Compensation scheme has aided very few people, as Saharan residents experience cancers, blindness and birth defects
By Johnny Magdaleno
Ahmed el-Hadj Hamadi was huddled into a building with the rest of his community by French soldiers early in the morning. They were instructed to lie down, close their eyes and cover their ears. He then remembers a sound like “the world coming to an end” and the windows turning white. A cord above their prone bodies swung erratically until the light bulb it held shattered.
“I thought it was the apocalypse. We all did,” he said. “We all thought we might die.” Later, the French military began tasking out labor to residents in the isolated desert region of Algeria. “They had built a kind of village at the explosion area, and even put animals in it,” Hamadi added. “After the blast we were sent out to gather all the rubbish. The ground was all burned, white, liquid.”
To nomadic communities around the town of Reggane, they’re known more than half a century later as “leopard skins” — stretches of sand across Algeria’s southern Sahara that are peppered with small black clumps. People used to collect scrap metal from the charred warplanes and trucks that emerge, fossil-like, and then smelt them into jewelry and kitchen utensils.
But these Algerians were not properly warned of their danger after France’s misgoverned nuclear bomb-testing campaign of the early 1960s, which vitrified vast tracts of desert with heat and plutonium and left a legacy of uncontained radiation that is still crippling inhabitants. Estimates of the number of Algerians affected by testing range from 27,000 — cited by the French Ministry of Defense — to 60,000, the figure given by Abdul Kadhim al-Aboudi, an Algerian professor of nuclear physics.
Yet there has been little accountability for France’s disregard. A compensation scheme for victims of France’s nuclear tests exists, but it has made payouts to only 17 people. The majority of those were residents of French Polynesia, where France relocated its nuclear testing campaign after leaving Algeria and experimented with more than 190 nuclear bombs from 1966 to 1996.
Legacy of contamination
France tested its first nuclear bomb in the Tanezrouft area, a portion of the Sahara that straddles Algeria and Mali, some 30 miles south of Reggane, on Feb. 13, 1960. Named Gerboise Bleue (“blue jerboa”) after the left hue of the tricolor French flag and a small rodent living in the Sahara, it had a blast capacity of 70 kilotons — or more than four times the strength of Little Boy, the U.S. bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.
Over two years, the French tested four bombs above ground in Tanezrouft. But even after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, at the end of an eight-year revolutionary war that left hundreds of thousands dead, the French maintained a military presence in the region and tested 13 nuclear bombs underground, in a facility beneath the Hoggar mountains, 400 miles southeast of Reggane.
That angers many who point to what they see as an ongoing disaster in Algeria. “This area is still one of the most affected,” said Roland Desbordes, president of the Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation, who has visited the blast sites with Algerian journalists and nuclear experts multiple times. “It’s frequented by desert nomads. There’s a well that they use near Tan Afella Mountain,” a peak that rises directly above the underground testing site.