Algerians still feel effects of nuclear tests 50 years ago

Deaths and deformities from the fallout continue

December 1960:  A set of dummies propped up in the Sahara Desert awaiting a third atomic bomb explosion during the French nuclear testing. The third test, codenamed Gerboise Rouge or 'Red Jerboa', took place outside Reggane in Algeria. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Abdelkrim Touhami smiles into the camera. He sits outside, relaxing in a chair, his white keffiyeh contrasting sharply with his neon blue robe.

Over video call he explains how, in the early sixties, his family and their neighbours had been instructed to leave their homes in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset for the half-hour or so that the French government could conduct nuclear tests, about 170 kilometres away in Ekker.

Almost 60 years later, people in the area are still getting sick and babies are still being born with deformities, Mr Touhami says, and the French government will still not tell them where the waste from those tests was buried, or how much still lies underneath the sand.

"It was like an earthquake," the retired French teacher says, struggling to recall the events of more than half a decade ago. "I was 17 years old. We'd been told to leave our homes as they wanted to see the effect on the brickwork."

The Algerian soldiers who ordered the evacuation had told them that the test would be carried out underground. Now, Mr Touhami explains over the Skype connection to a translator in Tunis, "there is a giant crater in the mountainside".

Photo taken on December 27, 1960 of General Jean Thiry pressing the button which triggers the explosion of the third French atomic bomb on the test polygon at Reggane in the Sahara during the operation called "Gerboise rouge". - General Jean Thiry, director of nuclear experiment centers, during the first French thermonuclear device in the Pacific in 1968, died on December 14 in Paris at the age of 84. AFP PHOTO (Photo by - / AFP)
Photo taken on December 27, 1960 of General Jean Thiry pressing the button which triggers the explosion of the third French atomic bomb on the test polygon at Reggane in the Sahara during the operation called "Gerboise rouge".  AFP

From 1960 through to Algeria winning its independence two years later and continuing to 1996 and the worldwide ban on nuclear testing, France carried out 17 nuclear tests in the north African country.

Eleven occurred after Algeria's brutal war of independence. This includes the ill-fated 1962 test in nearby Beryl, where insufficient sealing on an underground shaft led to radioactive rocks and dust being ejected into the atmosphere, contaminating more than 100 French soldiers, nine severely, and a number of government ministers.

Subsequent investigations by reporters have shown that in the village of Mertoutek, 60km from the Beryl blast, 17 people died suddenly afterwards. Many more continue to suffer its effects.

According to the French Ministry of Defence, about 27,000 people were affected by the 17 tests, including citizens, French technicians and military staff.

According to Abdul Kadhim Al Aboudi, professor of nuclear physics at the University of Oran, the number is likely to be closer to 60,000. "In the eighties we started to notice babies being born with deformities," he said.

"I just noticed, as a teacher, that more and more people were getting sick," said Mr Touhami, who later formed an advocacy group, Taourirt, to collect what data remained on the tests and channel it to government.

"We live in the desert. We talk. People meet and share news," he said, referring to the conversations between the townspeople over the growing tide of sickness across the region, increasing in frequency closer to the test sites.

Footage broadcast by Algerian state television in 2019 bears Mr Touhami out.

In the clip, fathers from the village of Reggane assemble their children, all exhibiting a variety of difficulties, from mental impairments to extreme physical deformities.

In a brief segment, a local doctor, Kheira Harzaoui, bemoans the shortage of medical provisions, telling the channel: "There are so many cases of handicapped foetuses. So many. An incalculable number of abortions and miscarriages."

No one appears to exhibit any doubt as to the cause of their difficulties.

According to a July report by the French section of the advocacy group, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, several dumps resembling hastily constructed landfill sites have been unearthed within the area. Nobody knows how many more there may be.

Within these sites, filled with the military detritus of their French and latterly Algerian occupiers, contaminated waste from the tests, including material emitted directly from the blasts, including that at Beryl, lie unguarded.

