Malawi Defence Force (MDF) commander General Griffin Spoon Phiri seemed to shed some tears, which he quickly wiped away with his handkerchief.
Not many noticed this moment of deep humanity. But eagle-eyed Malawi News Agency photographer Govati Nyirenda captured the moment with his zoom camera.
This was a poignant part of the rare grief Malawians showed in Lilongwe yesterday when they received bodies of six gallant MDF soldiers who died during a fierce combat operation against rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on Wednesday last week.
MDF Commander-in-Chief President Peter Mutharika led the nation in receiving the fallen heroes at the packed Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) Cargo Centre.
Lieutenant Aubrey Kachemwe, Sergeant Steven Kambalame, Corporal Jonathan Kapichira, Private Chauncy Chitete, Private Benjamin Nsongela and Private Simplex Taferakaso were part of an 850-strong MDF contingent serving as a United Nations (UN) peace-keeping mission under the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB)
Under the FIB, the Malawi troops are operating alongside other peacekeepers from Tanzania and South Africa. They are charged with the mission of neutralising armed groups in DRC’s north Kivu through joint combat missions from time to time.
Another tear-jerking moment at the Cargo Centre came soon after the coffins, each covered by a UN flag and accompanied by a portrait of the fallen soldier, flew in at 11:54am –after being kept for some days in Uganda for UN repatriation procedures.
Among the many people and organisations who sent condolences to the MDF over the passing of the six soldiers, one Tanzanian soldier who was injured during the combat and is recuperating in hospital particularly saluted Chitete for returning to harm’s way, and dying, during a daring rescue operation that enabled him to be alive today.
Spoon Phiri’s emotional moment came during a rousing sermon–based on the Bible text of Mark 4, in verses 37 to 41–preached by Major (Reverend) Andrew Kamponda.
He said the MDF, having also lost 24 newly-trained soldiers in an accident last November in Mzimba, is entitled to be alarmed at what is happening.
But Kamponda stressed that in the face of such crises, the MDF soldiers and the Malawi nation must turn to God, through Jesus Christ, as the biblical text shows the disciples doing, by awakening Jesus for divine assistance, when their boat was caught up in a life-threatening storm.
Spoon Phiri later hailed the fallen soldiers for their commitment to peace in the DRC and the entire world.
He said: “These 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.
In his eulogy, Mutharika said Malawi has 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 commended the MDF for being an exemplary peace-keeping force wherever it is deployed.
In her speech, UN Resident Coordinator in Malawi, Maria Jose Torres Macho saluted the fallen soldiers’ ultimate sacrifice and hailed the country’s courage and resolve to continue fighting for global peace.
She said the entire UN family in Malawi and abroad consoled the bereaved family members who deserve support in their loss.