Funny how even the size of a word on a bottle of shampoo can float memories back to the surface. ‘Hair Shampoo with Argan Oil’ was written on a bottle on the shelf in front of me while I shaved. Glasses off, ‘Argan’ is unclear yet unambiguous. My subliminal messaging retrieval kicks in and I’m back in a restaurant pouring an Argan oil dressing on my salad. I was there with five other colleagues. It had been a long day towards the end of a complicated three month geophysical project. We had been recording two dimensional profiles in a hunt for commercial hydrocarbons.
We worked a few hours drive south of Tan Tan. You go south of Tilemzoun, across the mountains of Megsem el Fernane, to where the sealed road RR103 ends in the village and the commune of Msied. Msied sits in a gap in Jbel Tassout and the roads thereafter are unsealed and often quite challenging even for 4X4. These are probably not names you know unless you have an interest in the Paris-Dakar Rally that held several stages here. Or perhaps you know the small fishing port and resort town of Tan Tan Plage which is frequented by many of the American military who are based nearby. That night of the Argan oil salad dressing, a group of Navy Seabees turned up for dinner Chez Christine on Memorial Day in a Navy Humvee.
Chez Christine is a Breton gastronomic outpost at the bend of the coastal N1 highway that links Tangier to Laayoune via Tan Tan. Christine was a force to be reckoned with and served excellent sea food, fresh from the boats. She warned us that as good as the Argan oil was on bread and salad, too much gives most people indigestion. It may have been my poor French but I think she left out the word ‘severe’. So severe that I was glad that I always travel with Zantac 75 to hand.
Morocco. A country where I have seen a goat in a tree, perched as if it was a bird. And I have many seen photographs of many goats in trees. A country very much troubled by the legacies of war, troubles not easily noticed in the tourist hubs.
I had a reason to meet with the most senior military figure in one district. I wanted to know about landmines. Specifically, I wanted to know about plastic landmines. I was emphatically told there were none. No equivocation. Anti-vehicle mines: yes, standard procedure. Anti-tank mines: yes, of course. Anti-personnel spring-loaded mines: none, no need, the insurgents only travelled by vehicles. Plastic mines? It was almost as if it was an insult to suggest that plastic landmines could ever have been used. No, never. Of course not.
We were about to commence work in an area that had been in conflict for several decades. To the east, there had been a war between Algeria and Morocco some 50 years before. Just south of where we intended to work, there had been an independence dispute between the Polisario and the Moroccan government. Morocco had annexed the mineral-rich Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1979. The indigenous Saharawi had preferred independence. This dispute was brutally fought and cruelly pursued by both parties until the 1991 ceasefire, and landmines were one of the main weapons of defence to prevent separatists crossing north of the Draa River. Corresponding landmines were laid to discourage and delay invaders crossing south of the Draa River.
One use of the landmine is to cut off roads or trails or paths. So what you can do is place a landmine in a narrow road which will cripple one vehicle. This will block the road. It will interrupt logistical supply lines. It can prevent access and flight by mobile fighters. To create a proper choke point, you might place such a mine where there are restrictions either side of the road. But if those restrictions do not exist, you can create them with a few more landmines. Carefully placed, either side of the road, they will cripple vehicles that divert around the bottleneck.
Your average insurgent probably learns of the trick in Insurgency 101. I learned them from some of our security advisors who had served with the French Foreign Legion. They spent so many years avoiding being blown up that they found roles in civvy street after gaining certificates that qualified them for bomb disposal and de-mining activities.
So once a convoy has secured their position and know that the first landmine is creating a chokepoint rather than setting up an ambush, they take out their mine detectors. And comforted by the discovery of a couple of landmines they neutralise them and divert around the primary obstacle. And this is where plastic landlines are tactically very useful. Because if there is a plastic landline, they won’t have detected it. And bang, there’s a new choke point as well as more injured and maimed combatants to be catered for. Plus the loud bang and hopefully some smoke will have raised the alarm for the defenders. Confusion and lots of fear and uncertainty.
