The Role of Education on Awareness of Ammunition-dismantling Risks
by Brunilda Zenelaga [ Aleksandër Moisiu State University ]
The blasts from an ammunition dismantling factory in Gërdec, Albania, an accident caused by untrained employees at the facility, resulted in deaths and injuries and damaged homes for factory workers and nearby villagers in March 2008. This article suggests that training employers and workers to follow necessary safety procedures, as well as raising village awareness of the dangers of these ammunitions facilities, will help prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.
On 18 March 2008, I traveled with a group of students and professors from Aleksandër Moisiu State University of Durrës in Albania to the site of an explosion at an ammunition-dismantling factory in Gërdec, Albania. The Albanian Red Cross had requested assistance helping the injured victims. Around 300 people, inhabitants of Gërdec village in Vora municipality, roughly 14 kilometers (nine miles) from Tirana, had lost their houses in the blast. The Resort of the Ministry of Order, a state-owned resort in Plepa, Durrës, temporarily sheltered most of the displaced residents, while others were housed in privately owned resorts in the same area.
The Site of the Tragedy
The accident in Gërdec occurred on 15 March 2008 in one of the depots where obsolete munitions were being dismantled by many untrained and inexperienced workers. The explosions continued for 14 hours, killing or injuring hundreds of people. As of 18 April 2008, 26 deaths were reported.1 Some of the victims died immediately, while others died in the hospital. According to Reuters, victims in hospitals suffered from injuries such as burns, broken arms and legs, and cuts from bits of broken glass.2
At the Resort of the Ministry of Order, where we went to offer our assistance, many members of other governmental and nongovernmental organizations were also rendering aid. Those affected by the accident had varied responses. Some were able to speak and needed to talk about what they had seen and heard. Others preferred to stay alone, and it was difficult to offer them help. Most people, particularly the children, showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fatime D., a woman from Gërdec who was counseled at the state-owned resort in Plepa said, “We never thought this would happen. Most inhabitants of Gërdec village worked in the ammunition-dismantling factory—even women, children and elders. Many of them didn’t [initially] know how to dismantle the ammunition, but they learned from each other while working there. We saw the dismantling factory as [our] ‘savior’ because it was the only source of employment [available] for us. Nobody imagined that it would become ‘the death factory.’”1,3
Through tears and trembling lips, Fatime discussed the moment of explosion. “The land [started shaking]... [I heard] a terrible smash and [saw smoke] everywhere.” From her own yard she listened to the cries of fellow villagers and watched people run from the blast. A subsequent explosion destroyed part of Fatime’s home. “Everywhere there were flames, fumes, destruction, wounded people, [dead] animals. ... It was like a war [scene from the] movies. Horrific!”3 Fatime covered her face with her hands.
The explosion at the ammunition-dismantling factory at Gërdec village caused unimaginable damages. The Albanian authorities certify that 318 houses were completely ruined, 188 bore extreme damages, 200 suffered major damages and 1,600 had only minor impairments.4 Since the disaster, both the Albanian government and international community have taken steps to assist and reconstruct the village.
A damaged house in Gërdec.
All photos courtesy of the author
Shortly after the disaster, the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team responded to Albania’s National Civil Emergency Plan by offering its help to the government. The team of seven experts from various countries was sent on 20 March 2008. They collaborated with the U.N. Resident Coordinator and United Nations Country Teams to survey the needs of the area and develop objectives related to disaster cleanup.5
Immediately following the explosions, the Albanian Armed Forces deployed explosive-ordnance-disposal teams to clear medium- and low-risk areas strewn with unexploded ordnance.5 Sterling International and EOD Solutions were subcontracted by ArmorGroup North America and funded by the United States Department of State to help carry out clearance operations of UXO in the at-risk areas. These companies have removed 1,600 US tons (1,429 British tons) of munitions as of 27 February 2009.6 In accordance with the Ottawa Convention,7 the date of completion for clearance operations throughout Albania has been projected as August 2010. The Albanian Mine Action Executive is working to reach this goal with the help of financial donors such as the European Union and U.S. Department of State.8
The Albanian government estimated the cost of home repair to be around €17 million (US $22.3 million9) in addition to the cost for restoring infrastructure. As of 28 March 2008, the government also allocated 156 million Albanian lekë ($1.6 million) for affected families, with more financial support set aside for families who lost one or more loved ones in the blast.5
Rebuilding houses in the village of Gërdec.
