Murphy's Law: Stealing the Past

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June 23, 2007: The end of the Cold War turned out to be something of a bonanza for military historians and archeologists. That was because, after eighty years of hot and cold war, many military bases, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, were finally being closed down. This meant that many military warehouses were to be emptied. Some of these, it turned out, had not been opened for decades, and some contained crates of weapons and equipment half a century (or more) old. Not a lot of treasures, unless you were a military historian. But lots of interesting stuff nonetheless.

Actually, there were some treasures. Some of the older weapons were, technically (as they were more than 25 years old), antiques. This was especially the case with pistols, bayonets and ceremonial swords. Some old Russian warehouses yielded czarist era uniforms. These quickly disappeared into the black market, which sometimes happened on the other side of the Iron Curtain as well. In Eastern Europe, and especially Russia, weapons were quickly snapped up, for a bribe or a proper payment, by gunrunners. While most of these recycled weapons, that largely ended up in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, were AK-47s and RPGs, there were some elderly machine-guns, machine-pistols and mortars from the 1940s and 50s, and even earlier. The Russians, in particular, preferred to store old weapons, rather than throw them away. That was OK with guns, but not with their ammo. That stuff went bad over time, becoming unstable and prone to exploding if disturbed. As in moving it out of an old warehouse. This caused many anxious moments, and provided lots of work for the EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) teams. Some of the older ammo was sold, at bargain prices, to uninformed buyers. This later led to some spectacular spontaneous explosions at some Asian and Arab ammo dumps.

Not a lot of press releases were put out about these activities. It was not a glorious moment, and often embarrassing. Some of the housecleaning turned into criminal activity, when rare weapons, or other items got looted. In short, the brass were eager to get those old warehouses cleaned out, and often torn down, as quickly as possible. Too bad, as a lot of interesting history disappeared along the way.

 


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