Autumn 2003 (11.3)
Lest We Forget
The UN in Iraq
- Sergio Vieira De Mello (1948-2003)
by Paolo Lembo
Other articles by Paolo Lembo
Interview with Paolo Lembo - Interview by Betty Blair
from Kosovo - Paolo Lembo
Short (Why Are We Killing Each Other?) - Paolo Lembo
Wind: Memories of the Birth of A Nation: Azerbaijan - Paolo Lembo
Left: Sergio De Mello (left) with Paolo Lembo
(former U.N. Representative to Azerbaijan) in a helicopter going
to access the devastation caused by an earthquake in Afghanistan
for the U.N. (1998).
De Mello, who was the Special Representative of the UN Secretary
for Iraq, was killed in Baghdad when a truck bomb exploded outside
the U.N. office on August 19, 2003.
Sergio Vieira de Mello, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General
for Iraq was killed in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, when a bomb-laden
cement truck exploded beneath the window of his office in the
Canal Hotel. In total, 23 UN personnel lost their lives and scores
more were injured in that explosion - the worst disaster targeting
UN personnel in the 55-year history of the international peace
Sergio was respected not only as an accomplished diplomat, but
as a true humanitarian. Many view his death all the more tragic
because he had dedicated so much of his life to alleviating conditions
that lead to terrorism.
The United Nations had long performed many roles in Iraq along
with weapons inspections, including humanitarian, development
and refugee programs. At the time, there were 300 UN staff members
in Baghdad and 646 throughout the country.
De Mello joined the UN in 1969 and had spent the majority of
his career working for the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees in Geneva. He had served in humanitarian and peace-keeping
operations in Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Kosovo and
Peru. His official position was United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights, working out of Geneva. Because of the deterioration
of the situation in Iraq, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
had personally asked him to take on the assignment. They say
it was with reluctance that he accepted the post, and only on
the condition that it would be a temporary assignment. He had
just arrived in Baghdad in May.
In publishing this tribute, Azerbaijan International went in
search of someone who could give us a glimpse of de Mello's character,
not just his rank and position, which are easily culled from
the Web. We found Paolo Lembo, who had opened the UN office in
Baku in 1992 and had served there until 1997. We also discovered
that de Mello had visited Azerbaijan in 1995 in his role as Assistant
High Commissioner for Refugees to assess the tragic refugee situation
brought on by the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Well, my friend," de Mello said, addressing me as
he stepped off the plane in Baku, "it seems that the fresh
air of the Caspian Sea has made you healthier. You seem to be
in good shape, Paolo!" he said, smiling and speaking impeccable
Brazilian-born Sergio Vieira de Mello had just arrived from the
UNHCR's main office in Geneva, and true to character, he was
his usual self-ironic and jovial.
In fact, of the two of us, he was one looking so healthy and
charming, despite the fact that he was 10 years older than me.
In that Spring of 1995, De Mello was the Assistant UN High Commissioner
for Refugees (essentially, the No. 3 position in the UNHCR organization).
I was the UN Resident Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative
and the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Azerbaijan at the time.
De Mello had come to Baku to assess the refugee situation and
see what could be done to help alleviate what had become the
most dramatic refugee crisis of the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan
had a refugee population approaching nearly one million of its
population. The statistics were alarming: out of every 8 or 9
Azerbaijanis, one had been displaced by the war with Armenia
over Nagorno-Karabakh. It was an incredibly high ratio and the
entire nation was feeling the psychological and economic weight
of this tragedy.
De Mello visited as many refugee sites as possible during his
brief mission. He also met all of the highest authorities of
the Republic. The evening before his departure, an official dinner
was held in his honor at the Hyatt. After it was over, he asked
me to wait for him. He said goodbye to all the guests and then
took me out to the poolside for a drink so he could share some
of the impressions of his visit and discuss what the UNHCR could
do to further alleviate the suffering.
De Mello had been particularly impressed when meeting some of
the refugees from Fuzuli, a district located in the southwest
corner of Azerbaijan. They were not begging for charity or assistance.
They only asked to be given a chance to work and return home.
"I'm an engineer," one of the men had told him, "and
in my family and in our tradition, for me to sit idle outside
a tent, waiting for a daily food ration, is a humiliation that
I cannot continue to bear."
We spoke late into the night. He kept asking me questions until
the pool bar closed. Saying good-bye in the hotel lobby, his
final words were: "The UN should do more, Paolo. I'll see
what I can do when I get back to Geneva."
That was typical of de Mello - he was always someone who wanted
to do more - never satisfied with just fulfilling his duty.
Still to this day, I hear the sound of his tired voice, late
that night: "We have to do more...."
