38. The Refugees

By Peter Fraenkel

We two overlapped briefly at Reuters – perhaps by a month or two. Manoukian was one of their senior correspondents, temporarily back in London between foreign assignments. I was a “sub” – a sub-editor – the lowest form of life in that organisation. I was pushing news items to African newspapers (when on day duty) or to Caribbean papers (when on night duty). Most of the others subs were “colonials” like me – Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans –all trying to get a first toehold in London. I was, however, the only one from Northern Rhodesia. Unlike my colleagues, I had not even worked for a newspaper but for a radio station. Most of the “subs”, as I soon discovered, were determined to move on as soon as possible. I certainly was.

Manoukian came around occasionally and I quizzed him about Caribbean matters. I was at home in Africa but totally ignorant about the Caribbean. He, however, had worked there. He briefed me with an amused cynicism about the politicians of the area. I enjoyed his wicked humour and told him so. “An Armenian,” he explained, “needs a sense of humour to survive”.

To get out of Reuters took me longer than many of the others – all of 19 months. London employers had some idea of the standards of newspapers in Australia or South Africa but nobody knew whether experience gained in broadcasting in Northern Rhodesia would be of any use.

Reuters made little attempt to retain us subs. Promotion posts, like Manoukian’s, were few. Subs were expendable. There were a dozen other “colonials” queueing at the door.

Manoukian was soon posted to Nairobi, in charge of the Reuter operation for Eastern Africa. We lost contact. However I met him again some six years later. I had, in the meantime secured a job in the BBC where I was much happier. The BBC asked whether I was willing to go out to Nyasaland (about to be renamed Malawi) to reorganise the radio station there when that country became independent. I accepted. I had a stopover at Nairobi and renewed my acquaintance with Manoukian.

Malawi turned out to be trickier than I had expected. The new Prime Minister, ‘Kamuzu’ Banda had spent all of his adult life abroad – as a doctor in Scotland. He no longer spoke Nyanja well. The independence movement had been created by a small group of talented local intellectuals. They were expecting to run the country. They would have done it well, but thought it politic to call back the country’s first qualified doctor as a figurehead.

Banda, however, had other ideas. Six weeks after the independence celebrations, he dismissed the entire cabinet and appointed new ministers – men who would do as they were told – by him.

Repression followed rapidly. I was given orders not to report the speeches by the dismissed ministers. Some of them were assaulted by the party’s Youth League.

I asked the BBC to withdraw me. Our news editor, Tomlinson, did similarly. He was on secondment from Reuters but authorised to report as their local ‘stringer’. The BBC did not want to be associated with the suppression of news. They asked me to hang on for a while. They would send out a senior man to talk to the Prime Minister.

I was in a good position to observe events. Our broadcasters and our recording van toured the country. They brought back stories of atrocities. Road blocks had been set up. People suspected of being ‘disloyal’ were beaten up. I passed their reports on to Tomlinson who reported to Reuters.

The new country was getting a bad press abroad. Banda was furious. A day later Manoukian phoned me from Nairobi. The Prime Minister had requested him to come to Malawi urgently. He would be on the next day’s plane. From there he would have to go straight to see Kamuzu Banda.

I suspected our phones were bugged. I did not want to talk. Tomlinson and I drove to the airport to collect Manoukian and briefed him in the car. Banda would, no doubt, be demanding the dismissal of Tomlinson.

We delivered him to the prime minister’s residence and waited in the car, but out of sight. It seemed a long wait though when Manoukian came out he said it had been little more than half-an-hour. He was grinning.

“What did Kamuzu say?”


“What do you mean – nothing?”

“Buy me a whisky and I’ll tell you.”

We drove to a discreet venue: “Well?”

“I went in and said “Prime Minister, I bring you the warmest greetings from Kenyatta and Nyerere“(then prime ministers of Kenya and Tanganyika) “They are full of admiration.”


“Deeply impressed. They say you must be very confident of the support of your people…. You’ve made no attempt to suppress uncomfortable news. They wish they could feel as confident of their own positions ….”

“And then?”

“Then – nothing. He thanked me for my visit ….hoped I’d drop in again some time.”

“That was all?”

“That was all. He even accompanied me to the door.”

“That’s saved my job… for the moment at least” said Tomlinson, “It calls for another whisky.”

“Amazing!” I said.

“It’s the refugee experience,” said Manoukian, “One acquires survival skills.”

“I’m a refugee too,” I said. “My family fled from Nazi Germany when I was twelve. But I could never have pulled that off.”

“Well, perhaps it needs an Armenian refugee.”