International treaties have directed billions of dollars to countries ravaged by war. But World War II was a long time ago in the Solomons and help has passed it by.
A platoon of decaying World War II tanks lines a barbed-wire compound surrounded by towering jungle, east of Honiara International Airport on the island of Guadalcanal. Shiny new Japanese-donated pick-up trucks and inflatable boats sit within its fences.
This is the headquarters for the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force bomb squad. Inside, several of the squad’s 30 members work among scuba gear and maps, right next to an open air gallery of emptied bombshells and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, all dropped by servicemen 80 years ago.
Nearby, live bombs are arranged in a secured storage unit, the dates they were unearthed recorded on masking tape with marking pens. They await disposal, many after decades of neglect.
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Since 2011, the police agency’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal team has destroyed more than 46,000 bombs. They’ve almost entirely come from the area surrounding the capital city of Honiara.
Inspector Clifford Tunuki, the squad leader, sits in his office and considers the enormity of the task his team has been charged with. Bombs still litter the 300 acres of dense jungle surrounding the compound.
It was once a WWII munitions depot, housing as much as 661 million pounds of ammunition of various calibers and sizes to fuel the U.S. war effort throughout the Pacific.
But a grass fire in November 1943 tore through the compound, setting off a three-day blaze and countless explosions, hurling the depot’s contents — including live munitions — throughout the surrounding area.
It has since been dubbed Hells Point. It is off limits to civilians. And it holds just a fraction of the dormant bombs littering the Solomon Islands.
“There is much more there, in the field. Probably a million,” Tunuki says. “How long to get rid of them, to address it? It will take maybe 20 years or more.”
The explosive remnants of World War II have plagued the Solomon Islands for 80 years. It’s been estimated that 30% of the bombs dropped by Japan and the U.S. during battle did not detonate on landing. And after the war ended in 1945, hundreds of thousands of tons of military paraphernalia — including munitions — were dumped and abandoned across the country, including in its waters.
In the decades since the war ended, the Solomon Islands has made little progress in clearing its land of the bombs that continue to kill and injure its people on a regular basis.
The U.S. and Japan have done little to clean up the mess they left behind and the Solomon Islands government has failed to seek the financial and technical help it needs. The threat of unexploded ordnance has frequently taken a back seat to other priorities and internal problems, including the developing nation’s unstable political situation.
But calls to clear the land of UXO increased last year, when at least six Solomon Islanders were killed and others injured by bombs and shells that suddenly erupted.
The spate of deaths added to an already turbulent year for the Solomon Islands, as discord mounted over Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision to align with China, the Solomons’ withdrawal of recognition of Taiwan and Sogavare’s refusal to heed calls to step down. By December, violent protests were being staged across Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.
Chinese influence in the Pacific has been a festering concern for the U.S. for years. A security pact between the Solomon Islands and China in May inflamed the U.S. and its allies’ geopolitical fears of a potential military presence in the region, driving a diplomatic push by the U.S. to shore up relations with the island nation.
Meanwhile, a feeling of disenfranchisement and neglect has been growing among Solomon Islanders, whose relationship with those who fought on their land during WWII — especially the U.S. — has largely declined in the decades since the war ended.
‘A Bottomless Pit’
The Solomon Islands has pleaded with the U.S. and Japan for help with the deadly UXO problem since it gained independence from the U.K. in 1978. As recently as 1984, the U.S. Ambassador to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, Virgina Shafer, said she was surprised to hear the Solomons was having problems with leftover unexploded ordnance. She insisted the U.S. government was not aware of the situation.
But the problem, even 40 years ago, was very real.
Long-time weapons disposal technician and Vietnam War veteran Allan Vosburgh came across unexploded bombs in the South Pacific in the late 1980s, when he was sent to the Solomon Islands to help dispose of chemical weapons found in the Russell Islands, near Guadalcanal.
The Ewa Beach resident is now CEO of Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, which trained the Solomon Islands police bomb squad from 2012 to 2018. Vosburgh has traveled extensively throughout the South Pacific region, many times on missions to recover U.S. soldiers’ remains in the ’80s.
Stumbling across bombs in his search for bones and dogtags during those trips was inevitable.
“I would run across this stuff and I’d say, ‘Hey, can we come back and get rid of this? You know, it’s U.S. stuff,’” Vosburgh says.
Projectiles were not his superiors’ priority though. “They would always say no, because they didn’t want to suggest that they were taking responsibility. Because that’s a bottomless pit.”