A new house brings hope to people in Gërdec village.
Besides the contribution of disaster-relief specialists, international humanitarian assistance has included medical supplies, financial support and EOD teams.5 Also, the International Trust Fund for Demining and Mine Victims Assistance has aided the mayor of Gërdec in implementing victim-assistance and mine-risk-education programs at local schools.6
The event in Gërdec attracted international attention. Everyone wanted to know what Albania could do to avoid another catastrophe like the ammunition explosion.
Preventing Another Disaster
Some of the ways to prevent future disasters in Albania and elsewhere include educating employers; creating awareness among workers, employers and local inhabitants; constructing homes and businesses only in safe areas (not always easy to do with growing populations expanding out from city centers); and providing proper training and oversight of ammunition-dismantling businesses and ammunition stockpiles.
Educating employers. The inhabitants of Gërdec who worked at the ammunition-dismantling factory were not trained to do the work they were given. Instead of providing adequate training or hiring qualified workers, the employers took advantage of the workers’ inexperience to justify paying them lower salaries. These practices led to the fatal catastrophe.
A trained military team mobilized to collect and dismantle the ammunition can help avert disasters like the one in Gërdec by sharing its professional expertise with local inhabitants chosen to assist with the work. The workers should be properly trained before beginning the dangerous work, and companies must be educated about and respect the laws of employment.
Creating awareness. Economic need is often a motivating factor for people to participate in at-risk jobs for which they are not properly trained. In a society where the unemployment rate is very high, there is also a high probability that unqualified people will be hired or at least apply for jobs involving dangerous work about which they have little or no information. The people who worked at the ammunition dismantling factory in Gërdec were unaware of the risks of this job.
As Fatime observed in her interview, the high level of unemployment and lack of prospective employment possibilities were the main factors pushing people to participate in illegal, low-paying and dangerous work without proper security measures. Shockingly, even pregnant women, children and elders were involved in the Gërdec ammunition-dismantling process.
According to the Albanian Anti-mining Friends Committee’s Chief Executive Besnik Alibali, educating the population of Albania about the threats of mines and abandoned ammunition sites is important. Albanians have lived with the threat of mines for 50 years and may have become complacent about the dangers involved. Albania is threatened by other “Gërdecs” waiting to happen, and some think it is just a matter of time until another ammunition site explodes. The country contains more than 20 arsenals and hundreds of thousands of tons of hidden ammunition.10 Albania needs the advice of specialists to prevent another disaster.
In his book The Testament of a Sapper, Alibali says that people who participate in the dismantling and demining process must be aware of the risks of the job. Nobody should be obliged to enter such an occupation. According to Alibali, the individuals who are involved in the dismantling-weapons and demining processes should be self-confident and careful, have expertise in demining, and be healthy and physically strong—which includes being well-rested before they start working. If people who deal with dismantling and demining are smokers, they should not smoke during work but should ask for their supervisor’s permission to leave the workplace to smoke at a safe distance. Communication should be very clear and deliberate as well; inattentiveness is a dangerous practice in weapon dismantling.11
If everybody understood the responsibilites of all participants in the dismantling process and the difficulties therein, many catastrophes could be avoided and many lives saved. Establishing employee safety rules is important for each company that deals with the dismantling process. These rules must be explained to the workforce and enforced in order to strengthen the workers’ discipline and cultivate a feeling of security and professionalism in the workplace.
