Lynn A. Higgins
The French Ministry of the Interior houses an office called the Département du Déminage. The démineurs form a select group of explosives technicians whose job it is to make about eleven thousand stops at citizens' homes each year in response to reports of buried bombs, land mines, grenades, and other wartime detritus that still surfaces from time to time in farms and back yards, country lanes and urban green spaces. Despite these efforts, an estimated 12 million unexploded shells remain in the vicinity of Verdun, and millions of bombs from the Second World War remain buried around Normandy and Brittany. Not surprisingly, this is dangerous work: since the department was established in 1946, 18 million artillery shells have been collected, along with 10 million grenades, six hundred thousand aerial bombs, and as many underwater mines. Six hundred thirty démineurs have died in the line of duty. In 1991 alone, thirty-six farmers were killed when their machinery hit unexploded shells.1
The story of the démineurs is almost too literal to be allegorical. Multiple layers of wartime traumas still lie unexploded under the surface of the French soil and consciousness. The wars of decolonization, two World Wars, even the Franco-Prussian War continue to claim one "casualty of the peace" after another.2 The heroic démineurs make a brief appearance in Bertrand Tavernier's 1989 film La Vie et rien d'autre (Life and nothing but). In this fiction feature set in 1920, a farmer tilling his field comes upon a buried shell and sends someone hurrying to fetch the explosives experts. Shortly afterward, the film's protagonists hear an explosion. "What was that?" asks the woman ( Sabine Azéma), to which the officer ( Philippe Noiret) responds: "A layer of memories" [Un gisement de souvenirs].
More than one layer of that mined territory was on view during the 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie. What is apt about the image of déminage is the way remains from a series of wars lie hidden together, so that when you dig, you never know which stratum you will unearth. Excavating