The Japanese government has also conducted extensive recovery missions for dead soldiers. In the 1980s, the Japanese took the same position on UXO as the Americans, Vosburgh says — not their responsibility.
By the early 1990s, a burgeoning movement against the use of land mines throughout the world was gaining international recognition, leading to the formation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, now a collection more than 100 non-governmental organizations focused on remediating the remnants of wars that still kill disproportionate numbers of civilians worldwide.
In 1997, with the help of people like Princess Diana and countless international celebrities, the NGO succeeded in gaining an international agreement, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, sometimes called the Ottawa Convention or Mine Ban Treaty. Now, 164 nations are party to the convention, their signatures indicating their intention to destroy their land mine stockpiles, stop producing them and work to remove them from current and former war zones.
Since the Ottawa Convention was implemented, more than $12 billion has been pumped into addressing UXO worldwide, specifically land mines. The money predominantly comes from the U.S., Japan, Germany, France and the European Union.
The land mine cleanup has amounted to roughly $500 million a year since 1997, distributed throughout the world, although in 2020 most of it was sent to Iraq, Laos, Colombia and Afghanistan.
The Solomon Islands has received very little money and now the global dollar amount is steadily declining, according to Mary Wareham, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch’s arms division.
The U.S. — like Russia and China — still won’t sign either the anti-land mine treaty or the Oslo Convention, a separate international ban on cluster munitions. The U.S. believes the mines are necessary in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which contains more than 1 million land mines, to protect its allies in South Korea from aggression from the North.
President Joe Biden indicated in June that the government would realign itself more closely with the anti-land mine Ottawa Convention, which is a promising sign, Wareham says. The U.S. has yet to take action on the international convention to ban cluster munitions, the Oslo Treaty.
The Solomon Islands is party to the Ottawa Convention. And while it has leftover bombs it has no known land mines or cluster munitions, so it does not explicitly qualify for aid from the United Nations Mine Action Service — an arm of the UN formed after the Ottawa Convention was ratified — like Afghanistan and Iraq or the more than 58 other countries contaminated with land mines do.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines publishes an annual report called the Landmine Monitor. According to the Monitor, aid for the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations affected by WWII barely registers. Most of the financial help goes to nations affected by more recent wars, such as in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, nations with a UXO problem can attend annual meetings, typically in Geneva, Switzerland, where they can advocate for themselves within the substantial international mine-action community. Some nations with similar problems to the Solomon Islands have developed relationships with UXO outfits that have sought funding on their behalf and succeeded in getting money to clear their land.
But the Solomon Islands has rarely attended a meeting since it signed on to the Ottawa Convention more than 20 years ago. In fact, treaty participant lists show that no Pacific nation with a WWII UXO problem has officially participated in an Ottawa Convention meeting in the past five years.
“It’s very, very, very rare that you see Solomons diplomats participating in treaty meetings, unfortunately,” Wareham of Human Rights Watch says. “It helps if you have mine-action NGOs who are going to go the distance and try and raise funds and help to establish their presence.”
In an interview with Civil Beat, Karen Galokale, permanent secretary for the Solomon Islands Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services, said Solomon Islands officials don’t understand how the international mine community works. They didn’t know they could get help through the Ottawa Convention, she said.
“It was just the way that we treated UXO. We didn’t really commit a lot of time to finding out ways that we can raise our voice,” Galokale says.
It’s also too expensive for the cash-strapped Pacific nation to send a delegation to Geneva every year, she says. Galokale has been to the international meetings twice, but only with sponsorship from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining.
The U.S. has given the Solomon Islands $6.8 million to deal with its UXO issue since 2011, a fraction of what it has given to other countries where the battles have been waged much more recently.
Japan has predominantly given aid to the Solomons through infrastructure projects, such as building roads or improving airports, which may also coincidentally include UXO clearance. It recently donated $766,000 worth of trucks and specialized machinery to the police bomb squad, along with money for awareness campaigns.
“It’s a crumb,” says Wareham of Human Rights Watch. “It’s a speck of sand on a very big beach.”
The U.S. decision to start funding UXO-related work in the Solomons came during the administration of President Barack Obama. Leon Panetta, who had been director of the CIA, took over as Secretary of Defense in 2011.
He says the money that was beginning to flow to the Solomon Islands was a “smart investment” at the time, given the administration’s geopolitical shift toward the region.
