DARWIN, Australia – An Australian and British man working to map a deadly legacy of unexploded ammunition from World War II were killed in the South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands following a bomb they were working on.
The explosion occurred on Sunday in the house that the two explosives experts shared in a suburb of the capital Honiara. Police and the humanitarian group they worked for, Norwegian People’s Aid, said they were shocked that the men had removed the ammunition from the field and moved it to a residential area.
“We’ll determine what to do with the UXOs after the poll finds them,” said Clifford Tunuki, the police inspector, in a statement released on Sunday about the unexploded ordnance. An official investigation is underway and the site is being treated as a crime scene, he added. It was unclear whether any 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, from Great Britain, for more than 20 years, and Mr. Atkinson and the other bombing expert, Trent Lee, 40, from Australia were “committed” Professionals.
Mr Breivik said his group had no information about why the ordnance was in their home, despite he voicing alarm about their actions. He added that the aid group’s activities in the Solomon Islands have ceased.
The deaths have unearthed a dangerous legacy hidden in the sandy earth of the Solomon Islands, an archipelago about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia that has been the site of fierce fighting between Japanese and Allied forces. The islands, including the main island of Guadalcanal, are still littered with shells and bombs.
In the 75 years since the war ended, dozens of people are believed to have been killed or maimed by ammunition in the Solomon Islands, but a lack of funding has hampered efforts to eliminate it.
“Every single place that has been either occupied or contested has a dangerous legacy,” said John Rodsted, senior researcher at 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 has not been involved in the current mapping efforts.
World War-era unexploded ammunition is still a problem in many parts of Europe – dozens of devices, including grenades, are removed from backyards, fields and construction sites in the UK, France and Germany each year. While the discoveries, which occur with surprising regularity, often lead to evacuations, damage is rare.
But in the Solomon Islands, a country where more than 75 percent of the population work as farm laborers, buried ammunition can turn agriculture into a deadly occupation. “They are afraid of their country,” said Mr. Rodsted.
There are no official statistics in the Solomon Islands on the number of deaths and injuries from unexploded equipment. Based on information from police and medical professionals, stakeholders estimate that around 20 people are injured or killed by the explosives each year.
Many rural episodes go unreported when people cannot reach medical facilities. In some cases, equipment is illegally harvested and used for fishing, which can also lead to underreporting of injuries.
Although the scope of the problem is believed to be significant, a lack of data on the number of devices and their locations has made it difficult to remove those devices. The two men who died on Sunday had been part of the first large-scale attempts to assess and map them.
Mr Lee, the Australian expert, recognized the danger of his work over the past month in a Facebook post where he described an American fleet round as “pretty much the most dangerous World War II ammunition we can find”. The device, he wrote, was “cocked and ready to fire”.
“A bump,” he added, and it’s “all over”.