Eleven years ago, during the Russian-Georgian conflict, a Russian plane was shot down near the village of Chonto—crashing onto a steeply wooded hillside in the Sachkhere region of Georgia.
Over the years, the wreckage of the plane was broken up by local villagers—the scrap metal a good source of income for a community struggling to survive. HALO was asked to visit the site, to establish whether there had been any bombs on board which would pose a threat to the lives of families living nearby.
Our teams discovered 24 huge aircraft bombs—each with the potential to cause widespread damage. Alarmingly, it was also apparent that the bombs had been tampered with in an effort to steal (harvest) the explosives inside to use for illegal hunting, fishing and mining.
Due to the violent impact of the crash, the bombs were in a highly unstable state. Many had their safety pins removed, meaning we had to take additional safety precautions in order to destroy them.
However, this was half way up a mountain near South Ossetia, meaning both logistical and political obstacles had to be overcome. In heavy rains and thick fog, we cleared a 2km track, followed by a 400m footpath up the mountain to allow access to the site. Trees and vegetation were cut down to avoid the risk of fire when the explosives were destroyed. During this work, a further six bombs were discovered.
It was feared that because the bombs were located so close together, the destruction of one could set off a chain reaction of uncontrolled explosions. To stop this happening, we dug a pit and constructed a remote-control winch to pull each bomb into it, one-at-a-time, before detonating them individually. To protect our staff during this process, a splinter-proof shelter was also built.
For eight days, we carefully manoeuvred and detonated the bombs—destroying over 2,842 kg of explosives. The team then set about clearing the site to ensure there was no environmental impact, removing all metal fragmentation and filling in the craters left by the detonations.
The proximity of the bombs to the village of Chonto was not only a direct threat to the lives of local families, the harvesting and illegal use of explosives in this politically volatile region could have sparked a major security incident. Now the bombs are gone, Chonto is safe once again.
This work was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Government of Japan and was carried out in co-ordination with the Georgian Authorities and the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia.