Saturday, July 22, 2006

Remembering Christopher Howes

It's ten years since British de-miner Christopher Howes and his interpreter Houn Hourth were captured and executed by Khmer Rouge forces under the command of Ta Mok, the ruthless one-legged guerrilla commander who died yesterday.

Christopher was a landmine specialist working for the Mines Advisory Group a few miles north of Siem Reap in the village of Preah Ko when he and his twenty-strong de-mining unit were abducted at gunpoint by Khmer Rouge cadre in March 1996. Told to return to his base for ransom money, Christopher selflessly refused so he could remain with his team and negotiate their safety. Instead the guerrillas released his team but kept the Bristol-born former Royal Engineer hostage for a few more days before he was executed. However, his fate remained a mystery for more than two years until evidence emerged in May 1998 that he was taken to Anlong Veng and shot twice on the orders of Ta Mok by men under his command.

Throughout those two years, numerous stories emerged to suggest Christopher was still alive. These included declarations from First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh that he'd escaped and was on his way to freedom, and others that photos proved he was alive and well or that the soldier-turned-deminer was being forced to teach the guerrillas how to make their own mines. He was reported to be suffering from malaria and chronic diarrhea and in November 1996 his employers, MAG, reportedly paid $120,000 to a man who claimed he could gain his release but then vanished with most of the money. Each story turned out to be a cruel fabrication until May 1998, when Scotland Yard detectives recovered ashes from the site where Christopher's body had been cremated. His was not the only death around that time - between the period 1994 to 1998 the Khmer Rouge abducted and killed at least ten foreign tourists.

Christopher had served with the Royal Engineers for seven years prior to his three year association with MAG, initially in northern Iraq and then in Cambodia for just five months before his abduction. An acknowledgement of his humanitarian work and bravery in negotiating the release of his men was honoured with the naming of a Phnom Penh street after him and the posthumous award of the Queen's Gallantry Medal in 2001. A memorial service was held in his home village of Backwell near Bristol in July 1998, once his parents had received confirmation of Christopher's death from Scotland Yard and Foreign Office officials. At the service, Rae McGrath, founder of MAG, said: "Having known Chris as a friend and as a colleague I cannot find it within me to mourn. I will celebrate a heroic friend, a deminer who put into practice his engineering skills to make this world a better place and who, at the cost of his life, showed his love to and loyalty for his fellow men." Click here to read a collection of news reports following the abduction.

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