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Speaker Richard Msowoya’s experience in a warzone

…Continued from Thursday

Part D: enter “sulinas”

Armed with just a sleeping bag and a UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency survival kit, in a team of four plus one comprising: one radio operator, one protection officer, two social officers and myself as head of the unit, we went into Zenica where UNHCR had already opened an office headed by Mr Anders, the man I was to take over from.

After two months, we learnt that in addition to Zenica and Sarajevo, Tuzla was overwhelmed by displaced persons. A new office needed to be set up.

Myself and a radio operator were asked if we could go and open the office. I accepted the challenge and went over to Tuzla, accommodated in Tuzla Hotel. Zenica had no diesel, no public transport and most bridges and roads had been bombed and destroyed.

Travel was only possible via heavy military convoy, tanks and heavy armoured vehicles in a rough terrain where military engineers were making makeshift roads. A trip of 120 km would take the whole day because when we encountered the fighting, with shelling and bombing, we had to lie low.

This was definitely not a mission for the faint-hearted!

We converted one hotel room into an office while looking for accommodation with the guidance of United Nations Military Observers.

Our initial task was to conduct a needs assessment of the whole area. In terms of size, the area was equal to the whole of the Northern Region of Malawi. I cannot remember the population of Tuzla but I was the only black man.

So when I came out of the hotel, all I could hear were children shouting “sulinas” at me, meaning “black man” in their language, and I remember the children coming to hold my hand and trying to scrape the ‘black’ paint off.

They could not believe that dark as I was, that was my natural skin colour. Eventually, the operation grew and soldiers came from elsewhere including some black officers so there were more of us.

Part E: Under attack

Three weeks after our arrival, we were targeted by one of the warring factions. Reason: we were guilty of providing relief items to people who they wanted to starve to death.

I remember that day vividly. We were on the fourth floor when the shell hit a fifth floor room, killing all the people in that room. Then the alarms and sirens rang out, and our short but effective training in Geneva plus the human survival instinct took over.

Sprinting, ducking, crouching and zigzagging, we found our way to the basement and took shelter. For the next 18 months in Bosnia, this (shells, bombing, gunshots, sirens, hiding and expecting each breath of life to be the last) became our way of life.

Part F: a ‘Scotsman’ is in town

After the needs assessment, the next tasks were to find places to open warehouses for relief items,

and identify and secure routes through which to bring in the relief items.

One possible route was from Split via Zenica and into Tuzla which was far and passed through dangerous patches. The other option ran from Belgrade into Tusla.

My interpreter, Sabina, my driver and Agim Binar my personal assistant made appointments with various authorities because I needed to make sure relief items arrived in Tuzla in a timely manner.

It was winter. Women and children were suffering the most, so my first appointment was with the mayor to inform and assure him help was on the way. When he heard that a Mr Richard Msowoya from UNHCR would meet with him, he visualised an elderly white person, possibly a Scot.

He let his secretary know that a white man would come and she should treat him well as this man’s work would mean life or death for the people under his care. When we arrived at his office, my interpreter Sabina told the secretary that we had an appointment with the mayor.

The secretary told us to come at another time because the mayor had an appointment with a very important man who was coming and had asked that nobody should disturb him.

Sabina enquired and was told there were UNHCR people coming to help them with the problem they had. Asked about the name, she could not pronounce it.

Sabina surprised her by saying I was the man from UNHCR. She did not believe her and continued asking us to leave. Then Binar knew someone working in the mayor’s office and called that person and explained the situation.

His response was the same ‘So where is the official?’ and the two pointed at this young looking handsome black man!

The man shook his head and walked away. He was called back and Binar took my ID and showed it to him. The mayor was called and came out and asked who among us was from UNHCR? His disappointment could have frozen a pail of water. He had been expecting someone older and white!

Going into the meeting, morale had visibly gone down.

One thing I remember promising them was that no matter what happens, none of the people in the makeshift camps would die. I assured the mayor that we would bring relief items into the area as soon as I concluded negotiations with the various warlords of fighting factions.

Part G: the ‘black boy’ saves the day

After the meeting, I telephoned the head of operations in Zagreb and called for a meeting of the generals of the various military battalions coming to help (British, Dutch, French and Nordic) to tell them two things: to start inspecting the routes for any landmines or anything hazardous for the trucks; to begin building camps for the displaced persons.

