The day I met Sergio Vieira de Mello, who died eight years ago, remains imprinted in my memory. I had never been as mesmerized by someone. I had heard and read about him. Who in the United Nations system hadn’t? But when Dennis McNamara, his lifetime friend and colleague, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Special Envoy for Iraq (with whom I was traveling on mission) introduced me to him in Larnaca, Cyprus on June 1, 2003, I was star-struck. All I could manage in response to his enchanting smile and his strong, warm handshake was a wide-eyed smile of my own and a dazzled “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I will never forget that moment. I had met the legend. He had just taken up one of the most difficult and politically charged roles in the United Nations as Special Representative of the Secretary General for Iraq, and the challenges ahead of him were daunting.
At that very moment, and at every subsequent encounter I had with Sergio, I was captivated by the compelling passion he radiated. He exuded warmth and positive energy. I watched as he unfailingly gave his undivided attention to everything around him; he seemed to constantly be absorbing, perceiving, assessing. Communicator par excellence, he made everyone he spoke or listened to feel valued. It was impossible not to be drawn in by his charisma, magnetic presence and resonant voice. He was inspiring and reassuring at the same time. Meeting him made me even more ready to take on this mission and to do my bit to uphold the rights of the Iraqi people after the tragedy and trauma they had survived.
We had left Geneva, transited through Larnaca, and were on our way to Baghdad on June 1, 2003 on a special UN flight carrying the team of some 30 staff members. After the plane took off from Larnaca, there was the usual hum of passenger chit-chat, the crackle of newspapers, and the shuffling of flight attendants down the aisle. But as we began our descent an hour or so later, the atmosphere tensed up significantly. The chatter subsided, and I could feel a sudden flutter of butterflies in my stomach. I nervously looked out the window at the expansive stretch of yellow beneath us–the yellow of the Iraqi desert. The yellow was speckled with grey–the grey of the American and coalition forces’ tanks. We were landing in Baghdad–the first United Nations team to arrive there since the war of March 2003, which would transform the political and humanitarian landscape of the Middle East for years to come.
We gathered our belongings in a loaded, apprehensive silence. I dreaded getting off that plane. People were exchanging glances and encouraging pats on the back, as if to say, “We’ve come this far, we might as well get out there now.” We waited quietly in line as Sergio got off the plane first. We inched further along until we reached the door. I stepped out onto the stairs leading down to the tarmac. I felt a dry wave of heavy, brittle heat hit my face. I shaded my eyes with my hand, took a deep breath, and stepped down. Sergio was standing at the bottom of the plane, impeccably dressed in a dark Armani suit and sharp green tie, waiting for his team to assemble, laughing, joking with Dennis, who was standing next to him. “So,” he said to me with a grin. “They let you off the plane?” “Barely,” I smiled back. I made sure I was calm and collected but at heart, I was stunned that he remembered me. He finished his brief greetings, took a look around and found a crowd of reporters waiting for him a fair distance away from the plane. He turned around, and walked off in their direction with supreme confidence and determination.
Over the weeks that followed in Baghdad, I watched Sergio closely as he spoke to team members about the difficult challenges ahead in Iraq and the responsibility of the United Nations to restore dignity and hope to Iraqis. His sincerity was palpable. A few days before the horrific August 19, 2003 attack on the United Nations Headquarters, which took his life and those of 21 staff members, he had made a statement to a Brazilian newspaper in which he described the continued presence of the military coalition as “humiliating” and “traumatic” for the Iraqi people. Few diplomats had been this bold in describing the situation on the ground.
Our UNHCR team stayed on in Baghdad for some time, then we began our travels across the country; to Erbil and Sulemaniya in the north, followed by Basra in the south. We visited the Iranian-Iraqi border and the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border, while shuttling back and forth through Amman, Tehran, Kuwait City and Geneva, trying to assess whether conditions were conducive for the thousands of Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries who had fled the former Iraqi regime over countless years to finally go home. It was an intense summer. Then, all too soon, it was that fateful day. I was back at my desk in Geneva working on the schedule for the upcoming mission when I heard the news: the UN Headquarters in Iraq had been bombed, staff had been targeted, the Special Representative was thought to be among the wounded. The headlines swirled around in my head for a few minutes before I could make any sense of them. I remember feeling my heart race as I ran up the stairs to tell Dennis. I walked into his office, interrupted his meeting, and told him the UN had been attacked and Sergio might have been hurt. The look of disbelief on his face was unmistakable.
Thousands of lives have been lost since that war began. The path to peace, stability, repatriation, rehabilitation, and reconstruction has been a long and arduous one. Judging by the latest series of synchronized attacks targeting both civilians and security forces, which killed 89 people and injured 315, we are not there yet. But may the memory of Sergio and the rest of the friends and colleagues, including Nadia Younis, Fiona Watson, and Jean-Selim Kanaan, live on in our actions and determination to continue to uphold human dignity and basic rights, as they surely will for all of those whose lives they touched.
Shaden Khallaf is an adjunct faculty member in the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. She is currently on leave from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The views in this article do not represent those of the UNHCR.