Peace Time: August 13, 2003


On August 10th, a Japanese air force bomb filled with "nerve gas" (probably misidentified Lewisite) was found in Changsha, capital city of Central China's Hunan Province. Even though buried for nearly 60 years, nobody has been reported poisoned by gas from this bomb. Japan estimated that its forces abandoned over 700,000 chemical weapons in China at the end of World War II, but Chinese experts say that as many as two million such weapons remain buried.

On August 4th, construction workers in the city of Qiqihar (in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province) also discovered five metal barrels, formerly Japanese army property from 1934-45 and filled with mustard gas. One of the barrels was carelessly broken by workers at the site, causing an oil-like substance to leak out and penetrate into the soil. The workers then cut up the barrels in sheer ignorance for scrap and removed the contaminated soil to other locations. This accident put 34 people in the hospital, two of which are close to death and another eight in very serious condition. 

"Contaminated battlefields" used to mean the health hazards associated with unburied bodies, but the ante has been seriously raised since 1915. The French have had a 600-man 'Department of Mines' that quietly worked the old WWI western front battlefields, gently removing rusty chemical rounds for eventual disposal. But the threat also extend beyond the old battlefields of Europe and Asia, to even obscure parts of Africa. 

In 1935-36, Italian Fascist forces had used mustard gas and other chemical weapons against Ethiopian troops in what was then known as Abyssinia. In May 2001, Ethiopia accused Italy of breaking international law by persistently refusing to disclose the location of chemical weapon depots built during Mussolini's occupation of  Ethiopia. Builders working at a school in northern region of Tigray had just stumbled on a hidden depot containing live ammunition and grenades, while digging foundations for new classrooms, so work was suspended for fear that poison gas weapons were also hidden in the depot.

The Italians have steadfastly denied that around 80,000 tons of chemical weapons could have been left in Ethiopia, but they offered to train Ethiopians to be able to detect and examine any further suspicious materials. The Ethiopians were provided with documents regarding the location of stocks cleared at the end of the war, since there was a pretty intensive allied campaign to locate all munitions in Italian East Africa after the 1941 surrender. At that time, the Allies were recycling whatever conventional weapons they could for use in the North African campaign. Chemical weapons would have been high on the list of things to find.

It's not just chemical weapons that's a problem, but conventional ordnance as well. As regular as any harvest, ordnance experts have been gathering up unexploded bombs across Europe. Most of them are leftover from WWII, from the beaches of Normandy or fields or towns across northern France to Poland. While modern conflicts add to the lethal problem (for example, about 4% of Bosnia still contains mines laid during the 1992-95 war), the volume of munitions used in WWII (and WWI) was simply too much to keep track of versus the need to get simple services back online. The postwar cleanup missions (of which there were many) simply didn't find everything that had been fired or dropped and didn't go 'boom'.

One simply has to lay a WWII campaign map over any current tourist map to guess where most of the unexploded ordnance can be found. For instance, allied air forces dropped about 1.5 million tons of bombs on Nazi Germany (with about 440,000 on the Berlin area alone), of which an estimated 5 percent (or 22,000 in Berlin) failed to explode. 

In many cases, discoveries are incident free but still worthy of a high pucker-factor. A 1,000 kg German bomb was dragged up by a trawler off Britain's eastern coast on August 6th and safely detonated later in the day. 

On 31 July, a yard-long 118 kg bomb was defused and removed from a site in the French city of Roen. Such missions can bring life (and business) to a screaming halt, unless they're carefully handled. The WWII American bomb was unearthed by building excavators earlier in the month at the foot of a building and was covered with 60 tons of sand, to avoid disrupting a summer boat show. The five-hour long defusing mission finally required 500 police, rescue workers and doctors, while 2,500 local residents were temporarily evacuated. 

While some of the ordnance can be easier to find during hot summers when water levels drop, the old munitions become more dangerous by each passing year as they gradually corrode. An American 250 kg bomb under Salzburg's train station exploded on July 17, as ordnance experts were trying to defuse it. The blast killed two bomb and severely injuring a third. Up to 300 people living near the train station were evacuated beforehand, as ground water entering the pit around the bomb made the operation especially dangerous. 

Most often, the aging ordnance is found when people are looking for something else. On May 28, organizers preparing for Pope John Paul II's June visit to Bosnia unearthed six bombs and a mortar shell from underneath a platform where the pontiff was to address tens of thousands of pilgrims at a monastery. German troops had used the yard of Banja Luka's Petricevac Catholic monastery for ammunition storage, which was abandoned after their pullout in 1945. 

The problem will not disappear in the near future or even within this generation. Cleaning up a battlefield is expensive and tedious work. The Germans have about 50 disposal experts working on sites in Brandenburg alone, one of whom estimated that they have another 200 to 250 years of work to do. Talk about job security. - Adam Geibel


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