Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 13:59 UK

Shot charity worker was 'exceptional'

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Christopher Howes with some children in Iraq
Christopher Howes cleared mines in Iraq before heading to Cambodia

The jailing of four men in Cambodia for killing British charity worker Christopher Howes ends his family's 12-year quest for justice.

A plaque in a Phnom Penh street is the only physical reminder of the senseless killing of a Briton who wanted only to make Cambodia a safer place.

Christopher Howes had been clearing explosives for the charity, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), in north-west Cambodia when he and his interpreter Houn Hourth were kidnapped and killed in 1996.

The 37-year-old charity worker, from Backwell, in Somerset, was shot in the back by members of the notorious Khmer Rouge and his body burned immediately denying him a decent burial.

So it was with pride and comfort that his parents, Roy and Betty, were told a boulevard would be renamed Christopher Howes Street in their son's memory.

When we finally heard that Chris and Houn had been killed soon after their capture, it still came as a terrible shock
Christopher Howe's sister Patricia Phillips

His family had suffered two hellish years of uncertainty after his disappearance, before the Foreign Office finally confirmed his death. His heartbroken mother died in May 2007.

His sister Patricia Phillips told the BBC News website: "Chris was an exceptional, brave man, a good son and brother, and a tragic loss to us, and to the humanitarian cause to which he was devoted."

She recalled how the family had initially been relieved when he had gone to work in Cambodia, after a stint in Iraq clearing mines.

"We thought he was safe, but that turned out to be wrong," she said.

She said that in Cambodia her brother had been able to move around freely and would call his family from restaurants.

Even after hearing of his kidnap, the family had been offered false hopes numerous times.

"There was a lot of false information about Christopher being alive and brought out of the jungle," said Mrs Phillips, of West Yorkshire.

"When we finally heard that Chris and Houn had been killed soon after their capture, it came as a terrible shock," she said.

But speaking after the verdict, she said it was an "enormous relief" to the family.

"Although we have never sought revenge, we are very pleased the murderers have been brought to account," she said.

'Agony and anguish'

At this month's trial, Chistopher's father made the same simple plea: "We seek not revenge, but justice in their names."

His statement told how his son's kidnap on 26 March 1996 had devastated the family.

Plaque at Christopher Howes Street
A boulevard in Phnom Penh provides a memorial to Christopher's work
"We spent more than two years of agony and anguish not knowing whether Christopher was alive or dead," he said.

When told of his murder, their "terrible anger" at his killers was tempered by relief at finally knowing he was in peace.

Christopher's actions before his death were also a source of pride.

Thirty armed Khmer Rouge guerrillas had emerged from the forest to surround his 28-strong team.

When told to retrieve the ransom his kidnappers demanded, Christopher refused to leave his team and instead negotiated their release. Only he and his interpreter died.

In 2001, this bravery was recognised through a posthumous Queen's Gallantry Medal.

Army career

Christopher's journey to south east Asia had begun in his childhood home in north Somerset.

A keen Scout, his love of outdoor pursuits - he was a horseman and enjoyed orienteering - inspired him to join the army aged 17.

He served two tours of the Falklands with the Royal Engineers during the early 1980s, where Carol Stewart-Reid has fond memories of the handsome young sapper with the keen sense of humour.

"He was very much the gentleman and my parents were quite taken with him," she said.

"He earned the nickname 'tapeworm' because of the amount he ate. He was particularly fond of cake and when he got home he posted some to our house with a note saying it was 'a little repayment'."

In seven years with 33 Regiment, Christopher served in Northern Ireland, Belize and Germany and became an expert at bomb disposal.

Humanitarian mission

After leaving the army, Christopher was inspired to use his talents to protect civilians during a spell in Kuwait where he cleared the desert to allow others to tackle the oilfield blazes after the first Gulf War.

In 1993, he snubbed the more lucrative commercial sector to join the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), as founder Lou McGrath recalls.

Map of Cambodia

Radical communist Pol Pot seized power between 1975 and 1979

His Khmer Rouge abolished religion, schools and currency in a bid to create agrarian utopia

After losing power, the Khmer Rouge went into hiding and many now face genocide tribunals

Between four and six million mines planted over 30 years of conflict

Up to 40,000 people thought to have lost limbs as a result

"Chris preferred to focus on the humanitarian side and found it much more rewarding," said Mr McGrath.

While clearing unexploded ordinance strewn around the mountainous Northern Iraq during the war with Iran, he won over the Kurdish locals by helping in community projects such as digging wells.

"It's not enough to defuse bombs, you have to connect with people and Chris's sense of humour helped him do that," said Mr McGrath.

Two years later, Christopher joined MAG's efforts in Cambodia - a country reeling from both the death of 1.7 million people under the Khmer Rouge and 30 years of conflict.

"No family was untouched by the genocide and Chris was very committed to helping them," said Mr McGrath.

But it was here in Cambodia that Christopher and his interpreter were to meet their deaths.

While the verdicts may finally bring the family some closure, their pain at losing Christopher may be shared in Cambodia for some time yet.

Four jailed for Cambodia murders
14 Oct 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Tackling Cambodia's landmine legacy
11 Jun 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Ex-Khmer Rouge minister in court
21 May 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime
19 Sep 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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