According to the group, French policy at the time was to simply bury waste known to be contaminated, such as mechanical equipment up to and including helicopters and aeroplanes, producing radioactive deposits "on a massive scale".

"There could be up to 3,000 tonnes of waste buried in that region of the Sahara," one of the report's authors, Jean-Marie Collin, told The National. "Some of that is just military waste, but the majority is from the nuclear tests."

Unsurprisingly, with that much waste lying under the sand, subsequent decades have seen the influx of those looking to make a quick buck from the discarded metal, potentially drawing the contaminated waste out into local societies and ultimately across the country.

In 2010, the French government passed the Morin Law, offering compensation to anyone adversely affected by past tests. In former French Polynesia, where civil society groups were able to galvanise a local population still carrying the burden of testing, 1,427 claims for compensation were received as of last year.

A picture taken on December 29, 1960 at Le Bourget Paris airport show a soldier holding cages of guinea pigs arriving from Reggane, southern Sahara desert, after they were exposed to the radiations of the third French nuclear test carried out in 1960, in order to establish medical treatments to fight the effects of nuclear blasts. Reggane was the site where the first French nuclear bomb was tested on February 13,1960 before the Algerian independence. France used soldiers as guinea pigs in nuclear tests in the 1960s, deliberately exposing them to radiation from atomic blasts to test the effects, according to a secret military report, obtained by AFP, revealed on February 16, 2010.  AFP PHOTO FILES (Photo by - / AFP)
A picture taken on December 29, 1960 at Le Bourget Paris airport shows a soldier holding cages of guinea pigs arriving from Reggane, southern Sahara desert, after they were exposed to radiation from the third French nuclear test in Algeria. AFP

From Algeria over the same period, just 49 had been filed. Thus far, only one Algerian has received any financial redress.

"The number of different illnesses covered by the Morin law is very narrow," Mr Collin said, "and all the information about this law is in French, which few people in the area speak. Compared to the north, [of Algeria], the south is relatively poor and the education system is less strong," he said, referring to a region that until recent years was dominated by semi-nomadic Tuareg tribespeople.

"You can't really expect this population, including those who worked for the French Army, to produce documents proving where they were and what they were doing decades ago," he said.

It is only in recent years that many of the people affected by the tests learnt of their exposure. Unlike the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, there was no single flashpoint that people could trace their maladies and those of their children back to.

From the French departure and on, the region continued like any other within the vast tracts of Algeria's south, deriving its income from agriculture and tourists travelling to Tamanrasset to learn more about the Tuareg, who form a majority there.

In July, Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune called on France to apologise for its colonial past. No mention was made of those still suffering from the effects of French nuclear testing on Algerian soil during and after independence.

Thus far, emails from The National to the Algerian Embassy in Paris and Patrick Durel, the French foreign minister with responsibility for North Africa, have elicited no reply.

For Mr Collin, the issue of French inaction is straightforward. "Once Algeria gained independence, for the French, the issue became an Algerian problem," he said.

For Algeria's political leadership which, for decades, has claimed a virtual monopoly on the country's sense of patriotism, addressing the legacy of French nuclear tests is problematic. While the damage is acknowledged, the continued French presence within Algeria beyond independence runs counter to the state's narrative of a patriotic victory over a hated coloniser.

"I think that goes part way in explaining it," said Jonathan Hill, an Algerian specialist at King's College, London.

He noted that European power kept enclaves within former colonial territories, such as Bizerte, Tunisia, which remained a French naval base for seven years after the country gained independence in 1956.

"During the Evian peace negotiations in 1961, the French argued that southern Algeria was largely a French gain, added to the historic area of Algeria under their occupation. This was largely due to the rich mineral deposits there, but retaining control within a former colony wasn't unknown," he said.

However, sitting in the late afternoon sun in Tamanrasset, past historical wrangling appears to be far from the thoughts of Mr Touhami. "Everything was affected by the tests," he says, "plants, animals, everything. The only thing that wasn't affected was the scorpion."