German munitions experts wrap up program to secure Cambodia's aging
ammunition depots that led to deadly explosions in 2005 in Battambang
Photo by: PHALLA DOS
German Ambassador Frank Mann (second from left) watches a munitions cleanup.
DEEP, booming explosions thudded through the rural villages near Popel, about 50 kilometers south of Siem Reap midmorning on December 12, marking the end of a US$2 million project that began in October 2007, driven by the German Foreign Office and the German Development Agency, or GTZ, and overseen by members of the German armed forces.
In Siem Reap itself, expats were asking what the German army was doing in town and what they were blowing up.
But those harmless explosions were simply a closing-ceremony demonstration in the safe destruction of ustable ammunition and ordnance.
At the same time, those explosions were also a disturbing resonant echo of much more harmful explosions that ripped through downtown Battambang in the early hours of March 31, 2005, when a munitions storage facility blew up, killing several people, injuring many and causing widespread structural damage.
Vox, writing for Khmer440, was woken by the first explosion at 2:40am and filed a compelling firsthand account at the time: "As I opened the door to my house, an incredible picture confronted me. My house stands on the banks of the river Sangka. Across from me, a scene that looked straight out of Apocalypse Now silhouetted the Chinese shophouses that line the river's edge. The sky was a ghastly orange and filled with smoke from explosions that burst with alarming regularity."
Much of the city was chaotically evacuated in the predawn hours, with Battambang's only fire engine breaking down shortly after 3am.
The Priority ... is to clothe [THE CHILDREN], to feed them, to provide medical care. Sport is a fantastic added bonus.
Vox reported that by 11am, "things started to calm down".
He wrote: "Apparently, the fires are under control, but one can still hear the rumble of explosions. The death toll is unconfirmed. Various numbers have been bandied around and there are reports that the hospitals are filled with injured. Some expats drove out to the site and saw roads covered in shrapnel and UXOs. One man was wandering around in his underpants looking dazed.
Munitions experts at work in Siem Reap.
"Normally one would wonder why a warehouse of munitions would be situated only kilometres outside a busy town. Why would there be an armed Stalin Organ (a lethal contraption with as many as 40 armed rockets) in the facility? (Rumour is that it was this device's demise that led to the opening explosion at 2:40am.)
"But, this is Cambodia. Speculation at this point is useless, and I imagine we might never find out the truth of the morning of March 31, 2005," Vox concluded.
But despite Vox's conspiratorial concerns, the truth was quickly discovered and it was quite simple.
"The problem was with the storage of ammunition by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces," retired Dutch army colonel Adrian Sprangemeijer, project manager with GTZ, told the Post.
"And that storage is not good enough. A lot of the ammunition is unstable, very old and corroded and if you look at a number of those storage sites, they put the ammunition there maybe 15 to 20 years ago, and they never looked at it again.
"Also, with most of those storage sites, they were placed in centres where people were living close by.
"In 2000, an explosion occurred in Ream naval base, but it was after the Battambang explosions in 2005 that the authorities became fully aware of the problem and requested German support to actually tackle the problem."
A GTZ report states that shortly after the Battambang explosions a feasibility study was undertaken.
"The result (of the study) was a grim picture of the storage situation that can, in principle, result in spontaneous explosions at any given time and at any place where ammunition is stored, possibly with the exception of the storage depots. Large quantities of ammunition are in such a bad shape that they need to be destroyed or demilitarized.
"Ammunition and explosives are spread throughout the country. Every military unit has its own ammunition store where a variety of ammunitions and explosives are stored, often under deplorable conditions. Also, large quantities of obsolete and dangerous munitions are present in these stores.
"Housing areas, offices, etc, are often in close vicinity of the ammunition stores, posing a direct danger to the people living or working in these houses or facilities. There is hardly an effective system in place to register the ammunition, according to international best practices. There is no adequately trained ammunition technical personnel available and ammunition-trained logistical officers are rare."
Sprangemeijer told the Post the project, which started in Military District 3 in Kampong Speu province in 2007 and finished in Military District 4 in Siem Reap on Friday, provided instruction into methods of safe handling and storage of ammunition and the demilitarising or destruction of obsolete ordnance.
He said: "We started as a pilot project in Military District 3 in Kompong Speu and the surrounding provinces. We trained roughly 40 people in basic ammunition techniques - how to handle it, how to transport it, how to store it, how to inspect it.
"Plus, we trained 40 people in the logistics part of ammunition storage.
"We also renovated a number of buildings in one of the depots as close to international standards as possible, and we are providing modified, certified containers at local level, where the Royal Cambodian Army can store small arms and ammunition.
"But the bulk of the ammunition should be centrally stored in the depots, well away from the population."
The project also provided training in storage for police weapons when not in use - after hours, for example - and a system to register the weapons and maintain them.
The project was then repeated in Siem Reap, where once again ammunition dumps were located near populated areas. While the Siem Reap exercise duplicated the program in Kampong Speu, much of the details of the operation are classified.
But Sprangemeijer said part of the project showed the Cambodian military how to "harvest" usable materials from old ammunition.
He said: "A lot of old ammunition can be taken apart quite safely, and the scrap metal can then be used. Depending on the type of ammunition, there can be very high-quality steel or lead, and other materials.
"We also did research on transforming the propellant charges, which are used to launch grenades, for example. We would like to transform that either to a blasting gel, which can be used in quarry operations, or turn it around into fertiliser.
"We can try to recycle almost everything, and in Siem Reap we want to do it with locally built equipment that is locally maintained and operated.
"But if the ammunition is so old that nothing can be done with it, then they must be able to blow it up safely, and that's what we did on the final morning of the project during the closing ceremony.
"That's what the explosions were about."