John: Most of us have seen news coverage of appalling scenes on the television from areas that are suffering from conflict. Very few of us however will have had first-hand experience in these areas. My Guest Richard John has and gives us an insight into what it is like crossing front lines daily and coming under artillery and machine gun fire on a regular basis whilst providing Humanitarian support. So Richard, how did all this start?
Richard: When I left School I went to Sandhurst and I served nine years with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, including two tours with the UN in Bosnia in 1993/94.
John: Many will remember the period from 1992-1995 as the longest humanitarian airlift for supplying the besieged city of Sarajevo. Is that where you were based?
Richard: Yes. I was responsible for overseeing almost 13.000 operations in more than three years which considerably surpasses the airlift of the Allies for transport of supplies to West Berlin. I had to virtually negotiate my way across war torn Bosnia to rescue the abandoned hospitals for handicapped children, in Drin & Backovici, west of Sarajevo – at the height of the Yugoslav conflict in June 1993. But equally as important was the fact I was also responsible for the lives of dozens of aid workers and journalists, as well as racing against the clock to save 247 children who had received no food or water for three days.
John: I understand during this time you were promoted to Major and became the youngest Major ever in the British Army?
Richard: Yes at that time but after my tour of duty ended I actually left the Army but found myself back in Yugoslavia working with the UN High Commission for Refugees in Sarajevo managing again the sharp end of the Sarajevo airlift. That involved leading aid convoys through the front lines with urgently needed food and medical supplies. I was one of the last people to get out of Sarajevo before it finally fell. This photo shows frightened residents desperate to leave.
John: I understand after leaving Yugoslavia you continued to work in conflict areas?
Richard: Yes, I have spent the last two decades working in fragile and conflict affected states, predominantly in democracy based programming. Recent assignments have seen me contracted to roles in Afghanistan, Egypt, Guinea Bissau, Somalia and Yemen
John: You mention Somalia that must have been quite difficult?
Richard: Yes it was not easy but I was based in Hargeisa (Somaliland) working on the roll out of an iris scan voter registration project, to ensure that there are no duplicate registrants for the March 2017 Election. Rigging an election on polling day is hard. Rigging the register is the way to go.
John: Some commentators suggest the Yemen is the next catastrophe to hit with food shortages.
Richard: Yemen is already a catastrophe. The Saudi led Coalition are committing regular war crimes and the US & UK continue to supply arms and ammunition. It raises some particularly interesting legal and moral questions which go far beyond the remit I have here.
I also worked in Ethiopia where I was involved in Human Rights programming, as well as initiatives to counter violent extremism in Somaliland. This year I am involved in Conflict Prevention initiatives in the Yemen, and it is not inconceivable I shall be working in Syria for my next assignment.
John: I know working in such dangerous areas has taken its’ toll on your family but what has kept you going?
Richard: Yes unfortunately I am now separated but I have a 25 year old son. Two decades of work in conflict environments take their toll in many ways. As to what has kept me sane and going; throughout my time in these fragile and violent places, I hold dear the values and standards that I learnt at School namely; honour, integrity, team and family, and the school motto, “Pensez Fort” – Think Hard.
John: Are you going to find a more normal life difficult to endure when your time to retire hits?
Richard: Not at all. I am currently reading a part time MPhil in International Relations at the University of Cambridge but I plan to retire in 15 years, and am already planning a self reliance project, small holding 5-10 acres.
John: Richard thank you for sharing your experiences with us and I’m sure you will be an inspiration to many.
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