Hidden dangers, ruined lives
Updated: 2014-05-15 08:02
By He Na and Han Junhong (China Daily)
Ding Haibo from Xingfa village in Dunhua city, Jilin province, carries a discarded shell he found in a field. [Photo by Feng Yongbin/China Daily]
Editor's note: History is, by definition, about past events, and while nothing can be done to change those events, forgetting them may lead to wrong roads being taken in the future. During the coming months, China Daily will present a series of regular reports about ordinary lives during World War II and the continuing impact of the conflict on the present and the future. This is the eighth report in the series.
Nearly seven decades after the end of World War II, chemical weapons discarded by retreating Japanese troops still pose a threat to life and limb, report He Na and Han Junhong in Dunhua, Jilin province.
The discovery of unexploded wartime shells often makes national headlines, but for residents of Dunhua city, in the northeastern province of Jilin, it's a commonplace event and most people seem almost inured to it.
"If finding rusty shells is news, reporters should visit our village. They'd have a story to write almost every day," said Zhang Yuxiang, 70, from the village of Daqiaoxi.
A huge number of undiscovered shells remain almost seven decades after World War II, and over the years, Zhang has known, or heard of, many locals whose lives have been irrevocably altered, or even ended, after they discovered the deadly, discarded ammunition.
"How many people lost a hand, arm or leg in an explosion, or had their health seriously impaired by shells that leaked chemicals? Too many to be counted," said the farmer.
Statistics from Daqiao Township Police Station show that since 1950 more than 400 people have been killed and countless others injured in the area, the site of a Japanese arsenal during the war.
Jin Chengmin, the curator and researcher at The Museum of War Crime Evidence by Japanese Army Unit 731 in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, said that following Japan's surrender in August 1945, Allied forces destroyed all the chemical weapons in Japan, but the ammunition discarded in China continues to endanger property, the environment and people's well-being.
"About 2 million gas bombs and 100 tons of toxic substances were left by the Japanese, who either buried them or dumped them in rivers or waterways that feed 17 provinces and regions. Since 1950, there have been more than 2,000 direct victims. Jilin is the most severely affected province; the chemical weapons discovered there account for 90 percent of the discarded ammunition found across the country," he said.
According to Jin, the Chinese government has made repeated representations to successive Japanese governments, and in 1999 the two countries signed the Memorandum on Destroying Chemical Weapons Discarded by the Japanese Troops in China. Under the terms of the agreement, Japan is compelled to comply with international rules and fulfill its responsibilities. However, progress has been slow, and the deadline for clearing discarded shells has repeatedly been pushed back.
"In recent years, the number of shells discovered has fallen sharply, but I can honestly say that from the 1950s to the '80s, every family in our township found shells when they were building houses or working in the fields. The shells were the boys' favorite toys," said Zhang.
"The township has a large population but little land and we were all very poor in the years after the war. However, gradually people realized that they could sell the shells at a good price, especially the copper casings and trailing wires. People began to risk their lives to make money. Some got very rich," he said.
However, most people paid a heavy price for the trade, especially those poisoned by chemical agents whose effects tormented them until the day they died.
"Three members of my classmate's family were killed as they tried to remove wires from shells, and my neighbor's father died at a very young age after he inhaled mustard gas. I could draw up a long list," Zhang said.
Challenge for the police
Dealing with discarded ammunition, especially chemical weapons, has become a major challenge for the local police force.
"Our repeated warnings and the rise in living and educational standards mean that fewer injuries are being caused by these discarded weapons. Most people call us if they find them, but we often discover people secretly selling the copper casings," said Pei Jiawei, an officer at Daqiao Township Police Station who has already dealt with two shell discoveries this month.
"A farmer from Xingfa village found two shells when he was working in the field several days ago, but he didn't report them to us until today, when he discovered one of them was missing. We made inquires and found a big, rusty shell discarded in a ditch. After a few more inquiries, we decided that a villager from nearby Sanjiazi village was the main suspect," he said.
When questioned, the man initially refused to admit his guilt, but he eventually admitted that he had taken the shell, and when officers drove to his house, they found the live shell in the yard.
"If that shell had exploded or leaked, the consequences could have been disastrous, so we quickly put it in our car and took it to a special facility that deals with chemical weapons," said Pei.
According to Wang Wei, deputy director of the police station, officers also found more than 30 shells at a construction site in April. Experts determined that one of the shells contained a chemical agent, while the others were conventional explosives.
"When we're alerted, we tell the caller to preserve the site and then we rush to the spot. In the meantime, we report the matter to a higher-level police station and the city's chemical-weapons office," said Wang.
"The experts told us that even touching the shell can be dangerous because static electricity could trigger an explosion. It's frightening work, but these cases occur regularly and we have to take the risk," he added.