Street Spirit

October 12, 2012

Phnom Penh is a charming city in many ways: although it was founded in 1372, it didn’t become the capital of Cambodia until 1866, when the French colonisers tried to impose some order on it. This included a grid system of roads, which are numbered. This is handy for finding your way around, although once you find your destination street, there is absolutely no rhyme or reason as to the house numbers. Rather charmingly. If there were a postal service here, which there isn’t, the postmen would have an extremely hard time.

The bigger boulevards aren’t numbered, but are mostly named after Cambodian kings with rather sonorous names: Monivong, Sisowath, Norodom, Monireth. But some of them indicate a sense of the country’s turbulent recent political history. There is a Russian Confederation Boulevard, a Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, and even a Josep Broz Tito Street (Pol Pot spent an enjoyable summer in Yugoslavia in 1950 building roads).

But in the centre of town, there is one street that intrigued me enough to find out about it: Christopher Howse Street. It seemed somehow unlikely that Phnom Penh would have named a street after the Daily Telegraph’s resident grammar Nazi and nutjob Christian proselytiser of that name. And I was right, it hadn’t. It was a very different Christopher Howse.

This Christopher Howes was a British de-mining expert who was 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 unit were abducted at gunpoint by a band of Khmer Rouge in March 1996.

Ordered by his captors to return to his base to collect ransom money, Howse flatly refused, so he could remain with his team and negotiate their safety. Instead the Khmer Rouge, under the command of Ta Mok, a famously psychotic one-legged guerrilla, released Howse’s team in a fit of pique, but kept the former Royal Engineer hostage for several days, before murdering him and his translator. However, his fate remained a mystery for more than two years, until Scotland Yard detectives recovered ashes from the site where Howse’s body had been burned.

Rae McGrath, the founder of the Mines Action Group, said at his memorial service: “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 de-miner 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.”

I now like to go down Christopher Howse Street as often as I can. There are some things that are important to remember.

(In October 2008 three former Khmer Rouge fighters were jailed for 20 years for the murder of Howes.)

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