Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Reggane 1960: Dummies in the Desert

French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara


Notification from the research group “achac”:
Research group ACHAC - Colonisation, immigration, post-colonialism
"In the context of 'fake news', the photograph titled Reggane 1960 is a perfect example of the controversies and differing interpretations to which a picture can give rise. Taken by the French Army in the Algerian desert in December 1960, as part of the Gerboise mission – the first series of French nuclear tests, carried out in the midst of the Algerian War – it shows two lines of rigid, unmoving figures tied to stakes. Published in Les années 50. Et si la guerre froide recommençait ? [The 1950s: What if the Cold War started up again?] (La Martinière, to be published on 5 April 2018), it is deciphered here by the three authors of the book, Farid Abdelouahab, art historian, Pascal Blanchard, historian, and Pierre Haski, journalist and President of ‘Reporters sans frontières’."

Fallout from a Photograph


"This photograph of dummies set up to test the effect of the nuclear blast in the atmosphere gave rise to polemics. It was linked, as evidence, with the story of Algerian "human guinea-pigs" said to have been sent to the (test) site and deliberately irradiated by the French authorities; a news film proves that they are really dummies and not human bodies." [Reggane, Algeria].

Translation from French text, 'Fate of a photograph'
(slightly shortened)

We chose this photograph to illustrate one of the symbols of the Cold War, showing dummies set up by the French Army to test the blast from the explosion. But this picture, like present-day “fake news”, became the image of a crime perpetrated by France, that is the impact of these tests on a civilian population and on French soldiers, but also, according to some people, the “proof” that France had exposed not dummies, but FLN (National Liberation Front) prisoners of war in nuclear radiation tests. […]

On this photograph we see a dozen dummies in military uniform – very diverse and unregimented – set down in the Algerian desert. We ascertained that it should have been dated to the third test, that of 27 December 1960; this is confirmed by film and other archive images. For many years this photograph has featured in accusations brought against the French authorities by representatives of Algerian institutions … demanding acknowledgement of serious matters concerning “crimes against humanity”. In fact it is often used, mainly on the internet, to denounce presumed experiments carried out on 150 Algerian FLN POWs said to have served as ‘guinea-pigs’, in some cases disguised as dummy soldiers and tied to stakes about 1 kilometre from the epicentre in order to inform military scientists about radiation effects. The survivors/remains are supposed to have been taken to France for further research…

The First French atmospheric tests
To understand this, we need to go back to the early nuclear age… [USA 16-7-1945; USSR 1949; UK 1952}. In 1958 General de Gaulle, on coming to power, confirmed the order for nuclear weapons experiments and speeded up the preparations already begun by is predecessors two years earlier, and the Minister for Defence created a consultative committee tasked with studying the problems related to nuclear tests. The machine had got going…


In the following years the Operational Group for Nuclear Experimentation (GOEN) defined security zones. Contemporary military theories from the Warsaw Pact envisaged the possibility of manœuvres and confrontations with the enemy in zones contaminated by radioactivity after explosions. In the wake of the other great powers, the French army during that period doubtless had to take on board such views.

The Sahara Centre for Military Experimentation (CSEM) in Reggane began to emerge from the Algerian sand at the end of 1957, in the midst of the Algerian War, bringing together several thousand civil and military personnel in the Tanezrouft region, in a vast complex situated about 40 kilometres from Hamoudia.
The explosion of 13 February 1960 initiated a series of four atmospheric tests code-named ‘Gerbils’ – Blue, White, Red and Green (the gerbil being a small rodent of the desert). They went on until 25 April 1961, a few days after the generals’ putsch in Algiers.

Launched from the top of a metal tower, the first blast released energy of the order of four times that of Hiroshima (70 kilotons). Around point zero, military materiel (aircraft, vehicles…) and also animals (rabbits, goats, rats) spread about in cages had been placed in order to analyse the biological effects of the flash and proceed to ophthalmology experiments. Each test entailed numerous assessments to be made with a view to ascertaining the consequences of the energy release: nuclear diagnostics, high-speed photography, radiochemical analyses carried out on the particles collected by aircraft flown inside the radioactive cloud. The zone, in particular the Touat Valley, contained both sedentary and nomad populations. Many people would be contaminated by the tests. Like numerous French soldiers and technicians, most of them in shirt-sleeves and sunglasses, as well as many Algerian workers, and about twenty journalists present at the site, all of them subjected to large doses of radiation.

A French Senate report dated 2009 states that, “… the measures taken at the time were not sufficient to prevent the exposure to contamination of people who either participated directly in the experiments or were present in the zones around the explosions. These security measures, first and foremost did not prevent the occurrence of many technical mishaps during the preparation for or course of the tests.” (Report n°18 (2009-2010), Marcel-Pierre Cléach, on behalf of the Commission for Foreign Affairs, 7 October 2009). To sum up, things were not perfect. According to data from the Algerian League for the Rights of Man, 24,000 civilians and soldiers were directly exposed. A document declassified in 2013 and made public the following year highlights the significant duration of the fallout. All these indications tend to the same conclusion: the impact on the environment and on local populations was major.


