Georgia: An Explosive Trade

The scrap metal business in Georgia holds some nasty and potentially lethal surprises.

Georgia: An Explosive Trade

The scrap metal business in Georgia holds some nasty and potentially lethal surprises.

A mountain of scrap metal is piling up at the naval port in Poti, ready to be shipped across the Black Sea to Turkey. Until very recently, there were two such heaps on the dock – but a series of injuries and explosions alerted the authorities to the fact that nearly 2,000 unexploded bombs were nestling within it.

Live munitions are routinely being picked up from former Soviet firing ranges by scrap metal collectors who are eager to make a living in the South Caucasus’ impoverished rural areas.

Military analysts have told IWPR that if the whole pile of explosives had ignited, they could have taken the entire port – and Georgia’s small navy – with it.

Colonel Gocha Shavgulidze, head of logistics at the General Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces, said, “[The authorities] should have expected this. Three years ago, the military shooting range at Vaziani just outside Tbilisi was chock-full with shells and bombs of every description, and now it's completely clear of ordnance.

“It's not that the local population cares about the environment. It's just that ordnance is metal, and therefore can be sold for cash."

Scrap metal agents in Tbilisi pay between 115 and 120 lari (around 50 to 55 US dollars) for a ton of ferrous metal, and ten times more for non-ferrous.

Those who have chosen scrap metal collecting as a way to earn a living are not frightened by the danger their business poses to others, nor are they concerned about their own safety - many have fallen victim to unexploded shells on the shooting range.

Mamuka Tsaava, the military prosecutor of the Kvemo-Kartly district where the Vaziani shooting range is located, told IWPR there have been four explosions at the range in the past three years, killing seven people and injuring two.

There have been two deaths this year alone, and one explosion destroyed a home. "It is impossible to post guards around the shooting range, which has an area of several dozen square kilometres, as this would be beyond our means. But nothing else seems to be working," admitted Tsaava.

Scrap metal collectors began turning up in numbers at the shooting range three years ago, when Russia officially handed the Vaziani military base over to Georgia, before pulling its manpower and machinery out. Any leftover ordnance was supposed to have been destroyed.

Under the same intergovernmental agreement between Russia and Georgia, weaponry from another Russian military unit in Eastern Georgia is routinely shipped to Vaziani for destruction. The Sagarejo battalion used to house one of the largest depots in Southern Caucasus.

According to Tsaava, the latest railway transport with ordnance left Sagarejo on July 19. There are still 180 conventional railway carloads of dangerous materials left there.

"Other Soviet military bases handed over to Georgia are also a potential source of dangerous business. Few of them are guarded or watched at all," Shavgulidze admitted. "And more explosives may be coming to Poti from neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have their own unsupervised shooting ranges. Scrap metal collection is as profitable there as it is in Georgia."

Tsaava estimates more than 370 railway cars filled with mines and other explosives have been shipped out of Sagarejo since 1999. Some were taken to the Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia, and the rest of the munitions were supposed to be destroyed.

However, some engineers did not always do as they were supposed to – and, as a result, some shells and mines were left unexploded and ended up in scrap metal heaps such as the one in Poti.

The deadly cargo was discovered in April, when a sudden explosion destroyed a furnace that was melting down a batch of metal from Georgia. It later transpired that an unexploded shell had been hidden among the scrap.

Within a month, Turkish experts had identified and removed more than 1,900 shells, bombs and mines. After this, it was up to the Georgian side to take care of the problem, but in the meantime the ordnance was simply piled up on the dock next to the scrap metal, completely unattended, until May 8.

On that day, another shipment of scrap metal arrived, and the dockers set about sorting through it. One worker set up his welding equipment to cut one outsized piece into something more manageable, only for it to explode when the heat reached it. Two workers were badly injured by shrapnel, while the driver of the delivery truck lost both arms.

An investigation is underway in Poti into the alleged violation of safety standards by a private company handling scrap metal shipments.

"The company is only being charged with violating labour law, as none of the blast victims have pressed complaints," explained Poti’s military prosecutor Shakro Burkadze, adding that the firm in question has paid for the treatment and rehabilitation of the victims.

Irakly Aladashvili is a military correspondent for the Kviris Palitra newspaper in Tbilisi.

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