Eirini Vourloumis/eiriniphoto.com
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The road to nowhere: the Syrian refugees left out in the cold by Europe

More than two million people have fled the civil war in Syria. Many of them are desperate to get into Europe – but no country wants them.

One day at the end of October last year, Mohamad Hussain went to a café in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Aksaray to meet a smuggler. The smuggler said that, for €400 each, he would drive Mohamad and his family to Edirne, a city close to Turkey’s north-west frontier. From there, the smuggler said, he would find them safe passage into the European Union.

The Hussains were Kurds, from Qamishli in north-east Syria. Twelve of them – Mohamad, his mother, brother and sisters, and their cousins – had travelled to Istanbul together, and although it may not have felt so, they were among the lucky ones. Mohamad, a 24-year-old engineering student at university in Homs, had been lucky to escape injury when the Assad regime fired a rocket at the building next to his dorms. He was lucky that when, at the end of term in August, his bus back to Qamishli was ambushed by Islamist rebels, they only pretended they were going to cut off his head with a sword. When Mohamad’s mother insisted that this threat to her youngest son was the last straw, the family was lucky to sneak unnoticed across the Turkish border, even though it entailed wading through an open sewer.

The Hussains had relatives over the border, and so they could avoid being sent to one of the vast refugee camps Turkey operates on its south-eastern edge and where, they were told, “you’re stuck until the war ends”. They made it to Istanbul, where they rented a cramped apartment in Aksaray.

In this, too, they were lucky: just a few hundred metres away from where Mohamad met the smuggler, other Syrians were sleeping on camp beds under the arches of a Byzantine aqueduct. Since the autumn, thousands have been appearing destitute and starving in Istanbul’s parks, faster than the Turkish aid agencies can find them.

And the Hussains were lucky the smuggler didn’t simply steal the €400 per person he’d asked for; instead, he drove them to Edirne, then to a forest along the Bulgarian border, and said: “Walk that way.”

It was 3am when the Hussains arrived at the forest’s edge. They were joined by other refugees; there were 73 of them in total. At each stage of their journey they had been stripped of possessions, first their homes, then their savings, then all but the few clothes they could carry with them through the forest. The long walk through the wet autumn night would even destroy many people’s shoes. But the Hussains told themselves the sacrifices were worth it, because on the other side of that border lay Europe.

****

It was more than a month after that trip through the forest when I first met Mohamad. In early December, I had travelled to Turkey, and then Bulgaria, to find out what was happening to Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. Of the two million who have fled abroad, the vast majority are living in three of Syria’s neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But the number reaching Europe has been increasing steadily since summer. Bulgaria, which estimates it had received up to 15,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2013, has been placing new arrivals in hastily opened “overflow” camps. It was at one of these, just outside the town of Harmanli, 30 miles north of the border with Turkey, that Mohamad approached me.

He had been at the camp, with scant access to the outside world, for 45 days by this point. Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, with neatly gelled hair, Mohamad had walked up to me and begun asking questions. Were Arsenal still top of the Premier League? Did I know that their attacking midfielder Mesut Özil was Kurdish? Was I a fan of Taylor Swift, the singer? Did I know how Mohamad could contact his uncle in Germany? Was Britain accepting any refugees? And most of all, did I know a way his family could get out of the camp? “You didn’t see here when it was raining,” he said. Around us, the wild, hilly countryside of southern Bulgaria was lit sharply in the winter sun. “A river of water. I would rather go back to Syria and be killed than stay here.”

We were standing on the steps of a dere­lict building at a Communist-era army base, now repurposed as a refugee camp. Inside, staff from Médecins Sans Frontières were busy setting up an emergency clinic. Outside, in front of us, stretched rows of canvas tents and metal shipping containers. At least 1,500 people, with more arriving daily, were crammed into a space no more than a few hundred metres square. Groups of children played, piling up and smashing the blocks from rubble that littered the ground, jumping back and forwards over broken wire fences, or hanging from rope swings strung between the few trees that hadn’t been chopped down for firewood. The camp was bordered by a concrete perimeter wall: low enough to hear passing cars and pedestrians, but not to see them.

It’s not easy to find your way across the forest that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. After wandering lost in the woods for hours, the Hussains’ group was found by border guards. “We knew we were in Europe,” Mohamad said, “because one of them had a flag with yellow stars on his shoulder.” Details of the procedure for receiving refugees arriving in Europe differ from country to country, but in essence the process is the same: they should be registered and interviewed, have their fingerprints taken and be given temporary documents while their claim is assessed. In theory, it should take only a few days.

