From front lines to commerce

KINMEN, Taiwan — It was once one of Asia's most heavily mined islands.

At the peak of military tensions, windswept, 60-square-mile Kinmen — just a few miles off the Chinese mainland — bristled with more than 73,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

They formed a deadly ring around this island; a steel shield buried beneath the sands.

This was a Cold War-era front line, the place where the Nationalists held the line against communist advance.

Now, as in Cambodia, Vietnam and other former Asian war zones, the mines are being dug up, defused and detonated — one at a time, through painstaking and hazardous labor.

It's one marker of how far cross-strait relations have come since the Nationalists split with the Communist "bandits" and made a stand here in 1949.

Now, passenger ferries ply the waters between Kinmen and Chinese cities just out of visibility; there's even talk of building a bridge. The island's steady de-militarization has seen Taiwanese troop levels drop to some 5,000 here, from a Cold War peak of 100,000.

And since the China-friendly president Ma Ying-jeou took power in Taiwan a year ago, the decade-long trend of closer cross-strait ties has accelerated, with a hail of new transport, trade and investment deals.

All of which has turned Kinmen from a forbidding fortress into a convenient commercial mid-point between China and Taiwan's main island.

Kinmen's mine clean-up began in 2007. The island hopes to be mine-free by 2013. Military officials overseeing the project say the work is now more than 30 percent done.

The Taiwan military flew a group of journalists to the island in a pair of U.S.-made C-130 Hercules transport planes to see the de-mining progress.

One thing they're especially proud of is the safety record.

"Our work is extremely dangerous, but we've done a lot of safety preparation since 2007," Lu Sheau-jung, commanding general of the Kinmen Defense Command, told reporters. "So far we've had no accidents and no casualties."

They were serious about journalists' safety too: we had to list our blood type in case of emergency, an ambulance stood (somewhat disconcertingly) at the ready and we all had to strap on armored vests and helmets.

We took cover in a bunker while they detonated three mines, watching on video monitors instead. (This caused grumbling among the photographers, but the military insisted we couldn't stay outside for the bang-bang.)

 Eighty Taiwan military de-miners do the dirty work, with training from Cambodia Mine Action Center staff. They're assisted by another 41 contractors from Explomo, the aptly named Singaporean outfit.

The military took us on a crisply executed demonstration of the various equipment in use, and took questions. In typical Taiwan military style, they deflected questions about cross-strait relations. Apparently they're more afraid of stepping into a political minefield than a real one.

General Lu was happy to answer more mundane queries. They don't use dogs for mine detection in Kinmen, as in similar demining efforts in Africa or other parts of Asia, he said, because such methods aren't up to snuff. "We use only the highest standard of mine detection — humans with machines," he said.

And where deadly mines once lay buried, locals are now growing pine trees on plantations, among other uses, Lu said.

It's a remarkable shift. This island's barren beaches were once the scene of bloody, hand-to-hand fighting — notably, in the Communists' failed 1949 invasion at Guningtou, on the island's north coast.

Nighttime commando raids by both sides were common, and Taiwanese soldiers lived under a constant barrage of deadly artillery.

John F. Kennedy mentioned Kinmen in his famous 1960 televised debate with Nixon, pledging to help defend "Quemoy" (a previous name for the island) as a way of shoring up his anti-communist credentials.

From 1958 on, China agreed to only shell Kinmen on odd-numbered days, in a unique rules-of-engagement deal that helped minimize bloodshed while keeping the military pressure on. Still, from the 1950s to 1978, more than a million shells landed here.

So in addition to the mines, a sinister catalogue of hand grenades, mortar projectiles, armor-piercing shells and rocket ammo are still strewn across Kimnen.

One enterprising local has made brilliant commercial use of all that ordnance. At the end of our trip, we stopped off at Maestro Wu's Steel Knife Factory, a Kinmen fixture.

There, third generation knife-maker Wu Tseng-dong fashions blades from the steel of spent bombshells. Under his hammer and hand, artillery shells are reborn as pocket knives, fruit knives, cleavers and choppers.

Customers can even pick out their own bombshell, to ensure their knife is genuine.

Call it Taiwan's business-savvy version of "turning swords into ploughshares" — making a tidy profit from the bombs of your enemy.

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