7 August 2001
The sign that greets arrivals at Thule airport in Greenland says: "Air Force Space Command's 12th Space Warning Squadron. Latitude 76 degrees 32N, Longitude 68 degrees 42W." In simple terms, this is the last place on earth you can land in a passenger jet.
As the sign says, it is the home of a United States space command squadron, a group of men and women whose job involves providing America with advance warning of airborne attack. If President George Bush gets his way, it will be one of two bases outside the US - the other is at Fylingdales, North Yorkshire - that will be key to his plans for ballistic missile defence, aka "Son of Star Wars".
Because of its remote location, some 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle, President Bush could be forgiven for believing this would be the less troublesome of the two foreign stations he needs permission to use if his system is to work. But he would be wrong.
This base and, more importantly, a tiny community of Inuit people evicted to make way for it, are about to find themselves at the centre of American foreign policy making. As Andy Warhol might have put it, these hunters in their 650-strong community at Qaanaaq, the northernmost municipality on the planet, are about to get their 15 minutes of fame.
Theirs is a story of enforced eviction, a nuclear plane crash, environmental pollution and national betrayal. And, after nearly 50 years of being ignored, they view President will see the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia torn up, and which China has already predicted will result in a new nuclear arms race - as their last chance to have the world sit up and take notice.
The Americans first became interested in Thule - also known as Pituffik - in 1946 when it became obvious the new threat to its interests would come from the Soviet Union. Inuit tribesmen remember the day they arrived.
"It was in April 1946," said Aron Qaavigaq, then a 12-year-old living off the traditional Dundas mountain hunting grounds on the north-western edges of Greenland.
"We saw a plane coming out of Canada. It circled and went away. Then, in July, a huge black plane came. We saw it coming lower and lower to the sea and it landed on it, throwing out an anchor like a boat. Many people were amazed to see that. They came ashore and gave us apples and told us a ship was on its way."
Within months, 36 ships had arrived, an airstrip waslaid, and a weather station built with the permission of the Kingdom of Denmark, of which Greenland is a part.
The Inuit continued to hunt for seals, walruses, whales, narwhals, foxes and birds until, between 1951 and 1953, militarisation of the base began.
Finally, in May 1953, the 27 families that made up the Inuit community were told to leave to make way for American surface-to-air missile batteries. They were given between 48 hours and two weeks to get out.
Mr Qaavigaq said: "We were told there were houses waiting for us in Qaanaaq [100 miles away], but those of us who didn't go voluntarily would not get one. We had no choice; we had to go. There were seven of us. I remember my mother and father were crying. We were young and very excited to be going somewhere new. But they kept crying, so we knew there was something wrong.
"Everyone packed what they could on their dogsleds and set off north across the ice. After a while, my father stopped and looked back. He and my mother were crying again."
In all, more than 150 people were forcibly evicted. And, when they arrived at Qaanaaq, the houses they were promised had not been built. For three months, they had only tents in which to live.
"They were treated appallingly," said Christian Harlang, a Danish human rights lawyer, who has taken up their case. "Most were given just 48 hours to leave with their elderly and their children.
"For decades, the Danish government lied about them, claiming they had moved voluntarily. At school, we were taught that Denmark did not mistreat Greenland the way the French and the British mistreated their colonies, yet all the time these people were suffering."
But things were to get worse. Uusaqqak Qujaakitsoq, vice-president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, and Axel Lund Olsen, deputy mayor of Qaanaaq, said the new hunting-grounds were not so good.
It was too far to travel back to the old grounds (and, even then, permits were required from the Danes) and, as the next generations came along, many turned their backs on the hunting way of life.
Today, unemployment in Qaanaaq is high, feelings of resentment are growing and alcoholism is becoming a serious problem.
One of the reasons hunting has become so difficult, they say, is that the area has become polluted - not least because of an incident on 21 January 1968 when an American B-52 Stratofortress carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed on the ice in Bylot Sound near the Thule base. In the ensuing explosions, the bombs were fragmented, spewing radioactive debris across the snow.