Instead, Mohamad and his family were taken to a detention centre where their passports were confiscated. Syrians aren’t the only undocumented migrants who cross Bulgaria’s southern border; at the detention centre, said Mohamad, “They separated us into groups: the Syrians, the Afghans, the black Africans. Like animals.” The same seg­regation seemed to have taken place at Harmanli. Syrians, the largest group, occupied the tents and containers at the centre of the camp; a hundred or so Afghans lived in an old schoolhouse, smoky with fumes from wood-burning stoves and whose toilets leaked; a smaller group of African men – the ones I met were from Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Mali – was in another, smaller building. It had bars on the windows.

After seven days in detention, the Hussains were moved to Harmanli’s closed camp, its entry and exit controlled by the local police. When they arrived, there was no running water or electricity. Food deli­veries were sporadic and the only medical care was an emergency visit by an ambulance. “If people wanted to leave to buy food or see a doctor,” Mohamad said, “the police asked for money.” Some of the refugees were sold bogus contracts by men who arrived at the gates posing as lawyers. The “contracts” promised accommodation in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia: those who handed over their money found they were driven there and dumped on the street. The Hussains wanted to leave and try a nearby camp where conditions were rumoured to be better, but their savings were running out and, without passports, they couldn’t be wired money by friends or relatives.

“Do you want to see the camp?” Mohamad asked me. It was late afternoon as we set off from the steps of the new clinic, and the winter sun was beginning to dip. Even in daylight, the temperature had barely risen above zero, and now people were lighting fires outside their tents to keep warm. The fires mark time here: lit once at sunset, they are rekindled in the early hours of the morning as people’s legs begin to freeze and they wake up. In the final hours of daylight, I saw people scavenging for tree stumps, fallen branches, cardboard boxes – whatever combustible material remained.

In mid-November, the refugees had protested, piling their mattresses outside and setting fire to them. Some of the women went on hunger strike. Now, conditions have begun to improve. A local catering firm, run by Syrians, provides one hot meal a day to the camp; the food is distributed swiftly and efficiently by the refugees themselves. Slowly, families were being moved from the tents into metal containers, which have electricity, water and heating. But when I visited, many were still stuck with just canvas and a wood-burning stove to protect them from the elements.

As we walked along a row of tents, Mohamad stopped to chat to a family huddled around a brazier for warmth. They were Kurds from Syria, too, but unlike the Hussains, who are Muslims, they followed the Yazidi religion, distantly connected to Zoroastrianism. A father-of-three – still so frightened that he asked me not to use his name – described how he had brought his children and his 75-year-old mother to Bulgaria after their home village was ethnically cleansed by Islamists of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. He suffered from diabetes; his mother had heart disease. “The pain is like a snake in my stomach,” said the old woman, complaining that the cold was making her condition worse.

Here, where until a few days before my visit the only contact with doctors was a single, urgent visit by the local ambulance, such common medical conditions can become dire emergencies. “This is more than just a health situation,” Stuart Zimble, the Médecins Sans Frontières head of mission who was in charge of setting up the clinic at Harmanli, later explained to me. “Health problems are being aggravated by the shortfall of the registration process at the border. The Bulgarian government were just not prepared.” There are women in their ninth month of pregnancy and cancer patients who can no longer get access to treatment, not to mention people afflicted by the psychological traumas of those who have fled war. When Eirini, the photojournalist who had come with me to take pictures of the camp, offered a sweet to one of the Afghan children, he just stared at her blankly.

****

When the Hussains left Istanbul at the end of October, their journey would have taken them along the highway that runs beside the Sea of Marmara and then up into the region of south-eastern Europe still known by its ancient name of Thrace. Today, it is where the Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian borders meet, marking the scramble for land that occurred after the collapse of the Otto­man empire. From 1945, it was where the Soviet and western spheres of influence collided. Now, another kind of struggle takes place: between migrants in search of refuge or a way to earn a living – or both – and an EU that increasingly wants to keep them out.

A few days before visiting Harmanli, I had travelled the same route as the Hussains from Istanbul, stopping off at Edirne, a capital in the Ottoman era whose centre is still dominated by three imposing medieval mosques. It has long been a last stop in Turkey for migrants but until recently their preferred destination was Greece, over the border formed by the River Evros. Most people would cross by night in inflatable boats; some would even swim. It was the most popular choice of route into the EU.

One evening I took a taxi from Edirne to the Evros border crossing a few miles outside town. It was dark when I crossed the no-man’s-land between the two roadside checkpoints, but just light enough to spot a few sandbagged gun encampments and a forbidding wire fence on the Greek side, stretching off into the distance. The road was empty, my passage held up only by a line of three geese that waddled through passport control before me. Waiting on the other side in an ageing blue Toyota was Panos, a resident of the nearby town of Orestiada whom I’d phoned earlier that day.

Panos, a young sales rep whose job takes him all around the region, is one of a handful of local people who openly opposed the construction of the fence I’d seen at the border. Six miles long and equipped with thermal sensors to detect movement, it was announced with much fanfare in August 2012 when Greece “sealed” its border with Turkey. “Most people around here support the fence,” Panos said, once we had found our way to a bar. “They aren’t affected by immigration themselves, but they see the migrants come, they hear on the television that immigration causes problems, then they see the fence and think: ‘This is dealing with the problem.’”

Many of those who crossed the Evros in recent years haven’t looked to Greece as their final destination; for them it was a first step towards refuge, work or family members in the wealthier northern European economies. For well over a decade, southern European countries have been asked to shoulder the burden of dealing with irregular migration: the 2003 Dublin II Regulation, for instance, made asylum claims the responsibility of the state through which the migrant first entered the EU. For the most part, that has meant Spain, Italy, Greece – and now Bulgaria.

Since the eurozone crisis of 2009, as European governments have grown ever more panicky about immigration, the pressure has intensified. Hundreds of officers from the EU border agency Frontex have been sent to patrol the Evros in the past few years. In August 2012, the Greek government redeployed almost 2,000 of its own police officers to the region. But the surge came at the very moment when the numbers fleeing Syria began to increase. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees believes there are now 838,000 in Lebanon, 567,000 in Jordan, 540,000 in Turkey, 207,000 in Iraq and 129,000 in Egypt, apart from the 6.5 million Syrians who are internally displaced.

The heightened security along Europe’s borders hasn’t stopped them coming but it has led to more deaths: many now choose to make a perilous crossing by boat from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast instead, and the trip is often fatal. Those who still attempt to cross the Evros find a harsh welcome.

Panos told me that on 12 November his group of activists received a call from someone in the border village of Praggi, saying that about 150 bedraggled Syrian refugees had arrived overnight. “By the time one of our group arrived they had gone,” he said. “The villagers said that the police had taken them away.” Nobody knows what happened to them after that; on 24 December the London Guardian quoted a local human rights lawyer saying the group had “lost all trace” of the refugees.

It is not an isolated incident. A report by the German NGO Pro Asyl, published in November, collected the accounts of 90 refugees who said they had been forcibly pushed back from Greece’s land and sea frontiers. Some of them said they had been forced back into the Evros. Pro Asyl argued this pointed to “systematic abuse of human rights” and estimated that 2,000 migrants could have been forced out in the course of a year. The Greek police deny that they operate a push-back policy; Frontex says it investigates reports of mistreatment whenever they arise. Soon, Syria’s Bulgarian border will be “sealed”, too. In November, the Bulgarians began building a fence of their own.

The village bar where Panos and I were sitting was empty except for a few old men reading newspapers. “This isn’t like a big city,” he said: “if I put my head up, everyone sees. When we protest outside the police station, the policemen inside are guys I went to school with.” He was growing angry. “But I can’t watch what’s happening and say nothing. Yesterday, they found a woman who had frozen to death in a field, just fifty metres over there.” He waved a hand towards the window of the bar. “How can I stay silent about this?”

****

Lazgin Musa sat back and took a drag on his cigarette while Mohamad translated for me. “And here is the paradise of Europe! We don’t even see any Europeans. We can’t leave the camp.” I was back for a second day in Harmanli and Mohamad was taking me to meet his cousins, then still living in one of the canvas tents. Thirty-one-year-old Lazgin, along with his younger brother Goders and their nephew Robar, were part of the group of 12 who had made the long journey here together from Qamishli.

Before the war the brothers had lived in Damascus, where Lazgin ran a clothing shop. Like many Kurds, whose culture and language have been suppressed for decades, they took part in the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that swept Syria in 2011. “We were protesting even before then,” said Lazgin, a little indignantly. “But when weapons got into this revolution, we said, ‘We are not with this revolution.’” As popular unrest tilted towards civil war, they held back.

