Even for the toughest and bravest of Malawians, it was an outstanding day of grief and tears.
The sight of six coffins, each draped in a United Nations flag, at the Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) Cargo Square in Lilongwe triggered unforgettable grief, heightened by the wailing of widows and their children. Parents, relations and sympathisers all looked heart-broken.
But the tragedy went far beyond the family affair.
Malawi was proud of the brave and well-trained young soldiers whose remains were in the coffins. They had passed the rigid military fitness test to join the harsh theatre of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In the DRC, they had been part of an 850-member Malawi Defence Force (MDF) contingent serving as a United Nations (UN) peace-keeping mission, under the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).
The force, including Tanzanian and South African contingents, is charged with neutralising armed groups in the DRC’s North Kivu through joint combat missions from time to time.
But there was a tragic operation in the DRC, as evidenced by the airport ceremony. In the name of accountability, MDF made a rare move to share some of the war zone details on how the six soldiers had died.
In a short account, Major Masozi Gift Kayira, second-in-command of the Malawi Battalion (Malbatt) in the DRC, explained that on November 13 2018, the FIB had an operation into positions of known rebels, mainly Alliance Democratic Forces (ADF), which terrorises civilians and fights government forces.
He narrated: “It all started in the morning when we were advancing using three [routes]. The first axis was for us, Malawians; the second axis was for our Tanzanian colleagues and the third axis was for our colleagues from South Africa.
“We set off at around 5am and we advanced to a place known as Kididiwe. Kididiwe, for your information, is an old operation base for the Fardc, a contingent of DRC government soldiers.
“After advancing up to Kididiwe, our troops rested. Then, on the following day, which was [on] Wednesday, they continued advancing towards the main objective of the ADF.
“As they were advancing, even before reaching the end of the objective, they were in contact [with the enemy]. They exchanged fire then, later on, they started breaking contact up to Kididiwe.
“We broke contact up to Kididiwe because there were already trenches which had been dug by our colleagues of the Fardc. So, we felt we would best defend ourselves from the ready trenches.
“So, we withdrew and broke contact up to Kididiwe.
“Meanwhile, our enemies continued pursuing us up to Kididiwe. That’s where there was a heavy exchange of fire and that’s where, unfortunately, we lost these brave Malawian soldiers.
“From there, we consolidated ourselves and we ex-filtrated back to Kasinga, which is our tactical operating base. In short, that’s what happened.”
This captivating account was followed by a sermon by Major (Reverend) Andrew Kamponda, who preached on the Bible text of Mark 4: 37 to 41, narrating how Jesus Christ’s disciples cried out and awakened him in their boat so that he could save them when their vessel experienced a life-threatening storm on the sea.
Kamponda said the DRC tragedy and the 2017 fatal MDF road accident at Mapanjila, in Mzimba District that had claimed the lives of 21 mainly newly-trained soldiers, can be deemed as an unprecedented ‘storm’ that is buttressing the MDF. But he called on the troops to soldier on and call on God to guide them safely through their belief in the Saviour Jesus.
Perhaps at the mention of the high death toll reminder, but certainly in a moment of deep humanity and love for juniors, it seemed even Army Commander General Griffin Spoon Phiri could not hold back his tears. He wiped his face with his handkerchief, in a moment captured by sharp-eyed Malawi News Agency (Mana) senior photographer Govati Nyirenda.
In his speech soon after, Spoon Phiri hailed the fallen soldiers for their commitment to peace in the DRC and the entire world.
He said: “The heroes we are welcoming today and seeing off to their final resting places were young and full of life. They had so much to offer to their families they dearly loved and yet they willingly deployed to the DRC to fight for what they felt was right and noble.
“They did so fully aware that they might pay the supreme sacrifice [death in combat]. We, their comrades in arms and the entire nation and beyond, praise them for their heroism.”
The commander urged the troops in the DRC to soldier on.
“Continue putting up the good fight for the greater good of humanity, global peace and security. This will be the only, and best, consolation to our fallen heroes we are mourning today,” he declared.
In his eulogy, President Peter Mutharika , who led the nation in receiving the soldiers’ bodies and who is Commander-in-Chief of the MDF, said Malawi experienced great pain through its soldiers’ deaths.
“This is a painful day for us as a nation. Today, we lost heroes of peace for Africa. This is a painful loss for us as a country.
“It is more painful to die for peace than to die for war. They died for peace! May their souls rest in everlasting peace!” he declared.
Mutharika hailed the MDF for being an exemplary peace-keeping force wherever it is deployed.
“From every part of the world, I receive reports of commendation that our Defence Force is known for discipline, loyalty and effectiveness.
“In life and death, you have raised high the flag of our country with patriotism, integrity and hard work. That is what we are! Neither death nor the enemy will stop us from being what we are!”
In her speech, UN resident coordinator Maria Jose Torres Macho saluted the fallen soldiers for their ultimate sacrifice and hailed the country’s courage and resolve to continue fighting for global peace.
Weeks later, the UN under-secretary-general for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix led a delegation that delivered a condolence message to Malawi through President Mutharika at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe.
He hailed the Malawi Government for remaining committed to the UN peace mission despite the tragic loss of its soldiers, and declared that the UN will keep searching for two Malawian soldiers who had gone missing after the fierce combat in the DRC.
Four Malawian soldiers had initially gone missing but two of them rejoined their colleagues several days later.
Lacroix, who gave Mutharika a personal condolence letter from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, warned that the world body would restlessly hunt down those who killed the Malawian soldiers, saying they had committed a grave crime.
The President thanked the UN delegation for the condolence message from the UN family and for showing solidarity with Malawi.
Among the many condolence messages from around the world was a heart-warming salute from a Tanzanian soldier who was recuperating from a hospital after experiencing the fierce DRC battle.
The Tanzanian soldier said he owes his life to one of the six Malawian fallen soldiers—Private Chauncy Chitete—who sacrificed his life by making a daring rescue mission for him after enemies had trapped him. The Tanzanian said Chitete’s move made him escape with his life from his vulnerable position.
The other five soldiers who died in the DRC are Lieutenant Aubrey Kachemwe, Sergeant Steven Kambalame, Corporal Jonathan Kapichira, Private Benjamin Nsongela and Private Simplex Taferakaso.