There was a thunderous blast, flames shot into the sky and a dark cloud of smoke formed over a tree line near a military base in Equatorial Guinea.
Then came another explosion. And another.
Swarms of people ran in fear. Others didn’t have the chance.
Jesus Nguema’s family was among the fortunate. A shock wave caused a fire that razed the apartment building where his seven children were staying. Nguema told Reuters he waited 12 agonizing hours before he learned that they had survived.
“By some miracle, my children were able to get out of the furnace and save themselves,” he told Reuters.
More than 100 people were killed and at least 600 more injured by the explosions at Nkoantoma Military Base in Bata.Local media reports showed victims — mostly children — being pulled from piles of mangled metal and concrete. Hospitals were quickly overwhelmed and in need of blood donations.
Nguema’s family was among 900 people housed in temporary shelters, including unaccompanied children who lost their families, said the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema blamed the March explosions on negligent handling of dynamite. Military depots holding explosives ignited “when neighbors at nearby farms lit fires,” and flames spread to the barracks, Nguema said in a Deutsche Welle report. Victims included military personnel and civilians.
“The shock waves from the explosions caused great damage to almost all buildings in Bata,” Nguema said in a televised address.
The military camp was built in a forest far from the city, but Bata, with a population of more than 250,000, grew rapidly between 2004 and 2016. The area around the base is now densely populated.
Simon Conway, director of capability at the Halo Trust, a nonprofit organization that removes debris left by war, wondered why a military base was storing commercial dynamite used for quarrying.
“Fires in adjacent properties usually spread to ammunition storage areas in Sub-Saharan Africa because nobody cuts the grass and the perimeter fencing is badly maintained.” Conway told
The issue of cities expanding around ammunition storehouses is familiar across Sub-Saharan Africa. Conway said the ammunition should have been moved to a safer location long ago. He added that explosive storehouses with earth buttressing in well-maintained areas are less likely to detonate.
“And if they do, they are less likely to set off adjacent storehouses,” Conway said. “The blast radius around an explosive storehouse should be within the perimeter of the military base to reduce the risk to civilians in the case of an accidental detonation.”
Unplanned explosions of stockpiles of ammunition and explosives at storage sites are a recurring problem with about 15 such explosions occurring globally each year. Citing data from Small Arms Survey, Reuters reported that unplanned explosions at munitions sites caused nearly 30,000 fatalities globally between 1979 and 2019.
The most common factors in the blasts were lightning strikes and extreme heat, human handling errors, sabotage, fire, electrical issues, and chemical reactions within the stored ammunition.
The Institute for Security Studies has suggested that governments test their stockpiles of munitions, ammunition and weapons for stability and properly handle any devices that do not perform to specifications.
At the request of Equatorial Guinea’s government, technical experts from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining are working with members of the French Explosive Ordnance Disposal, U.S. Embassy and Golden West Humanitarian Foundation to support demining efforts and investigate the cause of the explosions, ReliefWeb reported.
The effort also will work to identify risks to the population and environment, address ammunition storage and handling concerns, and provide risk reduction and mitigation recommendations to national authorities.