The next time I met de Mello was a few years later - 1998. This
time we were in Afghanistan, assessing the damage from an earthquake
that had wreaked havoc in the northern part of the country. At
that time, de Mello was Under Secretary General for Humanitarian
Affairs headquartered in New York. A few hours after the disaster
hit, he called me. At that time I was the UN Special Representative
a.i. (ad interim) in Tajikistan, working out of the capital Dushanbe.
I also had responsibility for the helicopter fleet in United
Nations Mission of Observers in Tajikistan - the UN peacekeeping
De Mello left New York that same afternoon on his way to the
small mountainous town of Faizabad in northern Afghanistan. He
asked me if I meet him with two helicopters there the following
afternoon. Together, we would go to assess the situation at the
Despite the torrential rain, we dared to fly into the middle
of the storm, which had hit the region. We managed to land in
the center of the devastated region. De Mello wanted to better
understand what more could have been done to anticipate and minimize
damage to that remote corner of Afghanistan, which so frequently
was hit by natural disasters. The truth is that he could have
sent a senior aide from his department to carry out the assessment.
Instead, he came himself. Twenty-four hours later, he was back
at his desk in New York City.
De Mello was, indeed, a person deeply affected by human suffering
and injustice. He seemed almost to have a physical intolerance
for it and instinctively reacted against it. A person of unwavering
integrity, he was also a man of legendary charm - certainly an
uncommon gift among us, UN bureaucrats.
An influential American Senator once said: "Two things invariably
happen whenever I meet de Mello: first, I feel poorly informed;
second, I feel poorly dressed." For Sergio, style mattered;
he considered it the visible expression of the dignity of the
function of his office.
A Ph.D. from La Sorbonne in Paris, fluent in five languages (Portuguese,
French, Italian, Spanish and English), de Mello, a Brazilian
by nationality, was a fine connoisseur of art and literature.
He always was committed to do as
for the culture of the countries where he worked, as he did to
alleviate the social ills of their people. "A wounded soul
may hurt as much as a wounded body," he used to say.
He was a cut above the others. Whoever worked with him recognized
that. Feared by war criminals and corrupted politicians, loved
by the people of the countries where he worked, envied and viewed
as a role model by colleagues, adored by women, he was respected
by all. For an entire generation, de Mello had represented the
UN at its best, embodying the ideals of the Organization in a
manner that very few had done before him.
Most likely, he would have been chosen as the next UN Secretary
General, further enhancing the spirit infused by Kofi Annan into
the Organization. Whoever killed him knew that too well.
Cambodia, Viet Nam, Sarajevo, East Timor, Kosovo, Iraq, de Mello
believed that being part of the UN was a mission, much more than
an adventurous job. The fact that he represented the Organization
in some of the hottest conflicts in the world was a matter of
pride. For us, his colleagues, it was important knowing that
Sergio was always there for us.
I am told that as Sergio lay there dying, under the rubble of
the bombed UN building in Baghdad, while his assistant was desperately
trying to rescue him, his last words were: "Make sure we
don't leave Iraq alone..."
Sergio Vieira de Mello has left neither Iraq nor us alone. I'm
convinced that the ideals for which he lived and died will continue
to inspire a generation of young men and women in their future
choices in life.
That's what I feel as I look at the photo which I have in front
of me on my desk. There's Sergio sitting beside me inside a helicopter
as we were flying over Afghanistan. The picture captured a moment
when I was distracted, looking out window, but he had turned
and was looking directly into the camera, with his luminous,
almost defenseless, captivating smile. The young, handsome, silver-haired
boy from Rio de Janeiro who had refused to age - if age meant
compromise. Not for a moment had he ceased to believe that life
was worth living if we have the courage to commit our lives to
an ideal more important than life itself.
For more personal tributes to Sergio de Mello from international
heads of states and other distinguished people, see http://www.unhcr.ch/html/hchr/testimonials.htm. In 1992, at the age
of 34, Paolo Lembo was the youngest person ever to be assigned
as the Head of Mission in the UN. His responsibility was to open
the UN office in Azerbaijan (1992-1997).
Since then, he has worked in numerous troubled spots with the
UNDP [United Nations Development Program] in Tajikistan (1997-1999),
Kosovo (1999-2001) and most recently Algeria (2001-2003). Paolo
is currently awaiting re-assignment as we go to press.
His delightful memoirs of his UN assignment in Baku, characterized
by their warmth and frankness, provide a rare glimpse of Azerbaijan's
independence in the early 1990s: See "Another
Wind, Memories of the Birth of a Nation - Azerbaijan," Search AZER.com
(Autumn 2001, AI 9.3).
Back to Index
AI 11.3 (Autumn 2003)
| Search | Magazine
| AI Store | Contact us
Other Web sites
created by Azerbaijan International
AZgallery.org | AZERI.org | HAJIBEYOV.com