On Sunday 11th November Guilford Choral Society performed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem to mark the centenary of the end of World War One. The HALO Trust was chosen as charity partner for the event.
HALO's CEO James Cowan delivered this speech in Guildford Cathedral:
This this morning I led my regiment, The Black Watch, past the Cenotaph in remembrance of fallen comrades. Fourteen years ago, in 2004, I commanded the The Black Watch, in Iraq during the battle for Fallujah. On Wednesday, I revisited Fallujah again, a place where several of my soldiers were killed. This time, I visited as chief executive of The HALO Trust, the British landmine clearance charity perhaps most famous for safely escorting Princess Diana through a minefield in Angola.
And it is in my role at HALO that I address you this evening. Guildford Choral Society has very kindly nominated HALO as recipient of tonight’s retiring collection. So on behalf of HALO, I would like to extend my thanks to Guildford Choral and their friends from The Bach Choir, the Guildford Cathedral Choristers and the Royal Philharmonic, and of course to all of you here tonight. It is particularly appropriate that The HALO Trust should have a presence on this most significant of anniversaries. HALO’s mission is to clear the explosive debris of war, and in so doing, restore countries to peace.
A century after the Great War ended, I believe HALO’s mission has particular resonance with Britten’s masterpiece. As you know, the composer was commissioned to write the piece for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. The repeated bell tolling and dissonance in the work brings to mind the ruins of the medieval cathedral destroyed during the 1941 blitz. Yet the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral was also a celebration of humanity’s determination to overcome destruction and our capacity for regeneration and reconciliation. Rebuilding is at the heart of what The HALO Trust does, as I saw first-hand in Fallujah -- where our local Iraqi staff are clearing improvised mines left behind by ISIS. Those IEDs were powerful enough to destroy a car but sensitive enough to be triggered by a child’s footstep.
"And I have seen reconciliation in our mission on the West Bank of the River Jordan, where HALO is removing landmines on the site where Jesus Christ was baptised. Churches there have been deserted since 1967 but in the very near future, will be restored to their proper use. Significantly, the work has been carried out by a team of Muslims, Jews and Christians working together in what, for that part of the world, is an uncommon harmony."
I have also witnessed hope after conflict in countries such as Angola and Cambodia, where the weapons of war still claim limbs and lives decades after they were laid. Britten uses Wilfred Owen’s poetry across his piece, and inscribed the title page with Owen’s quote: ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war.’ The HALO Trust knows that the pity of war does not end until all the landmines and all the unexploded bombs are gone. To that end, we are about to start work in Libya and Yemen.
And we have been in many desperate places before. The best-known example, because it was the most photographed minefield in the world, was near the centre of Huambo in Angola. It was there that Diana, Princess of Wales, was photographed in a HALO flak jacket. Today it is a thriving thoroughfare with homes, shops and a local college. Few of the people there remember it as a minefield - because once landmines are removed, they don’t return. Instead, life and peace can return. Thank you.
On Armistice Day, we honour the sacrifice of British and Commonwealth soldiers in the wars of the 20th Century. But it is also important to recall those affected by the wars of the 21st Century. Thank you.