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‘The day the desert wind cried’: French nuclear tests cast long shadow in Libyan Sahara

Middle East Eye, By Samira Elsaidi,  29 January 2023

Between 1960 and 1966, France detonated 17 bombs in the Algerian Sahara. In neighbouring Libya, the deadly effects are felt to this day

“I search for words that do not exist. My father passed away on the day the desert wind cried, and his absence is still there, like a loud mute cry, like a void that words cannot fill.” 

Abed Alfitory is 64-years old now. But he still remembers his father’s death and the events that led to it.

Alfitory is from Fezzan, the largely desert region of southwestern Libya. It is here, deep in the Sahara, that he spent 20 years collecting material for his book Desert Cry, motivated by the loss of his father’s sight in 1960 and his death a few years later.

Speaking to Middle East Eye from his home in al-Zighan, the professor of philosophy at Sabha university told Middle East Eye that his childhood had come at a great cost, that he struggled amidst hard conditions and that he had been haunted by his father’s blindness.

Later, Alfitory discovered what had caused his father’s condition. He learnt, too, that he was not alone.

Many people in Fezzan had been struck down by respiratory diseases and ophthalmia in 1960. The acute eye infection was so prevalent then that it became known as the “year of ophthalmia”.

This was followed by the “year of smallpox”, the “year of the yellow wind” and the “year of gnawing”. The people of the Fezzan began to get cancer in greater numbers. Acid rain fell. The land was afflicted. What had happened? 

Explosions in the Sahara 

On 13 February 1960, France conducted its first nuclear test at Reggane, an oasis town in southern Algeria. The war for the North African country’s independence had been ongoing since 1954 and French President Charles de Gaulle was keen to show the world that France belonged at the top table of military powers.

To that end, the first French atomic bomb, named Gerboise Bleue after the blue of the tricolour flag and a small desert animal in the Sahara, was detonated in the Algerian desert. It released over four times the amount of energy as that of the US bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

A few months later, as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in France for an official visit, a second French bomb was detonated in the Sahara.

Between 1960 and 1966, four years after Algeria gained its independence, France detonated 17 bombs in the Sahara, including four in the atmosphere near Reggane. Witnesses to the tests described them as the most brutal thing they’d ever seen in their lives.

Four underground explosions in the Algerian Sahara “were not totally contained or confined”, according to a French parliamentary report.

Most famous of these was the Beryl incident, during which nine soldiers and a number of local Tuareg villagers were heavily contaminated by radioactivity.

The impact of France’s nuclear testing programme in Algeria was immediate and has been ongoing.

Following the first explosion in 1960, radioactive fallout landed in newly independent Ghana and in Nigeria, which was in its last days as a British colony.

Secret defence documents cited by Le Parisien in 2014 revealed that much larger areas than had been claimed by the government had been affected.

In fact, contrary to Paris’s assertions, radiation from the first bomb alone had covered a region that ran from Algeria to Libya to Mauritania and on to Mali and Nigeria. The impact even reached as far north as Spain and Italy…………………………………… more


January 29, 2023 - Posted by | AFRICA, PERSONAL STORIES, weapons and war

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