As It Happens

Aid workers mapping WW II bombs killed in explosion in the Solomon Islands

Aid worker Per Breivik says he has no idea why his colleagues brought an unexploded Second World War bomb into a residential neighbourhood in the Solomon Islands.

Investigators trying to figure out why the 2 men brought the unexploded munitions back to their office

Royal Solomon Islands Police Force officers inspect a home in Honiara, in the Solomon Islands, where two bomb disposal workers were killed in an explosion. (Royal Solomon Islands Police Force/Facebook)

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Aid worker Per Breivik says he has no idea why his colleagues brought unexploded Second World War bombs into a residential neighbourhood in the Solomon Islands.

Two men working to locate bombs left behind from the war died on Sunday after one of the bombs exploded at an apartment where they lived and worked in the capital city of Honiara. They have been identified as Stephen Luke Atkinson of Britain and Trent Lee of Australia.

Breivik is the director of disarmament at the Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), the humanitarian organization that employed both men, and a long-time friend of Atkinson's.

"I don't know what Luke was thinking. But what is clear is whatever he was thinking, it would have been driven from a genuine interest in understanding ammunition, and no ill-will," Breivik told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"I can only reflect on the fact that he paid a very, very high price."

Thousands of bombs buried in the soil

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago about 1,600 kilometres northeast of Australia, and home to 600,000 people.

Its main island, Guadalcanal, was the site of fierce battles between Japanese and U.S. troops during the Second World War. Now, 75 years later, it remains littered with unexploded bombs.

Breivik says more than 45,000 Second World War-era unexploded ordnance — mortars, grenades and ammunition — have been discovered in the country since police started keeping count in 2011. 

"How many have been carried out pre-2011, we don't know. But it's fair to assume it's quite a much higher number," he said.

Atkinson and Lee were working with the local government to develop a database of these deadly devices, he said. 

Stephen Luke Atkinson, known to his friends and colleagues as Luke, was motivated by a genuine desire to help others, says his colleague and friend Per Breivik. (Submitted by Per Breivik)

Some are munitions that were abandoned in the fight and never fired. Others were fired, but didn't explode on impact as intended. All of them pose a threat to the country's agricultural workers.

The New York Times, citing estimates from various aid groups, estimates about 20 people are killed or injured every year by these devices. 

"The impact, of course, has been there through generations of land that is currently not used because of the contamination from trauma a long time ago," Breivik said. 

'A genuine wish to help people'

The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force said they are still investigating the explosion, but believe Atkinson and Lee had several unexploded bombs at the home, which was also being used as their office, in Honiara, and may have been carrying out work to disarm them.

"We are concerned that they decided to conduct explosive ordnance disposal operations within a residential area," Insp. Clifford Tunuki said in a statement, adding that police later removed other bombs from the office.

He said police have a good working relationship with the NPA.

"RSIPF did not know these items had been moved to the NPA residence. If we had known, we would have requested that the items be moved to a safe location."

Breivik says it's not standard operating procedure to bring munitions to a residential area like that, and that the NPA has suspended its work in the area pending the investigation.

"What exactly has brought [Atkinson] to then potentially take ordnance to the residence is only guesswork at this point in time," he said. 

"What is clear is that it is not in line with any international — or our — standards."

Atkinson was an experienced and respected arms disposal expert. (Submitted by Per Breivik)

Breivik says Atkinson worked in the field of disarmament for more than 20 years and was well-respected by his colleagues.

He says his friend would never have intentionally put civilians in danger. However, he acknowledged that risk does come with the job.

Lee posted about the dangers of his work on Facebook in August, sharing a photo of an American naval round.

"Pretty much the most dangerous WW II ammunition we find ... it's cocked and ready to fire ... one bump and it's all over," he wrote.

When Breivik last spoke to Atkinson a month and a half ago, he says he seemed "very, very enthusiastic" about the Solomon Islands project.

"He was driven by a genuine motivation to help people and to prevent accidents from happening, and at the same time also freeing up land so that it could be used for productive purposes," Breivik said.

"It is very difficult to make sense of it, I have to admit. And if anybody had asked me on Saturday, the day before the accident, whether I ever thought that Luke Atkinson would have been one of those that had an accident, I would have said no."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Per Breivik produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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