Zone Rouge

The site of the Battle of Verdun, in which over 700,000 men died

The site of the Battle of Verdun, in which over 700,000 men died

For nearly a century, an expanse of scenic countryside in northeastern France has been off limits to the public. Roughly the size of Paris, the Red Zone looks pleasant enough at first glance. But those dense, overgrown forests and rolling green fields hide a dark secret. The area is polluted by millions of unexploded shells, chemical weapons, shrapnel, rusting ammunition, and human remains—the grim detritus of two brutal World Wars.

In the wake of the Great War, the French government was forced to relocate people who lived in the area. The abundance of lead, mercury, and arsenic in the soil is harmful to human health and makes agriculture impossible. As recently as 2012, consuming water was banned in 544 municipalities due to excessive levels of perchlorate, a chemical used in the manufacture of rockets. It could take 10,000 years for these pollutants to naturally degrade.

Shells gathered by farmers to be collected and destroyed

Shells gathered by farmers to be collected and destroyed

Many of the villages destroyed in the conflict were never rebuilt, with black-and-white signs marking where they once stood the only evidence they ever existed. However, work is being done to make the Red Zone habitable again. Some heavily polluted areas, where 99% of plants perish, may never be fully restored. But safer ‘yellow’ zones have been reclaimed by farmers, whose ploughs continue to unearth unexploded shells.

Some areas of the Red Zone have been cleared by the government’s Department of Mine Clearance. But they estimate, working at their current rate, it’ll take anywhere between 300 and 700 years to complete. The so-called Iron Harvest is an annual collection of munitions, barbed wire, shrapnel, trench supports, and other remains by French and Belgian farmers. The debris is then collected by the Belgian army for disposal by controlled explosion.

— Andy Kelly

Photography by Olivier Saint Hilaire