On the day after the first explosion, the radioactive cloud reached Tamanrasset and Central Africa then moved up towards West Africa, reaching Bamako.


Criticism was powerful, but the French media and the services concerned were to develop counter-propaganda. 
Two weeks later, still laden with radioactivity, it reached the Mediterranean coastlines of Spain and Sicily (Fabienne Le Moing, « Tribunal administratif : les conséquences des essais nucléaires en Algérie » [archive], France 3-4 September 2014). Some radio-isotopes thrown out by the explosion could have been ingested by people on the ground in spite of being diluted in the atmosphere. 
There is no doubt that these radioactive elements cause cardio-vascular disease and cancers. (Brunot Barillot, « Le document choc sur la bombe A en Algérie », Le Parisien, 14 February 2014). 

This is all known and acknowledged today but it is necessary to proceed with the story as it relates to the famous photograph. 
The second explosion, much less powerful (4 kilotons) was carried out on 1st April 1960 during the official visit of Nikita Khrushchev to France (23 March to 3 April 1960), and Gaumont news announced that “France, for its part, wished to demonstrate, at Reggane, that its inclusion in Nuclear Club was not simply a matter of form”.  The means of detonation and measurement were installed in barracks and the bomb was placed on a platform at ground level (for all the other test, it was placed in shelter at the top of a hundred-metre-tall tower, later a smaller one of 50 metres).  (Pierre Billaud (Direction), La grande aventure du nucléaire militaire français. Des acteurs témoignent, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2016). The explosion set off a fireball more than 100 metres in diameter going up to 280 metres above the ground.

For the third atmospheric test of 27 December 1960 several hundred animals and military materiel as before, but along with dummies dressed in uniform (supplied with radiation receptors according to some sources), were placed at various distances around ground zero, situated 15 kilometres from the command post. The two tests, with two different dates, are central to the mistake made about the photograph, this is why the facts are important.

As can be verified in a news programme of the time (Gaumont News, December 1960, Reference 6101GJ 00006), those figures held up by iron bars are certainly made of cloth and cannot contain human bodies, dead or alive. They are the same dummies which are to be found on the photograph we published in our book (so dated December 1960), and which subsequently illustrated articles denouncing the use of human guinea-pigs in tests for radioactivity… but locating the event in April 1960. 
But the image is powerfully symbolic and invokes the violence of the Algerian war and those terrible years. This is why it is re-invoked regularly. A narrative now emerges about the use of Algerian prisoners who were allegedly deliberately contaminated and this picture has become the most obvious symbol or even ‘proof’, given its composition and the violence it illustrates in such a situation. No-one really sets out to seek its real context, nor to find the other pictures or film relating to the event. Then conflation begins. The arrival of the dummies - which can be checked on other photos (like one from the archives of l’Établissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense, Réf.: F 60-20 R651) - is as if non-existent; no-one has looked for the images or they have failed to find them. The Gaumont film archives or those of the army are forgotten. In this respect too, no-one has pursued the investigation to its conclusion.

In the course of the fourth blast, Operation Green Gerbil – a failed test since its power was no more than 1 kiloton, whereas it was initially estimated at between 6 and 18 kilotons – ‘tactical exercises in the nuclear environment’ [blog ref. supplied] did take place. Operations involving about a hundred troops: helicopters, armoured vehicles, and infantry provided with protective equipment undertook reconnaissance in the contaminated area. Nearly 200 soldiers were involved after the blast, in exercises which put them within 650 and 300 metres of ground zero for several hours. Showers were their only means of decontamination. The Parliamentary Office for Evaluation of Scientific and Technical Choices Report, 2001, indicates 42 cases of skin contamination among personnel in the test area. The obvious, known shocking thing is this above all – the contamination of soldiers and civilian populations in all the tests – but the polemic citing the image as evidence persists; on the contrary, the ‘fake news’ becomes more significant, copied form one site to another. It makes people forget the central evil and most importantly this photograph is taken as proof, when a genuine investigation should be undertaken on the use of guinea-pigs during the Algerian War. 

This question is even more important today since in early 2018 the French Constitutional Council reviewed all the traumas suffered by civil populations and decided that Algerian civilians who had sustained physical damage from violence attributable to the conflict could now claim pensions paid by France. The Constitutional Council removed the words ‘of French nationality’ which until then had restricted these benefits to victims of the ‘Hexagon’ [‘casual synonym for the mainland part of Metropolitan France’] only, invoking the principle of ‘equality before the law’ guaranteed by the Constitution. From now on, Reggane can be included in an extensive set of questions about possible compensation for populations affected at the time. It is therefore a major subject and investigation of provable and alleged facts must be resumed.