Their fears were justified. First, Lazgin said, the conflict destroyed their livelihood. War drove his European customers away. The price of food shot up as the Syrian currency lost its value. Then, as fighting broke out between the Kurds, who wanted greater autonomy for their territory, and Islamist rebel groups, their lives were threatened on two fronts. “We escaped from Islamists, not from the regime,” Lazgin said, as he stoked the stove that sat in the middle of the tent, its flue poking out of a hole in the roof. “If Assad wins, he’ll kill everybody who was against him. If an Islamist group kills Assad there will be thousands of Islamist groups fighting each other. It will be like Afghanistan.”

Syria’s refugee crisis already compares in scale to that of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Millions who have fled their country are now resigning themselves to a long exile, looking not just for safe haven, but a way to earn a living. Yet by and large the doors of European countries have remained closed. Since the conflict started, only 10,000 refugees have been resettled formally in western countries – and that includes the United States. In December, a report by Amnesty International said the EU had “miserably failed” to provide support.

The excuses range in tone: some politicians, such as the Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino, say that harsh restrictions are necessary because there might be terrorists among the refugees. Bulgarian tele­vision channels have focused on the cost of accommodation – or on the dirt and chaos at the camps, implying that Syrians are bringing disease with them. And the British government, while pointing to the large sums it is donating to humanitarian efforts, says it thinks refugees would be better off in Syria’s neighbouring countries.

This last claim is questionable. It is widely accepted that Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken in more than a million refugees between them, are struggling to cope, but the pressure is also starting to show in Turkey, which claims to have spent more than $2bn on relief efforts so far. The Turkish government was quick to set up camps along the south-eastern border with Syria which are now home to roughly 200,000 refugees. But up to 500,000 more live elsewhere in the country. “There’s a perception that Turkey has less of a need because it’s spent so much money,” Oktay Durukan of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, an Istanbul-based human rights group, told me. “That’s the wrong message to give.” UNHCR is calling on European countries to keep their borders open.

Bulgaria, one of the poorest EU member countries, complains that it has not received enough support to deal with the rising numbers of refugees. The economic downturn has sparked a political crisis there; in February last year the government was brought down by widespread street protests, and the unrest continues. A far-right party, Ataka (“attack”), is now the fourth largest in parliament, and it has been at the forefront of complaints about the presence of refugees. Other European states could help relieve the pressure. So far, they are largely choosing not to do so.

The refugees know they are being talked of as a burden, and it is something they find bitterly ironic. Mohamad wants to continue his studies in Germany, or even Britain. His brother has a degree in business management and his sister is a qualified psychotherapist. Another of his cousins, Jazia, works as a translator at the camp clinic, using the English she says she learned from watching American movies on TV. “Eur­ope needs people from the Middle East,” Lazgin said. “Europeans stay single; they have one, maybe two children. Middle East people are all married and have many children by the time they are our age. We are a young society.”

Lazgin was half joking, but the mention of children reminded him of something. Another of his brothers was at a camp outside Sofia, with a baby son. “If you go there, give his child a kiss from me.”

****

When systems fail, we have a choice: to accept the failure, or to take action. Many Bulgarians have been shocked by the images of refugees they have seen on television. A weekly delivery of clothes, toys and other supplies arrives at Harmanli – but it is not the usual donation from aid agencies. These are second-hand goods, gathered from around the country, collected in Sofia and driven down to Harmanli in battered old family cars.

It started as a Facebook group, Friends of the Refugees. Then an enterprising developer set up a website where you can track donations as they happen on a live map. But without the intervention of political leaders, will its efforts be enough?

After we left his cousins’ tent, Mohamad invited me back to his container. The metal box must have been no more than ten metres wide and five deep, yet inside it something approaching everyday family life was going on. In two cramped rooms, with a bathroom and a space for cooking, his mother fussed around, tidying up after two of Mohamad’s young cousins, both toddlers. It was warm and brightly lit. A friend knocked at the door. “He was our neighbour in Qamishli and now he lives in the container next to us,” Mohamad said. As I was getting ready to leave, another of Mohamad’s cousins joked that I should leave my passport behind. A UK passport, like those of the US and Finland, guarantees entry to the highest number of countries without any need for a visa. I didn’t know that – but then I’ve never needed to.

On 10 January, I spoke to Mohamad by phone. More containers had arrived and people were no longer living in tents. The Hussains had spent their first Christmas in Europe at Harmanli. On New Year’s Eve, someone had set up a PA system. “They played Kurdish and African dances,” Mohamad said. “But it was too cold to stay outside for long.”

After more than two months, the Hussains finally had their fingerprints taken. They are still waiting for their documents to arrive so they can leave the camp.

Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.