What I thought would be the easiest route turned out to be the worst because of the war going on between Split and Zenica at Mostar. We then went back to the mayor to inform him the route from Croatia would not work and we would negotiate with the Russian Battalion through the office in Zagreb if they could allow the convoys to come in.

That would mean having a temporary ceasefire in the time to allow the trucks to come and return.

He immediately told me: “You don’t know what you are talking about. You obviously don’t know evi%C4%87/105892239441661” Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić whose desire is to see us all dead.”

While Radovan Karadzic was later found guilty of 10 out of 11 counts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities in the Bosnian war of the 1990s, including leading the slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the 1992-95 Bosnian war at a UN tribunal in The Hague; Slobodan Milosevic died in the course of the trial.

I asked for time. I had to meet them three times before they agreed to allow Russian trucks and drivers and no-one else. The problem then was that the Bosnians did not trust the Russians because of Russia’s association with Serbia.

Eventually, they were allowed in but were given limited time in the country. The first convoy came from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia where a Russian Battalion was based. When the trucks came into Bosnia and passed through Tusla town into our warehouse in Lukavac, all one could hear was the ululation from the residents.

The unbelievable had happened. Generals had allowed relief trucks to pass through and bring food for the Bosnians! To think that leading the effort was this young ‘boy’ who had almost been barred from meeting the mayor, the black man who had been deemed too young for the problem, was difficult to fathom!

It was celebration time for all and it marked the beginning of another phase.

Part H: crowned a hero

I had, overnight, become the hero of the town. Because of the way I looked, no-one believed that I was older than 21 years. I was regularly invited by the local FM station in Tuzla called Chameleon to talk about my life, answer questions and reassure the citizens.

The majority of callers were young people with questions like: Why are you lying to us that you are 29 when you are just young like us? Are you working for CIA? Are you a basketball player? Are you married? Do you have children?

I was practically a rock star!

Strange how God works. Remember, a few months back, I was teetering towards bankruptcy and here I was in a strange land, the toast of the town!

To God be the glory!


My fellow Malawians, I am proud to report that by the end of my term, Tuzla had grown to become the hub of operations in Central Bosnia thanks to the effort and leadership of the “boy” from Malawi.

Desperate situations, as you know, call for desperate measures. Srebrenicia had suffered the massacre of all men as part of the ethnic cleansing.

Under siege by the Serbian army, trapped therein were women and children suffering from a vicious cold and frost bite. We had buses but no bus drivers. I therefore assigned all international staff who had a driving licence even if they had never driven a big car.

The town – by the end of our excursion – lost so many electric poles, culverts etc. because the majority of us had never driven anything that big!


Talking to the various warring factions, I saw bitterness and hatred on account of language and religion. I often asked myself: what causes this anger and hatred? If I pray for anything the most, it is that God help humankind with the senseless hatred that arises due to differences in religion, tribe, race, language, etc.

The Bosnia experience emboldened me to fight any incidence of the “isms” that can lead to hatred, be they nepotism, tribalism, regionalism, cronyism, inter and intra-party rivalries or any sort of factionism.

My initial rejection (due to race and age) which later turned into respect taught me to give people a chance to know me and what I am capable of no matter how strongly nor on what pretext they reject me at first.

Tell you what? Do the scriptures not teach us of the stone that builders rejected?

Matthew 21:42 says Jesus said to them: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord, and it is marvellous in our eyes’?”

I thank God for giving me the courage to accept that mission which is the best PhD any 21-year-old (my age then), could ever secure to gain negotiation skills in a situation where failure could lead to the deaths or suffering of millions.

More importantly, I learned to trust in the inherent goodness of humanity. Even the most hardened warlords have a soft spot. One just has to be brave enough to face them, probe and find that soft spot, to save lives.

What can I share with you?

Should you ever find yourself working in similar situations or in leadership positions for that matter, the one thing you should learn to control are your emotions and the emotions of those around you.

The moment you allow emotions to take charge, you become part of the problem. Therefore, you lose the chance to be part of the solution.

Accountability-wise, there were no banking services in Bosnia. This meant that I had to be extra-diligent in the use of the resources and demand honesty from all my team and partners.

I therefore feel ashamed – as a Malawian – to see us wearing the global label of people who cannot be trusted with donor money, taxpayers’ money etc because we take public offices as avenues for self-enrichment.

It has been said before and I will say it again: you cannot task a wolf to watch over your goats and expect the goats to thrive.

My fellow Malawians, let us begin loving our peaceful motherland enough to choose the right and honest leaders for it.

Thank you.

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