But, he told Civil Beat in a recent interview, getting help from the U.S. to address UXO or land mine issues has largely been a “hit or miss process,” and one that typically took place as part of recovery missions for dead soldiers.
“It’s not at the top of the list. You know, it’s not a weapon system. It’s not a new procurement of some kind. It’s not something that has political appeal,” Panetta says.
That could be changing. The security pact China recently signed with the Solomon Islands prompted the U.S. to rekindle relationships it has taken for granted.
Recently, the U.S has committed to setting up embassies in the Solomon Islands as well as Kiribati and Tonga, where China also has been making political inroads.
Fundamentally, the UXO issue in the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations is a national security issue for the U.S., Panetta says. Framing it as such may galvanize lawmakers into action.
In the fiscal year 2023 budget, which took effect Oct. 1, the House Appropriations Committee set aside $264 million for “conventional weapons destruction programs,” directing money to several nations, including $80 million for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
But there is no money allocated for any Pacific nation.
“Frankly, in order for any of this to happen, it takes money,” Panetta says.
He believes money will need to be earmarked for the Solomon Islands and the Pacific, or it will continue to go to other countries.
Empowering The Local Experts
Police inspector Tunuki is a tall man, especially for a Solomon Islander, sturdy and deliberate, with a graying crown. He is considered one of the foremost explosives experts in the Pacific.
His team has been trained by Golden West Humanitarian Foundation to International Mine Action Standards — an internationally recognized qualification.
The training was paid for in large part by the money that the U.S. has given the Solomons since 2011, along with some financial commitments from Australia, which announced a $10 million package last year that will include a refit of Hells Point.
The Australian NGO SafeGround, an anti-mine and UXO advocacy group, has monitored UXO problems in the Solomon Islands for almost a decade. SafeGround published a book about the nation’s UXO problem in 2015, with the help of Australian Aid and the Pacific Islands Forum, an intergovernmental organization comprising almost all Pacific nations. It distributed its findings throughout the United Nations and the international UXO community, raising the country’s issue to the global stage for the first time.
SafeGround Pacific Islands Program Coordinator and co-founder John Rodsted says the Solomon Islands has largely been used as a training ground for organizations wanting to learn how to clear UXO. The money being spent in the islands has not gone for systematic cleanup and disposal, which is what the Solomon Islands needs.
In 2013, an Australian Defense Force-led WWII ordnance disposal operation focused on the Southwest Pacific called Operation Render Safe sent U.S., Canadian, Australian and New Zealand soldiers to the Solomon Islands to join in disposal efforts.
The number of bombs that were recovered and destroyed skyrocketed that year, the first and perhaps most successful of Render Safe operations in the country. The Solomon Islands EOD team destroyed more than 20,000 bombs that year, compared to an average of 2,400 bombs every other year.
In 2016 and 2019, Australia took part in other clearance operations and helped the Solomon Islands team dispose of about 4,000 UXO.
Tunuki and others say that shows not only the enormity of the problem in the Solomon Islands but demonstrates that a coordinated and well-staffed effort could make a real dent.
Currently, the Royal Solomons Police Force bomb squad only recovers and disposes of UXO when it gets a call that someone has come across one, which happens regularly.
It does not go out in search of unexploded ordnance. It doesn’t have the manpower or the resources to respond to calls across the entire country.
A big problem is money. Boats and planes, trucks, excavators and everything else the team might need to coordinate a national survey is just too expensive.
The entire police ministry — which includes correctional facilities and national security — has $22.4 million for the current financial year, according to Galokale, the Solomon Islands official who oversees the police agency.
The EOD team gets a small portion of that, along with aid funding.
Just last year, the team evacuated a one-mile area in Mbelagha, five miles inland from Hells Point, to destroy a 2,000-pound bomb. More recently, the team has been fielding reports of mortars that have been found after they were moved from other parts of Guadalcanal by workers upgrading the Kukum Highway, the capital’s main road.
Tunuki knows his team’s limits — something he has raised with his superiors. Ideally, there would be another facility like Hells Point in Western Province, which would include bomb storage and disposal for UXO found in the region.
At the very least, there should be some sort of training for rank-and-file police officers to handle bombs, Tunuki says. Most police officers are not qualified to respond to reports of bombs.
So, despite an infusion of new trucks and high-end equipment, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force bomb squad remains hamstrung by the circumstances it must operate in, a small squad tackling an enormous problem every day.