- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2001

REJIM MAATOUG, Tunisia Where the Sahara spreads its desolate sands, the Tunisian government is creating a greenbelt to stop the world's largest desert from advancing north.

"It is not only Tunisia, but the entire planet that is threatened," said Col. Ahmed Meftah. "The desert's advance must be stopped, and here you see the beginning of a transformed Sahara."

He pointed to long lines of recently planted palm trees now producing 20,000 tons of dates a year. "And this," he added, scrabbling three potatoes from the ground, "is more proof of what can be done."

The oasis of Rejim Maatoug is the front line established by what the Tunisians call "the development army," comprised of draftees who volunteer for nine months of desert duty.

"While other armies spend money on expensive weapons, we are fighting the desert," said Col. Meftah, a Tunisian graduate of St. Cyr, the French military academy, and one of two advanced engineering schools.

He has been in the desert for nine years, supervising a program that includes exploration for new water sources, planting date palms and settling Bedouins in villages equipped with schools, health clinics, piped drinking water and electricity.

Rejim Maatoug is now in the third stage of development, which involves the planting of fruit trees and market gardens.

Behind the trim, dapper Tunisian officer lies a cluster of four villages of small, single-story houses, where the nomads of the Ghrib tribe have settled. The tribe has been wandering through the desert for centuries and members now are being transformed into farmers.

Some 1,500 families have taken root here and at several nearby oases, and 87 families are waiting for the army to build more housing units, each consisting of two small rooms, a kitchen, a basic toilet and a courtyard in traditional Tunisian style.

Ali Behadj, a civilian expert assisting the army, says the project, including a palm grove planted 13 years ago, covers an area of 5,000 acres nearly 8 square miles of which 2,700 acres have been declared completed. The project is irrigated from underground sources by 528 gallons of water per second, he explained.

He and other civilians in the region call this the Tunisian army's first victory in the battle against the desert.

This is the time of year when the sun over the Sahara is clement. The days are pleasantly warm, and nights can be freezing. To the west, where the sun sets in a giant red ball that seems to sink into the sand, lies Algeria, separated from Tunisia by white markers every few miles.

The settling of the nomads also serves Tunisia's political aim of keeping its population "vaccinated" against Islamic fundamentalism, some of whose adherents are fighting a war of terrorism in Algeria. By putting the wandering Bedouins into permanent settlements, the desert can be better supervised and protected from intruders.

There have been several attempts by Islamic guerrillas from Algeria to attack Tunisian border posts to capture weapons.

The palm groves, vegetable gardens and the villages are protected by "sand barriers" sturdy fences made of palm branches. The threat of sandstorms is permanent, blowing grit northward often as far as the coast of southern Italy more than a thousand miles away.

That is why Italy finances about one fourth of the $30 million earmarked for the initial phase of the Tunisian project to keep the desert at bay. Tunisia and the European Union pay the rest. The cost has been considerably reduced by using the army as a labor force.

For example, said Col. Meftah, a housing unit built by the army costs $6,000 just half what commercial builders charged.

The settled nomads are assisted financially during the first four years of their new life. Later on, they pay the government rent of $7 a month.

Above all, nomad children, who until recently had escaped Tunisia's compulsory education law, are now in schools. And besides paid medical personnel in each of its four villages, Rejim Maatoug has a doctor.

Some settled nomads have succeeded in planting vegetable patches in their courtyards. Others use them to keep sheep and goats. Most of the men of Rejim Maatoug work in palm groves and the market gardens.

Camels, each branded by its owner, meander in herds throughout the nearby desert, ignoring the white frontier markers.

"Here a camel means wealth," said Said Khtiwish, who drives tourists along desert tracks.

"An average camel costs 800 dinars ($580). We use them for travel, transport, meat and skin. Some of the nomads have 30 or even more camels. They rarely stray far from settlements or camps."

Building the greenbelt in the desert is based on three simple phases: the discovery of water sources, followed by the construction of roads and irrigation systems; planting date palms; and finally, creating permanent settlements.

After initial reluctance, thousands of nomads accepted resettlement, but many more prefer to still roam the desert, oblivious to the stability and convenience of settled life.

Teams of army engineers continue searching for water. "Before settling the nomads, we first have to assure their survival," said Col. Meftah.

And after a pause he added: "The desert can be exotic and beautiful, but in reality it means famine, unemployment, ignorance and misery."

At nightfall, electric lights begin to go on in the houses of Rejim Maatoug. Several families already have acquired television sets.

In the gathering darkness, the palm trees look like silent sentinels against the stubborn desert. From the minaret of the mosque the voice of the muezzin reminds the residents that "there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.

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