone, 700 Egyptians have been killed by them and another 7,600 wounded. And while they die, our survivors grow older. When I wrote about the film Atonement a few weeks ago – with its graphic five minute tracking shot of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation beaches, and the landmine destruction of Balham Tube station – I little realised how many memories it would awake.
A lady from Scotland wrote to tell me how as a child during the Blitz she “regularly slept down the Underground – I missed the landmine which dropped in the Balham High Street, the resultant flood drowned many people [including Cecilia in Atonement]. I recall the Tube station being closed for a long time to clean [out] the bodies. I also remember seeing the tide mark high on the wall afterwards”.
More dramatic was a letter from 90-year-old former Second Lieutenant Hal Crookall, a Dunkirk veteran in the East Yorkshire Regiment. In my article, I noted how the first sight of the Dunkirk beaches in the film provoked my cry of “Fuck me!”– and how these were the first words to be uttered by a young corporal in the movie a few seconds later. So imagine my shock – and the smile that spread over my face – when I read the following words from Mr Crookall.
“Most of the men from my platoon were dockers from Hull. We had been left behind to fight rear guard actions, and had to make our own way towards the beach, which we did largely by following the noise made by the Navy’s guns and the shells screeching over our heads, and the noise of the Stuka bombers attacking the beaches. When we did finally find our way on to the beach and came over the sandhills to see the scene, most of my chaps said in broad Yorkshire: ‘Fooking ‘ell!’ which in some cases was abbreviated to ‘King-ell!’.”
In 1943, Second Lieutenant Crookall was wounded in – of all places – the Libyan desert. Not by a mine – he and his soldiers placed sandbags in the bottom of their Bren carrier to prevent the mine blasts hurting them – but by a German shell splinter which penetrated the vehicle’s 3/8 inch plating and smashed into Crookall’s arm. He was invalided out of his infantry division, posted around the Middle East and ended up in Damascus.
“My wound practically finished me off as a violinist,” he told me this week. “But I was in Damascus when Josephine Baker arrived to give a concert to the Free French and she asked me to accompany her. Then I played again.” After the war, Crookall returned many times to the Middle East, a guest of Ali Ayoubi, the son of a Syrian president, he says – I think he would have been the son of the Syrian prime minister. “My father had two bodyguards,” Crookall remembers Ali telling him. “[President] Assad has about 10,000!” In Libya and in Egypt, of course, the people of the desert have no bodyguards. The foundation of their lives remains the war that was fought before they were born and which is still killing and maiming them, just as it maimed Second Lieutenant Crookall 65 years ago. I suppose the moral can only be expressed in a cliché. In the Middle East, the Second World War has not ended.