Despite clean-up attempts, the Americans and Danes have admitted that between 500g and 1.8kg of plutonium - enough for a whole bomb - was never recovered. Mr Qujaakitsoq said: "We are finding many deformed animals - musk oxen with deformed hooves and seals with no hair. We believe a lot of the pollution must be coming from the base, perhaps from the missing plutonium."
The Danish and American governments have conducted environmental-impact studies on the base, but the results of some of them remain secret. Greenpeace, which is supporting the Qaanaaq Inuits, has tried to use Danish Freedom of Information legislation to gain access to a 4,000-page report on Thule, but to no avail.
All of which makes the community fervently opposed to the Thule base being used to house the still-experimental X-band radar systems required to make President Bush's Star Wars plan a reality.
For Star Wars to work, a number of American bases plus Fylingdales and Thule would operate with X-band, which is intended to track missiles during the "intermediate" phase of their trajectory, after launch but before their final attack phase. Other bases, including Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire, will perform a role, but it is the X-band radar bases that are the most controversial.
The Danish government, like the British, has refused
to support or oppose the US proposal, arguing that the Americans have, as yet, presented no firm plans or
requests for the use of bases. The Greenlandic Home Rule Government - which must defer foreign and defence
issues to Denmark - has also been quiet on the issue. But in Qaanaaq, the three main local parties are all
"People are opposed to Star Wars for two reasons," said Mr Olsen. "First, they are afraid that some day there will be a war and this whole area will be destroyed in a nuclear attack. Second, we are fighting for the Americans to clean up Thule and give it back to us. If the Danish government gives permission for the Americans to use it for Star Wars, we may never get our homeland back."
The strength of feeling can be judged by the success of a Greenpeace visit to Qaanaaq.
A few years ago, a ship such as the Arctic Sunrise would have been chased away by hunters who still bitterly remembered their trade in seal skins being affected by Greenpeace's campaign against the clubbing of harp seal pups in Newfoundland. This week, however, the Arctic Sunrise has been welcomed with open arms.
Dan Hindsgaul, Greenpeace's disarmament campaigner, said: "It has been a powerful experience for us to meet these people - they have been pushed around for 50 years but now they have a unique opportunity to prevent a new nuclear arms race.
"There are only a few of them, but they are our best chance of stopping Bush's madcap plans for Thule air base." Regardless of public opinion, the role of the Danish Supreme Court, which in the autumn of 2002 will rule on the Inuits' right to reclaim their old hunting-grounds, will be crucial.
In August 1999, a Qaanaaq pressure group called Hingitaq 53 (Hingitaq means "the exiled") won an historic victory in the Danish Eastern District High Court. Mr Harlang, the group's advocate, successfully argued that, under the United Nations convention on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples - and under the Danish constitution - the people of Qaanaaq had been unlawfully moved.
They were granted paltry compensation - about £1,500 each - but the victory was hugely symbolic. They have launched an appeal seeking an increase in the compensation award and will argue that it was perverse to admit they were wrongly moved without giving them the right to return.
Mr Harlang said: "I find it very odd that the court agreed with our argument yet did not agree to their rights to reclaim the land. I believe we have a sound case for the Supreme Court appeal and we should win it, but I don't know if we will.
"There is enormous political pressure on the court. What you have to realise is that although we are taking on the Danish government, de facto and inter alia, this is really a case between the people of Qaanaaq and the American government; the smallest, most remote population on earth against one of the most populous and the most powerful."
Mr Qaavigaq hopes for victory but believes he will
never return to his home. "I don't feel bitter towards the Americans," he said. "But if Mr Bush were here now
I would say, 'Mr Bush, if God wanted to end the world and to turn the mountains upside down so that they
were covered by the sea, he would do it; he does not need you to do it for him'."