Constructing houses in safe zones. In her interview, Fatime said that the municipality of Vora had not yet given legal permission for the houses to be built in the village of Gërdec. The process of obtaining permission is very long, even if villagers have viable land on which they can build. The inhabitants of Gërdec had moved from parts of northern Albania and established their residence in Gërdec. “The closeness to Tirana, [the] capital of Albania, was a very important reason to build the houses in this zone,” said Fatime. “We didn’t consider the military camp as a risk. We never thought that a tragedy could happen.”3
Sometimes prevention is more important than the remedy. For instance, raising awareness of the importance of building the houses in safe zones, far away from military units, dismantling factories and other dangerous areas, is essential. The government, educators, mass media, etc., should play a more active role in educating people about the risks of residing close to dangerous localities.
Providing proper oversight. The failure of the government and local institutions to manage the private companies involved in the ammunition-dismantling factory led to the employment of untrained workers. With stronger oversight and management of the private companies, the employers will know how to hire specialists and train people more successfully. This oversight should come with the proper authority and the ability to enforce safety policies and procedures that will ensure the safety of both the workers and the surrounding community.
“I would like that all this could be just a nightmare .... I would like to open my eyes and see my relatives [who were killed in the accident], to see my house and all the village as it was before.... I would like that ‘the death factory’ had never existed,” said Fatime.3 Surely there are many who would echo Fatime’s sentiments. The next best thing is to prevent disasters like this from ever happening again.
Brunilda Zenelaga is a lecturer of sociology at the Aleksandër Moisiu State University in Durrës, Albania, and a member of the Academic Board of the Albanian Institute of Sociology. She has been member of the Albanian Anti-mining Friends Committee for many years. Zenelaga has contributed in the implementation of many social and research projects for several nongovernmental organizations in Albania.
- Hala, Manjola. “Consequences Still Resonate Three Months After Gërdec Blast.” Southeast European Times. http://balkanblog.org/2008/06/25/gerdec-blast-and-the-us-albanian-bribery-system/print/. Accessed 30 January 2009.
- Koleka, Benet. “Albanian Arms Dump Blasts Kill 5, Devastate Area,” Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSL15490945. Accessed 30 January 2009.
- Personal interview with Fatime D. 20 March 2008.
- “Death Toll Mounts in Albania Blast.” Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. http://balkaninsight.com/en/main/news/8782/. Accessed 30 January 2009.
- United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination: Assessments and Recommendations Following the Gerdec Explosions, Albania 20 March–3 April 2008. 8 April 2008. http://www.unep.org/greenstar//publications/Report%20Ammunition%20Blast,%20Albania,%202008%5B2%5D.pdf. Accessed 13 February 2009.
- E-mail correspondence with Dave Diaz, Albania Country Program Officer, U.S. Department of State (PM/WRA). 27 February 2009.
- Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, commonly known as the Ottawa Convention. http://www.icbl.org/treaty/text/english. Accessed 21 May, 2009.
- National Strategy.” Albanian Mine Action Executive. http://www.amae.org.al. Accessed 20 April 2009.
- All currency conversions as of 27 April 2009.
- Alibali, Besnik. 50 Vjet Mbi Mina [50 years beyond mines]. Illyria. 1–3 July 2008: 31.
- Alibali, Besnik. Testamenti i një xhenieri ose Kodi jetik i çminuesit [The Testament of a Sapper]. Instituti i Sociologjisë [Institute of Sociology], 2008: 27.
- Kulish, Nicholas. “After Munitions Explosion, Albanians Ask Why Danger Was Placed So Near.” New York Times. 19 April 2008:5.
Lecturer of Sociology
Aleksandër Moisiu State University
Lagia 4. Rruga Skënderbej
Pallati I Zvrave te Punës
Durrës / Albania
Tel: +355 69 21 98 316 / +355 68 20 96 613