finding safe ground in the solomon islands
After Seven decades since World War II ended in the Pacific, Solomon Islanders continue to battle the lethal effects of unexploded war remnants which continue to take human lives, poison the environment and stagnate even the most basic infrastructure development.
There is still no national legislation to deal with legacy munitions, no coordinated international response or concern by the Western Allied nations over the plight of their former comrades.
A small group of Explosive Ordnance Disposal remain both the first line of response and the last line of defence in clearing the Solomons of these deadly explosives.
Two mortars are found whilst walking around the grounds of Hells Point in Honiara. These UXO have been lying in the tropical elements for seven decades, making them increasingly unstable as rust and corrosion eats away at the outer shell casings. The war which ended over 75 years ago still wages a deadly toll on the inhabitants and ecology of the Solomon Islands to this day as people continue to live on contaminated land.
Fox holes still scar the landscape around the hills of Bloody Ridge, just outside of Honiara. They are a physical reminder of the war which has ended for some, still continues to be waged on those living with the devastating legacy of UXO. Bloody Ridge saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war in the Battle of Guadalcanal, otherwise known as Operation Watchtower which lasted just over six months, from August 7, 1943 to February 9, 1943 claiming the lives of 1600 Allied soldiers and a staggering 24,000 Japanese troops.
Golden West Humanitarian Foundation Project Manager, Paul Eldred looks down at his feet to where a 75mm high explosive projectile with a mechanical time fuse lies as he walks around Hells Point detonation range. Eldred warns not to touch this UXO as he can clearly identify the fuse is still primed, and is extremely volatile. This UXO will have to be disposed of where it lies. Located opposite the Solomon Islands international airport in Honiara, Hells Point is used as a training facility for the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team due to the dense contamination of the former ammunition supply area.
Every morning the Royal Solomon Islander Police Force Explosive Disposal Team receive their daily orders from Golden West Project Manager Paul Eldred and Sergeant Clifford Tunuki. The Explosive Disposal Team are the only group qualified in explosive ordnance disposal led by the United States non-profit organisation, Golden West Humanitarian Foundation. Golden West established their Guadalcanal project in May 2011, and are mandated with training a contingent of the RSIPF in safe bomb disposal up to International Mine Action Standard level 3.
Corroded and unstable UXO from World War Two awaiting disposal are kept in storage containers at the Hells Point Detonation range in Honiara. Since Golden West took over the training at Hells Point in 2011 the Explosive Ordnance team have found and disposed of over 37,000 unexploded ordinances weighing over 152,000 metric tonnes. Yet the extent of UXO contamination is still unknown.
Bloody Ridge saw some of the fiercest fighting on Guadalcanal during the Allied offensive to recapture the Solomon Islands form the Imperial Japanese Navy. These areas today are under immense pressure to be developed as the population increases in the capital city of Honiara. With no governmental legislation to deal with UXO developers are forced to either conduct ad-hoc clearance efforts or halt work until the contaminated area is deemed clear by the already stretched RSIPF disposal team.
Once the explosives have been x-rayed to determine their inner explosive, the high explosive (TNT) filled projectiles are taken to a remote cutting shed. The projectile is then carefully measured and precisely cut using a remotely controlled bandsaw. The open munitions are then taken to be burned instead of destroyed by explosive demolition which is not only safer, but saves money and time. The phosphorus munitions and small calibre UXO are still destroyed with explosives.
Sergeant Morris Ale and Police Constable Reinhard Alalo prepare a US 75mm high explosive projectile to be remotely cut by an automated cutting machine at the Hells Point Detonation Range in Honiara. The projectile must be precisely measured to ensure the correct place to cut, otherwise the unstable projectile will detonate. After the cutting, the projectile will be placed in a pit to have the inner explosive burnt out and finally rendered safe.
Police Constable Peter Ririvere watches from a remote shed as a US 75mm projectile is precisely sawn open using an automated cutting tool at Hells Point Detonation Range in Honiara. The projectiles are cut open in order to properly dispose of the UXO, and must be done remotely to minimise the risk of accidental detonation if something goes wrong. Once the munition is cut open it will be burned to remove the explosive and rendered safe. This method is the most economic and safe way to dispose of the unstable UXO leftover from World War Two.
Sergeant Simon Rihia inspects a US 80mm Mortar found in the Mosquito Community in Honiara. The box also holds a US MK 2 grenade, a 40mm US projectile and some 50 calibre bullets all found by local children whose usual response to finding UXO is to throw them into the closest creek. Since Golden West took over the UXO training at Hells Point in 2011 the number of community responses has dropped from several call outs every day, to approximately 4 per week with the team having found and disposed of over 37,000 unexploded ordinances weighing over 152,000 metric tonnes.
Police Constable Raymond Ake and Senior Police Constable Shelley Selestin Pelleni supervise as Police Constables Reinhard Alalo and Armstrong Ragoso use a large loop metal detector to clear a plot of land at Hells Point Range in Honiara. It is slow and arduous work in the hot Solomon sun as every indication must be treated as a potential UXO and carefully dug out. Hells Point was once an ammunition supply dump for Allied forces during World War Two, however in 1943 a grassfire swept through and took up the ordnance in the air, some of it detonated, most of it came back to the ground and therefore unexploded contaminating vast amounts of land with UXO and shrapnel.
Police Constables Reinhard Alalo and Armstrong Ragoso slowly clear site 15 at Hell’s Point detonation range in Honiara. The team members use the clearance around this area as training when they are out in the community responding to locals who have found UXO in their homes or gardens. The work is exhausting in the hot sun, and every indication the metal detector make must be taken seriously, even if it is only a piece of shrapnel.
