Dangerous relics are a reminder of a legacy of conflict

Construction workers in Hong Kong made two frightening discoveries last week.

While digging deep in one of the busiest districts of this bustling city, they uncovered two unexploded bombs dropped during World War II. Both bombs were found in the same construction site within a span of five days.

By the time CNN arrived at the scene last Wednesday, police had blocked off traffic on the coastal road that runs between Victoria Harbor and the skyscrapers. The bomb squad was parked in front of a roped off construction pit holding the partially-buried bomb; the officers suited up in heavy black helmets, some of them coated in mud.

Thousands of people were evacuated. A nearby Starbucks and other cafes and restaurants overlooking the construction site were shuttered and closed.

Bomb disposal officer Alick McWhirter identified the unexploded ordinance as a “1,000-pound, general-purpose aircraft bomb” dropped by US warplanes when this former British colony was occupied by Japanese forces.

His team would spend the next 24 hours working to safely defuse a weapon that had been buried for more than 70 years.

It is hard to imagine that dangerous relics from a murderous, bygone era can still lie buried somewhere beneath Hong Kong’s glittering skyscrapers and heaving shopping malls.

Yes, the green hills of this city are still dotted with immaculately preserved cemeteries and monuments to the many victims of World War II.

But the horrors of what happened more than 70 years ago seem increasingly irrelevant to people buried in their smart phones as they are transported on subway trains and ferry boats to and from work.

The unexploded World War II bombs that authorities periodically discover here and in other countries like Germany are far more than just historical curiosities. They serve as reminders of the insidious legacy of conflict.

I’ll never forget the stern warning someone gave me when I first arrived in Afghanistan in 2001: “Don’t step off the road when you get out of the car.”

Hidden minefields dotted the countryside. Throughout decades of war, the Soviets and warring mujaheddin factions seeded the ground with explosive death traps.

Every time I stepped out of a car on a long, bruising road trip through the Afghan mountains, I had to remind myself of the sinister threat that lay somewhere beneath the ground.

Far more frightening, the impact these mines had on a population of Afghan farmers and herders who struggled to eke out a living on the booby-trapped soil.

If they were lucky, someone placed a little metal red flag emblazoned with a frightening skull and crossbones to mark a danger zone. And in some places, brave individuals from organizations like HALO Trust were doing the painstaking, perilous work of clearing land mines.

When I arrived in Afghanistan in November 2001, it was the start of a US bombing campaign. From miles in the air, American warplanes unloaded devastating payloads on Taliban targets.

This new generation of bombs landed on a country that had barely begun to clean up the explosives left from a previous rounds of fighting.

Not wanting to miss out on the action, the Taliban has also spent much of the next 17 years burying their own mines and bombs on Afghan roads and trails.

Civilians always face the worst fallout from this type of warfare.

But if you’re curious to hear what it’s like to survive a direct strike from one of these weapons, look at the work of the incredible South African photographer Joao Silva.

He lost both his legs to a landmine in southern Afghanistan in 2010. Somehow, he managed to snap several photos taken just seconds after the explosion.

Sadly, Afghanistan isn’t the only country to harvest dangerous crops of unexploded munitions.

In 2002, I remember navigating past the checkpoints of rival Kurdish militias in northern Iraq, gazing at hillsides sprouting those frightening little landmine warning signs.

The next year, one of those mines claimed the life of a veteran Iranian photographer named Kaveh Golestan. He was killed after the journalists he traveled with unwittingly parked their car next to an unmarked minefield.

Cambodia has long been described as one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. In 2016, the southeast Asian nation marked a grim accomplishment. For the first time that year, Cambodia’s annual casualty rate from land mines buried during the 1970s and 1980s dropped below 100 people killed and injured.

On a near daily basis, we see footage of bloody, dust-covered civilians dragged from the rubble of homes shattered by barrel bombs and airstrikes in Syria.

But the fact is, long after the shooting stops and the tears dry in Syria, Yemen, Libya and eastern Ukraine, civilian populations will face the additional threat of thousands of unexploded rockets and bombs, landmines and grenades embedded in the ground beneath their feet and in the foundations of their homes.

There is perhaps a glimmer of hope. In 1945, after more than three years of brutal Japanese occupation, Hong Kong was home to a traumatized population that had witnessed food shortages, atrocities and prison camps.

Emerging from the horrors of World War II, few residents then could have imagined that their city would one day grow into a sparkling, remarkably safe city.

More than seventy years later, Hong Kong is the kind of place where a long-buried, 1,000-pound device designed to kill people … instead briefly shutters a Starbucks.