The Moroccan army lent us 140 soldiers to assist us in our minesweeping operations. They did the work and our guys marked out the paths, the tracks and the roads once they had been swept. We recorded the boundaries of the swept routes with GPS as corridors, loaded them into our vehicle management systems, where they were used to constrain the drivers of the 60 vehicles we were using. In four months of operations, not one of our vehicles ever went outside the swept lines in the 100,000 kilometres driven by the fleet. That’s not so different to your use of satnav in your car or truck. You will generally avoid pavements or walls because you can see them while following a route computed for you. It’s a bit different in a flat desert where there are no visual clues other than tracks that may have been there for generations. Most days are windy; the blown sand and dust hides all manner of things. So the system beeps and whistles alerts designed to keep the drivers within the safety zones.
So what do you do when you find a mine? It gets detonated in situ by the soldiers. End of mine.
Once an area was certified clear, we would be able to send in the very large bulldozers to clear an area flat for equipment or new access. And what happened on day one? The blade of a dozer dug up a plastic landline. Large 50 tonne dozers were specifically chosen for this clearance task just in case. Few mines would be big enough to damage them, the blast being deflected by the huge blade. The unearthed plastic landmine was broken into several parts by the blade. It didn’t detonate. Which was appropriate since it didn’t exist (officially speaking).
What the commander said later was ‘classified’. I had little choice but to take his word once. But not twice.
We had an excellent relationship with the local units who swept 15 m corridors over the 500 km length we required. The King of Morocco was pleased to know that more mines were being cleared because he had promised clearance of the remnants of war so that tourism could flourish.
On one occasion, a hand grenade appeared by a tree in a camp site that had been thoroughly swept. We understood this was an important breakthrough. The legacy of an asymmetric war was that the police and army did not necessarily trust the local community. So we arranged with the town elders that a couple of the army sappers together with our security advisors would come and dispose of any remnants that the locals indicated. Without record, prejudice or interrogation.
We didn’t get as much as we hoped. There were some bullets and a few shells. The team was invited into one home that had a decaying hand grenade on a shelf in the family room. That one scared even the most phlegmatic of our French disposal experts.
What’s tragic about places like this is not just the land mines. Yes, we saw land-rovers that had been destroyed by anti-tank mines, randomly killing the local shepherds who were simply driving across the desert. The worst part is that airplanes returning to Tan Tan airbase had to dump all of their unused bombs before landing. No military commander wants a plane to explode on landing and render the runway unusable. The dumped weapons don’t always detonate on impact with soft sand. Who knows what kinds of bombs they might have been. There’s a huge area that we marked off as absolutely inaccessible under all circumstances. We left out painted stones to demark the UXO zones for years to come.
Another problem is rain. You think it doesn’t rain much in the desert. When we were there, a military helicopter crashed in thick fog as it tried to cross a mountain range to the north of us. Killed two. And it wasn’t the first such incident around those mountains. The year before, eighty people aboard a C-130 military transport plane died when it failed to cross the mountains en route to Guelmin. The dead included the Moroccan information minister.
The Atlantic coast is cool and the climate along the coast is quite different from the Sahara which might be why you’d consider going to Agadir for a holiday. Rain does come and when it does, flash floods flush out and wash detritus including landmines into the most unexpected places. Viable mines can end up being redeployed to active duty by water, deposited under a thin layer of sediment tens of kilometres from the nearest minefield.
While dining Chez Christine, I bought Pistes du Maroc. It’s a guide to 4X4 trails throughout the regions and is wonderfully informative. The worry is that the German and French motor enthusiasts I saw out on the Jbel might not understand the dangers. Sure these tracks and trails are well travelled but the rain can change your luck. Assuming you have the sense to stay on the tracks in the first place.
Not everyone was pleased to see what I was told was an annual migration of speedboats and other leisure vessels belonging to King Mohammed VI. He winters his boats in the south and brings them north for summer skiing. The roads in around Tan Tan were closed for his convoy of water sport fun. It was an extraordinary of juxtaposition of wealth and poverty and one that provoked a lot of anger among those I saw watching what was, effectively, a parade.
I saw the same resentments while walking on the beach in Agadir. I wasn’t the only one turned back for spoiling the view from one of the King’s beach houses. There were many kids playing football on the beach, most wearing knock-off Spanish football jerseys, most clear of the view. One young Lionel Messi aspirant, juggling the ball with his feet, practicing alone, said to me: ‘Why? He never comes here’.