Members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team use an xray machine to determine what kind of explosive filler is within the projectile. The most common is filled with TNT which can be safely cut open and the explosive burnt out. However, some projectiles are filled with white phosphorus, a dangerous chemical compound which detonates upon contact with oxygen and can only be disposed of by remote detonation.
Sergeant Simon Rihia carefully places the cut UXO on the back of a truck to be taken to a remote pit and disposed of using their cut and burn technique. After the explosives are placed in the pit they will be covered with diesel soaked rags and lit on fire to destroy the TNT explosive filler. This is a safer and cheaper way to dispose of UXO than the traditional explosive method which the Royal Solomon Islander Explosive Ordnance Disposal team team only use on projectiles with cannot be cut open.
Police Constable Reinhard Alalo and Sergeant Morris Ale prepare the UXO for disposal in Hells Point, Honiara. The projectiles which have been carefully sawn open are placed in a deep dug-out in the earth and covered with diesel soaked rags, ready to be lit. The diesel burns slower and longer than normal petrol, so to give Reinhard and Morris time to get away incase one of the projectiles detoate. The burning is designed to melt out the high explosive filler, rendering the UXO safe.
Golden West Humanitarian Foundation Project Manager Paul Eldred holds up a crude bomb which was confiscated by the Royal Solomon Islander Police Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal team. The bomb is used for dangerous dynamite fishing practices which sees the largest concentration of deaths related to UXO tempering in the Solomon Islands. Improvised bombs are made when UXO are illegally hacksawed open, and the inner explosive is used to fill 300ml plastic bottles then lit and thrown into the water to kill and maim large amounts of fish in a single blow. The impacts on marine life and the environment are devastating, and these practices are harming traditional fisherman's livelihoods as one an area is bombed, fish seldom return to the destroyed area.
Fish which have been caught using dynamite practices are obvious when walking around the markets in Honiara, bloodshot eyes and insides forced through the gills are the most evident signs. There are approximately six to eight deaths each year due to dynamite fishing related accidents, however these incidents are rarely reported to the authorities for fear of prosecution and therefore the number is estimated to be much higher.
Police Constable Armstrong Ragoso finds three 50 calibre bullets from World War Two in the shallows of a busy beach in Honiara. During this dive, the team found 35 high explosive projectiles lurking in the shallows, completely crusted over with barnacles, one could easily mistake them for rocks. Many children and families gathered to watch the divers pulling these unstable bombs out of the water.
Police Constable Armstrong Ragoso carries a high explosive projectile out of the shallows at the mouth of the Alligator Creek in the Solomon Islands capital city, Honiara. During this dive, over 35 projectiles were discovered and hauled out, to be taken back to Hells Point for safe disposal. The waters around Honiara are heavily polluted with World War Two detritus - sunken barges, ammunition dumps, and UXO - all leaching toxins into the environment. These eventually make their way up the food chain to human consumption. This is particularly significant for a community which relies heavily on the ocean and fishing for the economy and their livelihoods.
Police Constable Armstrong Ragoso picks up the final UXO found in a diving operation by the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team to be taken back to Hells Point for disposal. During the operation, over 35 explosives were found in waist high water at the mouth of Alligator Creek in the capital city of Honiara. Kids and families gathered to watch the team haul out these war relics which have been lurking beneath the surface since World War Two.
The fence around the perimeter of Hell’s Point is often disregarded by locals who have come to see this area as being for their own commercial uses. Every morning, the Royal Islander Police Force Explosives team find fresh diggings where people have been searching for UXO as Hell’s Point has a high concentration of UXO contamination. Their main reason for this is to use the explosive filler to make crude bombs for dynamite fishing, however police also report people using these crude bombs in times of civil unrest. It is illegal to tamper with UXO in the Solomon Islands, so accidents involving such tampering are rarely reported.
For many people, World War II is a saga confined to the history books. For them, World War II was a global war that took place between 1939 and 1945, where the living memories of those who lived through it, are slowly fading away into the annals of time. The war in Europe, Hitler and Nazi Germany come readily to mind, perhaps even Japan under Hirohito, the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but the fierce fighting between Allied forces and the Imperial Japanese Navy in what is said to have been the turning point of the war in the Pacific, is remembered less. Even when it is remembered, few acknowledge the war that finished seven decades ago has not ended for some. In the South Pacific theatre, the legacy of World War II still wages a deadly toll on the inhabitants and ecology of the Solomon Islands to this day.
The Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands is one such theatre, where a war fought three generations ago still continues to seep in and destroy every part of life in the Solomon Islands. Every day for the last 75 years, the remnants of a war - a war in which they never wished to be a part of - continues to devastate the environment and take lives in the Solomons.
Today, there is an unknown number of munitions and unexploded ordnance from WWII contaminating the Solomon Islands, specifically in the capital city of Honiara where the Battle of Guadalcanal took place. These UXO are killing and maiming inhabitants, hampering economic development and polluting the environment in the Solomon Islands, and there is very little international engagement when it comes to aid funding to assist in clearance operations.
Those who lived through WWII in the Pacific are ageing and dying, and with them, their stories. Yet, Solomon Islanders are still fighting in a war that ended generations before they were even born, and this story needs to be told and perhaps even more importantly - it needs to be heard. There is a need to give a platform to these voices, and amplify this story in order for there to be understanding and change which will come through dialogue between Solomon Islanders and the global community. The researching and production of the Finding Safe Ground photo documentary project intends to redress the silencing of the people of the Solomon Islands, and bring the legacy of World War II UXO to light, to dialogue and eventually, to a safe conclusion.