On March 22nd, a little bit of the
Cold War returned, with a series of large explosions in Maputo, the capital of
the African nation of Mozambique. A 23 year old munitions storage area, next to
international airport, blew up. Well, parts of if blew up, and nearly 400
casualties resulted, including 93 dead. Some twenty tons of munitions are
believed to have exploded. Most of the casualties occurred outside the
munitions depot, when explosions tossed unexploded shells into the residential
slums that had grown up over the years. There, many of these shells went off.
The depot was built in 1984, under the direction of
Soviet engineers. At that time, the Soviet Union was supporting the government
in a civil war. However, that war ended in 1992. As was the Soviet custom, old
ammunition was not destroyed, but kept around. Mozambique was, and is, a poor
country. It made sense to keep those old mortar and artillery shells. After
all, the Soviet military advisers noted that the Soviet Union did the same
thing. But there was a major difference. The Soviet munitions depots were in
much colder climates, which slowed the chemical reactions taking place in
propellants and explosives once these items are manufactured. Eventually, the
compounds, that make the propellants and explosives work, break down. This
renders the propellants and explosives useless or, in some cases, unstable and
very dangerous. The explosion in Maputo occurred after several weeks of high
(90s) temperatures, which cooked some of those munitions into an unstable
The government ordered the depot to be dismantled,
and all the remaining munitions disposed of. This tragedy may spur similar
moves in other nations. The Maputo disaster was part of a trend. There were
smaller explosions in the Maputo depot earlier this year, and two more before
that. An even greater disaster occurred five years ago in Nigeria, when a
munitions depot near the capital cooked off, killing over 200 people.
Russia, despite its cooler climate, has not been
immune to problems with elderly, and cranky, munitions. In the 1990s, there
were several munitions depot explosions, some of them quite spectacular.
Russia, however, tended to put these depots in isolated areas, so the
casualties were low. However, the Russians took the hint, and disposed of huge
quantities of Cold War surplus munitions.