One Step Beyond – Angola – Demolition
Called a "demolition", a controlled explosion is the best way to completely destroy weapons and ammunition. The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) invited Sebastian Kasack and myself to watch one near Luena. We met at 8:30 a.m. on MAG premises close to the airport – there was a small underground bunker there that I also wanted to see, so I descended its narrow stairway with videocamera running. I immediately came across a wall with around 100 bombs stacked up against it.
I turned a corner – it was cool and quite dark, only a single lightbulb hanging from the low ceiling – and the greeting "Buon Dia!" rang out from behind a door. Ronaldo, MAG's Technical Director, was extracting TNT from Romanian anti-personnel mine casings (MAI-75), and beside him on the floor were a few kilograms already removed.
For every mine found, a mine-clearer finds six pieces of UXO (unexploded ordnance) – such as hand grenades, rockets, all kinds of ammunition, and homemade explosives. In order to safely destroy this UXO, the defused mines themselves and the TNT extracted from explosive casings are used for the explosion.
As a controllable explosive material, TNT is very safe. It has a stable connector, and there is no danger of self-ignition – actually, TNT requires a strong initial detonation for it to explode at all. It remains undisturbed when thrown around, melted, or cut. The only risk of it exploding without a detonator, is if an unforseen explosion were to occur close by.
It's impressive how these dangerous goods are handled: men in blue coveralls pass the mines and duds carefully from one person to the next, up and out of the bunker, onto a flatbed truck. There, a layer of sand prevents them from shifting during transport. And for the men's own safety, they wear Kevlar vests and helmets with clear plastic visors. In all, 97 explosives are removed from the bunker – 38 are mines, and 19 of these are PPM-2's: an apparent product of the former GDR.
After the UXO – which is just a fraction of what was in the bunker – has been loaded, and all the detonation material placed in another vehicle, we set off. We leave Luena in a slow column, driving over rutted sandy slopes. We pass numerous control points along the way, but none stop or check us. It's raining lightly as we drive through scenery bearing traces from battles from long ago: damaged tanks and rocket launchers in the bushes on both sides of the road. After about 15 kms, we pull over.
In preparation for the demolition, a hole has been dug about 100 metres from the road in the bush, and the path leading to it has been cleared of mines. Now the 97 pieces of UXO will be carried to the spot in a slow and careful procession.
The ammunition is placed in the hole in specific layers: rockets and grenades at the bottom, then anti-aircraft missles, and finally, anti-personnel mines on top. The demolition will cause an explosion of such intense force, the cluster-ammunition's released fragments will be driven even deeper into the earth – this way, anyone straying unbeknownst into the area during the blast won't get hurt, and stray metal fragments won't contaminate the surroundings (which could create an even more laborious mine-clearing job: every single new fragment would first have to be painstakingly detected, and then cleared).
We film and photograph while the hole is being filled. After an explosives expert has arrived at the spot with his detonators and blasting material, we are taken to a safe location about 800 metres away. We wait near the cars, and at first – nothing happens. We hear the countdown on a walkie-talkie... Then, the earth shakes with a massive explosion. I can see soil being flung up at least 20 metres into the air...a dark, dense mushroom cloud develops...and – after two seconds…the dull bang of the explosion reaches us.
When we examined the fallout, there wasn't much to see: a few bushes had lost leaves, some sand thrown around – and no sign of metal fragments. Ronaldo and his team have done a good, clean job here.