Roger Fowler started to question his career move when the shells started falling.
“I was transporting a tiny coffin with a baby in it, and the shelling started all around me,” said Fowler, who worked as a truck driver and conveyer for the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Croat-Bosnia War.
“I took a deep breath and asked myself, what the hell am I doing here? After that passed, I stopped, smoked a cigar in the middle of the bombardment, sat under a tree, and decided I was there for the long haul.”
Fowler had been to the former Yugoslavia many times before he began working with the Red Cross in 1994.
Although he had initially signed on for six months, witnessing the atrocities of war and their impact on civilian victims profoundly affected Fowler, who grew up in the Cotswolds in the southwest of England, where he worked as a builder.
“I‘ve always gone for travel and adventure for work, mostly driving truck,” he explained. “The Red Cross hired me because of my experience and knowledge of the country. I had been under fire in Kurdistan in the late 1970s, but that was more unexpected. Driving a truck in Yugoslavia, I had a better sense of what I was signing up for, but it was still quite an eye opener once I got involved in the work.”
Although Fowler had initially signed on for six months, he decided to stick with his humanitarian efforts for an additional 14 months. The work included everything from escorting convoys across the front lines to winding up in the middle of the largest and final battle of the Croatian War of Independence - Operation Storm.
Fowler’s efforts were acknowledged with an invitation to a gathering of humanitarians at Buckingham Palace in 1995, where he met Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” he said in a subdued, reverentially British tone. “I felt a little out of place because I was the only truck driver there surrounded by diplomats, surgeons and dignitaries.”
The decision to stay until the end of the war turned out to be the right move on a much more personal level for Fowler as well.
“I met my wife Sara in a bomb shelter in a basement,” he said. “We got married when we returned to Canada a year later. She still does volunteer work with the International Federation of Red Cross, where she serves on the governance committee, and works as the CEO of Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Victoria.”
Fowler has chronicled his experiences during his 20 months in the former Yugoslaviavia in his first book, An Accidental Humanitarian, Memoir of an Aid Worker in the Yugoslav Wars.
“In the 27 years since then, Yugoslavia has been on my mind a lot, but it’s much less since I finished writing the book,” he noted. “I think writing the book was a cathartic experience in a way I never imagined.”
The Fowlers moved to Sooke with their daughter, Sophie, in 2008. He works as a carpenter, and he wrote the book in his spare time over three years before it was published in July.
An Accidental Humanitarian is produced by FriesenPress Publishing and is available at Amazon in hardcover, paperback and e-edition. Fowler is currently completing an audiobook as well.