2 men working to map World War II bombs are killed by one

Livia Albeck-Ripka, The New York Times

Posted at Sep 22 2020 07:18 AM

DARWIN, Australia — An Australian and a Briton working to map a deadly legacy of unexploded munitions from World War II have been killed in the South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands after a bomb they were working on detonated.

The blast occurred Sunday inside the house that the two explosives experts were sharing in a suburb of the capital, Honiara. Police and the humanitarian group they worked for, Norwegian People’s Aid, expressed shock that the men had removed the munition from the field and taken it to a residential area.

“We determine what to do with the UXOs after the survey has located them,” Clifford Tunuki, the police inspector, said of the unexploded ordnance in a statement released Sunday. An official investigation is underway, and the site is being treated as a crime scene, he added. It was unclear whether nearby homes were damaged.

Per Hakon Breivik, the aid organization’s director of disarmament, said he had known one of the men, Stephen Atkinson, 57, of Britain, for more than 20 years, and that Atkinson and the other bomb expert, Trent Lee, 40, of Australia, were “devoted” professionals.

Breivik said that his group did not have information about why the ordnance was in their home, though he voiced alarm at their actions. He added that the aid group’s activities in the Solomon Islands had been suspended.

The deaths have brought to light a perilous heritage hidden in the sandy earth of the Solomon Islands, an archipelago about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia that was the site of fierce fighting between Japanese and Allied forces. The islands, including the main island of Guadalcanal, are littered with shells and bombs left behind.

In the 75 years since the war ended, dozens of people in the Solomon Islands are believed to have been killed or maimed by the munitions, but a lack of funding has impeded removal efforts.

“Every single place that was either garrisoned or fought over has got some sort of dangerous legacy,” said John Rodsted, lead researcher with SafeGround, an advocacy group for the removal of explosives left behind by war. The organization has made several research trips to the Solomon Islands but was not involved with the current mapping effort.

Unexploded world war-era munitions are still a problem in many parts of Europe — dozens of devices, including grenades, are removed each year from backyards, fields and construction sites in Britain, France and Germany. But while the discoveries, which happen with surprising regularity, often prompt evacuations, damage is uncommon.

But in the Solomon Islands, a country where more than 75% of the population works as agricultural laborers, the buried munitions can make farming a fatal occupation.

“They are scared of their land,” Rodsted said.

There are no official statistics in the Solomon Islands on the number of deaths and injuries from the unexploded devices. Advocacy groups, based on information from police and medical professionals, estimate that about 20 people are injured or killed by the explosives each year.

Many episodes in rural areas go unreported when people are unable to reach medical facilities. In some cases, devices are harvested illegally and used for fishing, which could also lead to underreporting of injuries.

But while the scale of the problem is believed to be significant, a lack of data on the number of devices and their locations has made removing them difficult. The two men who died Sunday had been part of the first wide-scale attempts to assess and map them.

Lee, the Australian expert, acknowledged the danger of his work last month in a Facebook post where he described a U.S. naval round as “pretty much the most dangerous WW2 ammunition we find.” The device, he wrote, was “cocked and ready to fire.”

“One bump,” he added, and it’s “all over.”

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