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Mitholz: Life in the shadow of an Alpine ticking time bomb

In 1947, an underground ammunitions depot exploded in the village of Mitholz in the Bernese Alps. For years, people were confident that munitions and explosives buried at the site were not a danger. In 2018, that changed overnight. Then last winter, the defence ministry announced that the people of Mitholz have to leave their village for ten years. How are they coping?

The houses and farmyards of Mitholz are scattered across a high plateau. This picture-postcard region of Switzerland, unspoiled by tourism, is disturbed only by road traffic. But this village with 170 inhabitants won’t exist for much longer: in 2030, the inhabitants will be evacuated for ten years.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? It’s a typical question in job interviews, where the answer never has to be definitive. For the people of Mitholz, it’s different. They have to leave in ten years. And Mitholz will disappear – for another ten years at least.

This future cut-off point has its roots in a catastrophe more than 70 years ago, before most of the current Mitholz inhabitants were born. During the Second World War, the Swiss army built an underground munitions depot in the cliffs.

On December 19, 1947, part of the 7,000 tonnes of munitions and explosives stored in the facility blew up, killing nine people. Known in the local dialect as the “Chnütsch,” the event remained the biggest non-nuclear explosion anywhere in the world for a long time. 

According to official estimates, up to 3,500 tonnes of ammunition containing several hundred tonnes of explosives remain in the collapsed depot and buried under rocks.

For years, it was believed that the explosives and ammo no longer presented a danger. But this winter, the defence ministry announced that the residents of Mitholz would have to leave for ten years so that the explosive material could be safely removed. And it will take ten years until they have to go because before then, preparation and construction work must be done to ensure that the important transit route for road traffic continues to operate. The remains of the old munitions store are once again threatening the existence of the village, even without an explosion.

The defence ministry is willing to buy the houses, probably with a first right of refusal to repurchase them for the descendants of the current owners. Much remains unclear. How much compensation will the people of Mitholz receive for their houses? Where can they afford a new home? House prices in Mitholz are lower than in neighbouring villages.

Annelies Grossen, 50, a gardener and a member of the local council of Frutigen

“Poor little village” says the label on a file that Annelies Grossen has with her in the last restaurant in Mitholz. It’s the title of an old mourning poem that tried to encapsulate what Mitholz experienced back then.

Today Grossen lives in nearby Frutigen, but she grew up in Mitholz – with the catastrophe. Her mother lost several siblings and her grandmother in the explosion. “My granny picked up the crying three-year-old girl and ran out of the house. She wanted to go back and pick up the others, but everything went up in flames. Her husband saw everything from a house on the meadow above the munitions depot.”

The impact of the explosion on her family endured, even if it was not often discussed. At school and in village life, it had not been a topic of conversation for a long time. For the 50th anniversary of the catastrophe in 1997, Grossen’s mother, who was a member of the local council, worked with the community to ensure the event was commemorated officially. The files and folders that Grossen has brought with her were partly compiled for that reason. They contain photos of search parties, of survivors and the condolence visit paid by the army leadership including General (Henri) Guisan, which at that time meant a great deal to the bereaved people of Mitholz.

The press as far away as Boston reported on the explosion. Of course there was a delay: even the official press conference by the Swiss authorities only took place three days after the event. “Today that would be quite different,” says Grossen. “But today care teams would also immediately be on the spot for the survivors – in the 1940s they were left to cope alone in that respect.”

The many people who drive past in their cars don’t notice the little memorial fountain. “But the people of Mitholz have a place to go,” Grossen says. “On the anniversary, my mother — and then later I or a neighbour – always lit a candle there.” Grossen says she had envisaged the people of Mitholz gathering there again on the 75th anniversary. “Then it could have been laid to rest as history,” she says. “But then came June 18, 2018.”

On that day, it became public knowledge that the former munitions depot is still a threat today. “Up to 3,500 gross tonnes of ammunition containing several hundred tonnes of explosives remain in the collapsed parts of the depot and in the large pile of rubble in front of it,” according to the Swiss defence ministry. So the explosive matter still at the site is roughly equal to the amount that caused what, in 1947, was the biggest non-nuclear explosion ever.

Grossen says inhabitants have always been aware of the risk that a few unexploded bombs might still lurk in the ground. “We had no idea of the dimensions,” she says. “Little by little it has become clear that everything in the mountain is highly explosive – there are even 50-kilogram aircraft bombs.” Those are not the main problem. “It’s the little grenades that can spark a chain reaction,” she says. Grossen, a gardener and Green Liberal local politician, sounds like an expert in explosive substances.

For Mitholz, the past surfaced once again – and the future posed urgent challenges. “Some say they would have preferred not to know,” Grossen says. “Some families didn’t speak about anything else for a while. Others say they will start planning as soon as the timetable is clear.”

Urs Kallen, 64, retired head of the depot

Urs Kallen was the head of the mountain depot until 2010. The interview directly in front of the cave entrance is only his second visit there since he left his post after 30 years in 2010. After explosives ripped through the facility in 1947 causing caves and tunnels to collapse, the Swiss army rebuilt it in 1953. At one time a chemical laboratory was planned, then a hospital. In 1982, work finished on the facility, which was by then intended as a military pharmacy. The construction conversion even required a section of rock to be removed by explosion. Until 2018, about 130 people at a time performed their military service there, producing simple medicines and cosmetics like sun screen, Kallen says.