Where did the myth around this photograph come from?
It was natural enough that the French authorities always disputed the secondary effects of Reggane: “There was never any deliberate exposure of local populations,” a Ministry of Defence spokesman asserted in 2007… “Only dead bodies were used to study the bomb’s effects,” he added. Such a statement only added to the controversy, and gave support to those who thought that France had committed a crime at Reggane. Acknowledging that cadavers had been used left room for further doubts. And what bodies were involved? Might it be new evidence that living people had been exposed at Reggane in December 1960?

To reopen this question is also to investigate a state secret, relating to the pact concluded between Paris and Algiers allowing France to continue its experiments after independence until the site was dismantled in 1965. It explains the silence of the Algerian regime (or at least the complex twists of history writing) which, under military influence, has until the last few years made little use of the tests in anti-French propaganda or critiques. So it was human rights organisations that took up the fight on this issue and took the “Reggane dummies” as an icon of their struggle, a just one insofar as it concerned their quest for knowledge, but based on a misleading image.


In fact, numerous recent studies have shown that the populations of Reggane and of Eker in Tamanrasset are still suffering the effects of those tests, which have cost the lives of thousands of people and led to serious illnesses. At Reggane, where the tests were atmospheric and covered a vast unprotected area, doctors say that exposure to ionising radiation has caused more than 20 types of cancer. Before the tests, cereals and dates were grown there, and there were various types of animal. That has all gone.

This major ecological crisis is part of the historical record. Attention turned to the testimony of a Legionary said to have taken part in the assembling of 150 prisoners in March 1960 – this was taken up very quickly by the Algerian league for the Rights of Man – a fact reported by a hero of anticolonialism, the unassailable cinéaste René Vautier. In fact Vautier, who was then working on his film Algérie en flames (Algeria in Flames), seems to have been told this story by another director, Karl Gass – second hand testimony, never repeated, but for many this was taken as irrefutable proof.

Then the Canard enchaîné published photos in a dossier. Forensic doctors validated the photographs. There was talk of many others, but they were never seen. There was talk of numerous witness statements showing that the prisons had been cleared of 150 prisoners by the French Army and these taken on to the Reggane site. From here on, no-one saw dummies any more, but human bodies wrapped in clothes. This photograph had to be the missing piece of evidence, to influence opinion. Actually, it was a false trail and the investigation stalled.

Witnesses mixed up dates and evidence. What did it matter if the “150 Prisoners” business dated from March-April 1960 and the photograph from December 1960? It became an icon, pictorial proof. Witnesses like a doctor from El Harrach hospital confirmed the facts. Some people began to denounce the secret clauses of the Évian accords regarding the tests, negotiated in 1961-62… The FLN had agreed that France could use the Saharan sites for nuclear, chemical and ballistic tests for 5 more years. So the French could not be held to account, then or now.

In Algeria, the lawyer Fatima Ben Braham stated: “A study of certain photographs enables us to affirm that the position of the so-called dummies is oddly like that of human bodies wrapped in clothing. Besides that, a number of Algerians detained in the west of the country and sentenced to death by special tribunals of the [French] army have contributed illuminating testimony. Some of those sentenced to death were not executed in prison, but were transferred and never seen again. They were said to have been handed over to the army. Research in the registers of judicial executions yields no trace of their executions, still less of their release. The same fate was reserved for other individuals interned in the concentration camps.” But those testimonies are neither published nor verifiable. [... A couple of other examples.]

It all tends in the same direction. Still, there is confusion over facts, evidence and dates, on several levels. There are the facts – what happened at Reggane during the Algerian War, in the midst of unlimited violence? There are witness statements and evidence, their value impossible to assess. And there is the photograph, which has become 'the' definitive proof. Of course this does not mean that the alleged crime has no basis in fact, but it does mean that a photograph has a history and cannot be taken as evidence without being examined.

The picture actually recounts another story, about France in Algeria during and after the war, with a total of 11 tests carried out after independence, up to February 1966, tested its bomb, in the process contaminating with no shadow of doubt French soldiers, scientists, and thousands of civilians. A government which has no doubt made experiments on bodies, living or dead, as the then spokesman of the MoD, Jean-François Bureau, rashly acknowledged in 2007. But the investigation is still at an early stage.

All this now requires in-depth study. Improper use of the picture involved is stopping us from getting at the truth. A mistake which has become typical of our time: claiming without proof, affirming without investigating, favouring ‘fake news’ over thorough research. It is the role of historians and journalists to question facts and images and go beyond appearances to try to understand what really happened at Reggane. In 1960. In the middle of the Cold War. In the nuclear arms race. Pictures tell us about history and can make history, but like facts they need contextualisation, analysis and validation.
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Previously on this blog:
- and protesting in 1966 against them 

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