BACKWELL, West England - In a bungalow in this rural village, Betty Howes pours tea
in floral china cups, produces a neatly-arranged plate of chocolate biscuits and
delivers a plea - across the world to Cambodia - for an end to the emotional torment
she and her husband are enduring.
"We are going through agony. I feel as if I have been on a treadmill for two
years, day after day, week after week, month after month."
For two years Roy and Betty Howes have inhabited the shadows of life, their world
stripped of everyday meaning by the kidnapping of their only son Christopher a world
away in Cambodia.
"We try to get on with our everyday life but, time and time, waves of darkness
engulf us in misery and despair," says a composed and dignified Mrs Howes, aged
71. "It tends to make everything else in our life seem unimportant. It's like
being in limbo. It's taking its toll. We want a conclusion to this before we are
too old to deal with it.
"We must know what has happened to Christopher. We cannot go on in a state of
semi-mourning. Please, please, help us to find the truth.
"We seek no revenge or punishment for his kidnappers. We just want the truth.
If he is still alive and being held prisoner, I feel that the time has come for him
to be released. I am sure that if his captors had a son or daughter who was missing
they would be anxious to find out what had happened to them.
"If he is dead, we merely ask that we may be allowed to know his fate and that
his remains should be returned to us so that we can give him a dignified burial in
the land of his birth."
From their home near Bristol in western England, Christopher Howes' parents have
campaigned, and waited, stoically, for concrete news of his fate. None has come.
Reluctantly, they now accept that he may have been murdered, but they refuse to give
up hope that he might still be alive. All they want is the answer.
"We are living a life of continuous torture. We are going through a terrible
period of anxiety," says Roy Howes, aged 70.
However, he adds: "We try to think there has got to be some light somewhere.
We have been given the blessing of hope and it's a very strong thing. It's when that
hope disappears that you can become totally depressed.
"I hope we will hear what we most want to hear but I also realize that prayers
are not always answered in the way that we best wish."
Mr Howes, a retired businessman and, like Christopher, a former soldier, speaks of
the courage and dedication of his son. When abducted with his Mines Advisory Group
(MAG) team of deminers in Siem Reap on March 26, 1996, Christopher refused an offer
of freedom, saying he would only go if his 29-member team was also released.
"I'm enormously proud of my son," says Mr Howes, leaning back in his armchair,
seeming almost in a trance, as he chooses his words carefully. "He is an extraordinarily
brave man. He did not leave his men. He stayed with them fully knowing the dangers.
"Christopher was a committed man. He was very well aware of the value of his
work. He was just trying to help, to save people from dreadful injury and death.
I just hope that the people who took him and his interpreter have treated him well
and that we shall one day see them released.
"This is the hope that has kept me going all this time.
"I feel sure in my own mind that if amongst his captors there are any people
with whom he could relate, then he would do so...
"I have not lost hope through all these tortuous dark times that perhaps one
day there will be some light and we will see him again. It's hard to sustain that
hope over such a long period but I feel absolutely sure that Christopher would expect
us to. To do anything less would be betrayal."
Christopher Howes was not unfamiliar with danger. He joined the Royal Engineers in
1976, a few days after his 17th birthday, and served as a sapper with the regiment
for seven and a half years in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Belize, Germany and
After leaving the army, he was employed by the Royal Ordnance in the clear-up of
the oil fields in the Gulf which Saddam Hussein's troops had destroyed as they retreated.
He worked in Kurdistan before being sent by MAG to Cambodia to help train 350 local
people in de-mining. He was kidnapped within two weeks of returning, from leave,
to Siem Reap.
Since the day their son was kidnapped, his parents have endured rumor and counter-rumor
about his fate. Their hopes peaked in November 1996 when there were reports that
Christopher was with Khmer Rouge defectors on the run and within days of emerging
from the jungle. He never appeared.
Since then, King Sihanouk, top Funcinpec general Nhek Bun Chhay and other senior
Cambodian officials have said they believe Christopher is probably dead.
In January this year, Scotland Yard investigators told the Howes they believed that
Christopher, aged 36 when abducted, was dead.
But the Howes were angered in February when they discovered that a Foreign Office
confidential report on their son had been kept from them.
Despite its overall conclusion that Christopher was most likely killed within months
if not weeks of his abduction, the report also contained a detailed account suggesting
he was still alive up until June 1997.
The Foreign Office has insisted it will not give up efforts to discover what happened
to Christopher. But his parents were angered when Scotland Yard investigators were
withdrawn from Cambodia; they now return only if they have definite leads to follow.
Lou McGrath, director of MAG, says: "Christopher could easily be forgotten.
We try to keep the pressure on the Foreign Office. We recognize that many people
in the authorities and within Cambodia believe that Christopher is dead. Until the
time that that can be proved, we have to believe that Christopher is alive. If we
don't, who else will?"
The Howes' plight has captured the hearts of people across Britain. People send cards
to them. Every day the local newspaper, the Western Daily Press, prints a picture
of Christopher with the words 'Christopher Howes is a hostage of the Khmer Rouge
in Cambodia. He will not be forgotten.'
On the first anniversary of his abduction last year, a candlelit vigil was held across
the west of England for him. This year, on March 25, hundreds of people gathered
in St Andrew's Parish Church, Backwell, to mark the second anniversary
"Our strength is from the massive support that we have had from family, friends
and absolute strangers who write to us, phone us, pray for us and Christopher - that's
what keeps us going," says Mrs Howes.
She also remarks: "What keeps us going is the thought that whatever our situation,
Christopher is in a worse one.
"However hard it is for us and our daughter, it is a lot harder for Christopher,
therefore we must do all we can to help get him released or establish his fate.
"... Until we have absolutely conclusive evidence that Christopher is dead or
alive we shall not stop hoping. We still know no more than on the first morning he
"I appeal most earnestly to anyone who has information regarding the plight
of Christopher Howes to contact the British Ambassador in Phnom Penh or an official
of his employer, the Mines Advisory Group.
"Please let us have our son back."