Acting on the orders of his superiors, Kallen occasionally led foreign military delegations through “Chamber 8,” whose floor is studded with rusty explosives. He says it was an attraction. More than 30 years ago, Kallen requested written assurance that there was no danger to him, his colleagues or his guests. The official response was reassuring. In retrospect, that disturbs him. At the time, he was trusting. “I had it in writing, the specialists were here, I trusted them,” he recounts. “In the meantime, an old report has surfaced that proves there was reason for concern even back then.” At the time, no one ever mentioned it to him. “And that would have been the absolute minimum,” he says.

The authorities have never apologised to Kallen, whose pride in his service in the Swiss army is clear. The 1986 letter confirms that “the risk of explosion is small.” A spokesman for the defence ministry writes that the verdict at the time gave no cause for concern “that the workers there could be endangered”.

Today, the powerful door at the entrance to the tunnel is firmly closed. Behind it a guard from a private security company and an alarm system keep watch. A swissinfo request to visit the site was rejected for safety reasons.

Karl Steiner, 63, postman

“Nothing is completely certain,” says Karl Steiner, the 63-year-old president of the association founded by the people of Mitholz to protect their interests. By that Steiner, whose name in the local dialect is pronounced with a long “e” and an almost inaudible i (Steeener), means that the authorities have yet to pronounce final decisions on the evacuation. But his words seem to apply to a wide range of issues in this Alpine village. He recounts tales of avalanches and spring floods that Mitholz has survived over the decades, and tells the story of NEAT, a gigantic rail transit project whose construction required Steiner to sell a third of his land in the 1990s.

But none of this is comparable to the evacuation. Houses will stand empty, gardens that merge with the landscape will grow wild, and farmyards will be abandoned. “If you have 30 cows you can’t just start all over again,” Steiner says. It is unclear what will happen to the farmers and their animals. He  himself will have to leave behind 12 bee colonies. Steiner’s mother, who lived through the accident, has been deeply unsettled by the events of recent years. Her son just wishes she could live in peace now. In 20 years, if people can return to Mitholz, Steiner will be the age she is now. “I won’t need to come back then. I hope the children will take over the house.”

As long as the central question is unanswered, it is important that the people of Mitholz stand together, act together and ask questions together, he says. The community association seems to have succeeded in uniting the village. The whole of Mitholz is in the same situation. Not just those who occasionally sit in its last restaurant. The evacuation has brought together a village that will soon no longer exist, he says.

Werner Loat, 67, a retired digger driver

“There used to be several restaurants and two village shops. Mother, when did the last one close again?” Werner Loat turns to his wife Alice, who is sitting next to him at the table. “At least 15 years ago,” he answers himself. At the time of the explosion, there was a “Konsum” grocery store and a supermarket, he says. “My mother worked there,” he says. “After the bombs, it never reopened. If things had been different, would more people perhaps be living here today?”

Two dogs in an enclosure outside start barking, but here they disturb no one. The Loats live on the edge of the village, almost by the Blausee lake. Loat says that his house initially lay outside the evacuation zone. It was only after a second investigation that it became clear the Loats would have to leave.

Loat has lived in this house all his life. “I never wanted to leave – I’m a part of the furniture.” He did his apprenticeship in Kandersteg, a neighbouring village popular with tourists, and worked for the same firm there for 49 years. Fifty years ago his father died in a hunting accident: for his mother’s sake, he stayed in the house to help with the goats and the sheep. When he and Alice started their own family, he converted the house himself. He would prefer not to leave and wonders why the authorities don’t simply “close everything down for a week and do a controlled explosion.” According to the defence ministry, a targeted explosion may not detonate the majority of the ammunition and could disperse a large number of undetonated bombs into the valley.

Along with the controlled explosion, Loat has other original ideas. But he doesn’t question the decision: “If I have to go, then I will go. Why would I want to stay here?” He doesn’t believe he will return. He hopes his daughter will take over the house.

Heidi Schmid, 37, community manager

Heidi Schmid is at a very different stage of life, but she too takes things as they come. When you approach the Schmids’ house, the children come running towards you. They are wearing t-shirts from a South American holiday. Inside, a Scottish flag hangs over a balcony. By Mitholz standards, this all seems incredibly international. Other inhabitants have led their lives more-or-less exclusively in the valley; the Schmid children have been to Chile. Schmid says that she and her husband are passionate travellers. “But our roots are here.”

Schmid’s husband took the house over from his parents. Ten years after they converted it, the wood is still pale. The only thing not completed yet is the garden shed. “It will stay that way for now,” says Schmid. “We are living with uncertainty at the moment.”

“Everything is an upheaval for us – and we have thought about whether we want to stay in this region or go somewhere completely different,” she says. Completely different would mean either to another part of the country or to emigrate, perhaps for a year. But the Schmid family has decided against that. Now, when their children are approaching kindergarten age, is not the time for experiments like that. “What we most want is something similar to what we have here,” Schmid says.

Heidi Schmid’s husband is settled in Mitholz, both in terms of his family and his work. She has a government job in nearby Frutigen, where she grew up. The Schmids want the same as everyone here: as far as is possible, to keep what they have. But that’s not possible. Like all the inhabitants of Mitholz, the past has caught up with them and forced them to consider the medium-term future without knowing what the conditions will be.

Asked in mid-September, the defence ministry said it will discuss “concrete procedures” with the Mitholz community association “in the coming weeks,” followed by “preliminary visits to individual houses.”