By Eric Teniola
IT is now clear that all our achievements and successes are nothing but vanity. A few hours before he was assassinated on April 3, 1968 in Melphis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jnr. declared: “We have got some difficult days ahead, something is happening in our world. Trouble is in the land, confusion all around us. I don’t know what will happen.” I hope we are not facing the same dilemma now.
In this part of the world, this is the second time we are witnessing a flu of such magnitude as a nation. In 1960, I was in the final year at Otapete Methodist Primary School in Ilesha, along with Bolanle Jegede, Siyan Malomo, Bola Olojo, Olu Malomo, Deboye Olatunbosun, Niyi Komolafe, Kola Dudubo, Dele Fayehun, Funlayo Gureje, Keji Ojo, Apeke David, Debisi Fatunwase, Mosun Awofeso, Ramoni Okulaja, Alao Tiamiyu, Aina Kupoluyi, Opebiyi girls and others, when our teacher and my guardian, Mr. Fatunwase, lectured us on the flu at that time. The flu was as a result of the radioactive fallout of an atomic bomb tested by France.
At that time we suddenly noticed that our eyes were red and constantly coughing. This was more pronounced in the northern region at that time. I do not know the exact number of people that died during the flu but there were leaflets circulated by government at that time of the dangers of the flu. At that time there was no data to know the victims. This was 60 years ago. As a matter of fact when I settled in brigade area in Kano in 1969, that is nine years after the event, people were still talking about the 1960 flu.
France is one of the five “Nuclear Weapons States” under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, but is not known to possess or develop any chemical or biological weapons. France was the fourth country to test an independently developed nuclear weapon in 1960, under the government of Charles de Gaulle. On February 13, 1960, France conducted its first nuclear test code-named “Gerboise Bleue”(Blue Desert Rat). The day marked the beginning of a series of four atmospheric nuclear tests at the Reganne Oasis, in the Sahara Desert of Algeria.
With an explosive yield of 70 kilotons, Gerboise Bleue was relatively large for a country’s first nuclear test, around four times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. Military scientists triggered off the “device” at 7 a.m. (1 a.m. EST) atop a 330-foot tower just south of the oasis of Reggane in the heart of the desolate area known as “the region of total thirst”. President Charles de Gaulle himself announced the successful explosion in a communique issued from his Elysee Palace in Paris 30 minutes later. He hailed the historic event as a significant contribution to the defense potential of not only France but to the Western world as well.
That angered 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.
When France finally left, it buried a range of contaminated objects throughout the two areas – metal from remote-controlled towers that activated the bombs, engine parts from planes that flew into Gerboise Bleue’s mushroom cloud to gather radiation data and military-grade trucks placed in the blast radius to act as barometers of its power. But Saharan winds later swept away the sand covering these nuclear tombs.
Southern Algerians – the vast majority of whom were never informed by the French about residual radiation hazards and in some cases the testing dates – began stripping the items for resources.
“The fact that people were not aware of the dangers of this material for years is criminal,” said Larbi Benchiha, a French-Algerian journalist who was born in Algeria a year before Gerboise Bleue and has made two documentaries on Reggane and the surrounding areas. Benchiha did not learn about the nuclear tests until 1996, that is 16 years after he moved to France.
“From the abandoned nuclear testing bases, people have recovered plates, beams, electrical cables and equipment of all kinds, all of which are radioactive. They have incorporated them into the construction of their homes.” Residents of Reggane told Benchiha about the strange uptick of medical issues that first appeared during the 1970s and continue to this day. Babies born with atrophied limbs; cancers of the liver, stomach and skin; cases of temporary blindness among those who saw the brutal flash of light as it ripped through the Maghreb about 6:30 a.m. Some of Reggane’s faithful were in the middle of their Islamic morning prayers when it happened 55 years ago.
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 labour 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.
To be concluded