More than 60 years since France began its nuclear tests in Algeria, their legacy continues to poison relations between the North African nation and its former colonial ruler.
The issue has resurfaced after President Emmanuel Macron said in French Polynesia on Tuesday that Paris was “debt” to the South Pacific territory over nuclear tests there between 1966 and 1996.
The damage the mega-explosions have caused to people and wildlife in the former colonies remains a source of deep resentment, seen as evidence of discriminatory colonial attitudes and disregard for local life.
“Diseases related to radioactivity are passed down from generation to generation as a legacy,” said Abderahmane Toumi, head of the Algerian victim support group El Gheith El Kadem.
“As long as the region is polluted, the danger will remain,” he said, citing serious health consequences, from birth defects and cancer to miscarriages and sterility.
France conducted its first successful nuclear bomb test deep in the Algerian Sahara in 1960, making it the fourth nuclear power in the world after the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain.
As Algeria and France grapple with their painful shared histories, the identification and decontamination of radioactive sites remains one of the main disputes.
In his landmark report on French colonial rule and the 1954-62 Algerian War, historian Benjamin Stora recommended continuing to work collaboratively on “the sites of nuclear tests in Algeria and their consequences.”
France had a policy in the 1960s to bury all radioactive waste from the Algerian bomb tests in the desert sands and refused to reveal their locations for decades.
Tayeb Zitouni, Algeria’s former veterans minister, recently accused France of refusing to release topographic maps that would identify “cemeteries of polluting, radioactive or chemical waste that have not been discovered to date”.
“The French side has not technically taken any initiative to clean up the sites, and France has not taken any humanitarian action to compensate the victims,” Zitouni said.
According to the Ministry of the Armed Forces in Paris, Algeria and France are now “handling the whole subject at the highest state level”.
“France has provided the Algerian authorities with the maps it has,” the ministry said.
Between 1960 and 1966, France conducted 17 atmospheric or underground nuclear tests near the town of Reggane, 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from the capital Algiers, and in mountain tunnels at a site then called In Ekker.
Eleven of these were implemented after the 1962 Evian Accords, which granted Algeria independence but included an article that allowed France to use the sites until 1967.
A radioactive cloud from a 1962 test sickened at least 30,000 Algerians, the country’s official news agency estimated in 2012.
French documents released in 2013 revealed significant fallout from West Africa to Southern Europe.
Algeria last month established a national agency for the rehabilitation of former French nuclear test sites.
In April, Algeria’s chief of staff, General Said Chengriha, asked his then French counterpart, General Francois Lecointre, for his support, including access to all maps.
‘We respect our dead’
Receiving the cards is “a right strongly demanded by the Algerian state, without forgetting the issue of compensation for the Algerian victims of the tests,” stressed a senior army officer, General Bouzid Boufrioua, in the magazine El Djeich of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Defence.
“France must assume its historic responsibilities,” he argued.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, however, ruled out any claim for damages, telling Le Point weekly that “we respect our dead in such a way that financial compensation would be a disparagement. We are not a begging people.”
France passed a law in 2010 providing for a compensation procedure for “people suffering from diseases resulting from exposure to radiation from nuclear tests carried out between 1960 and 1998 in the Algerian Sahara and in Polynesia”.
But of the 50 Algerians who have since filed claims, only one, an Algiers soldier stationed at one of the sites, has “been able to get compensation,” says the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
No resident of the remote desert region has been compensated, it said.
In a survey published a year ago, “Radioactivity Under the Sand,” ICAN France urged Paris to provide Algeria with a complete list of the cemeteries and facilitate their cleanup.
The 2017 Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty requires states to provide adequate assistance to individuals affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons.
It was signed by 122 UN member states, but none of the nuclear powers. France argued that the treaty is “incompatible with a realistic and progressive approach to nuclear disarmament”.
ICAN France argued in its study that “people have been waiting for more than 50 years. There is a need to move faster.
“We still face a significant health and environmental problem that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”