Barbara Hendricks

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From “LIFTING MY VOICE: A MEMOIR”  by Barbara Hendricks, world-acclaimed operatic soprano and concert singer; since 1987, Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commission for Refugees, and since 1998, founder of the Barbara Hendricks Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation.


(…) When we spoke at the beginning of 2002, he said, “My job here will be finished in about five months and the Timorese are planning for their independence in May. Would you consider coming to sing on that occasion? (…). Sergio met us at the airport and later showed us around a little. He was exuberant for two reasons. First, he had managed, in just two years, a very complicated transition of a land that had gone through a twenty-five-year civil war into an independent, democratic new nation. As we drove through the streets of Dili he said, “Look around you—when I arrived here two years ago there was nothing but ruins and it was too dangerous to walk in the streets. I have no official role in the independence ceremonies because my job finishes tomorrow night when you sing. I do not want to receive awards or applause; my reward will be on Independence Day when I will take Carolina, the love of my life, by the hand and walk through the streets of Dili like any normal lovers out for a stroll.”

Carolina was the second cause of his exuberance. For the first time since I had known Sergio he spoke to me about another woman in his life. I guessed that there had been others, and I knew that he had not been happy in his marriage. I remember a discussion that we had in his office in Geneva when I told him that I was getting divorced. I confided in him about how difficult and painful the decision was for me. I then asked him, “I know that you are unhappy; when are you going to fix that?” He agreed that he should take care of it, and he expressed his concern for his sons for they were very important to him. When he was in New York as UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs we met for dinner and I told him that I had met Ulf. Sergio was very happy for me. Finally he met and fell in love with Carolina in East Timor he was anxious. After so many years he planned to marry Carolina as soon as his divorce became final. In Dili I met Carolina for the first time and he met Ulf for the first time. I saw that his relationship with Carolina was serious and I was so pleased to see him so happy.

Sergio knew that the peace and the new democracy were fragile and that the road ahead would not be easy because as usual the international community always wants quick, cheap fixes to deeply rooted, serious problems. But he said, “I have given my all and I believe that the people here, their new President Gusmão, and our old friend José will also give their all to make it succeed. Let’s hope and pray that they will.” José became the first minister of foreign affairs and the second president of his country (…) Kofi and Nane Annan were there, as well as UNHCR’s high commissioner, Ruud Lubbers. Kofi was very proud to welcome Timor as the newest member of the UN. There was a bit of musical chairs going on for rooms on the old cruise ship that was used as a hotel for the guests; the room that Ulf and I had on our first night had been given to one of the members of the large Clinton delegation, and Ulf and I moved to Sergio’s assistant Jonathan Price’s home, while Kofi and Nane slept in Sergio’s apartment. I think that when things settled down Sergio and Carolina ended up on the ship somewhere. (…)

Ulf and I boarded the plane back to Bali together with Nane and Kofi, and as we spoke of our hopes for this new nation, we immediately began to talk about the threat on the horizon—the American-led invasion of Iraq. I was also fishing on Sergio’s behalf to know where the secretary general planned to send him next. In September 2002 Sergio was appointed high commissioner for human rights in Geneva. I was very happy that he was going to be nearer. Sergio and Carolina came home and he was going to try to get the troubled Human RightsCommission. One of the first projects that we did together was to become the patrons of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights that we inaugurated in March 2003 during the Human Rights Council.

(…). We are now beginning to learn the truth about the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion in Iraq Tony Blair and George Bush’s illegal and immoral war. (…). I often rang Kofi to talk about the state of the world and boost his morale. I reminded him that in spite of the enormous pressure that he and the UN were under, he was the secretary general of all of the nations of the United Nations, not of any one country or one faction. He also encouraged mewhen I was feeling down. We knew that his phones and maybe the entire house were wiretapped so before hanging up I said, “I suppose we should say good night to whomever is listening.”

(…) Another sommarpratare that summer was Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector in Iraq, and I met him at the dinner given for all of the participants in September. (…) He was very candid about the refusal of the American and British to allow the inspections to continue. WMDs were only a false alibi for the invasion, because they were determined to invade Iraq. (…) “War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

(…). When Staffan arrived for lunch he said, “I have heard that Kofi is going to ask Sergio to go to Baghdad.” I said, “He can’t do that—Sergio has worked so hard to straighten out the mess at the UNHRC in Geneva and he is just starting to see some progress. He has no time to take off from that demanding task, and besides, why should the UN send in its best people to clean up the mess that they had tried to prevent? First we are bypassed and then they ask us for help. They naively thought that there would be democracy and peace in Iraq in time for the summer vacations.” I thought that Sergio might take the direct flight the next day to New York City. I did not want to call him at the office; I preferred to reach him at home. I tried all evening but there was no answer. Carolina later told me that they had just moved into a new apartment and had not yet installed the phone. I did not expect to convince Sergio not to go to Iraq but I just wanted to hear his voice and his point of view about the matter. We had discussed at length our frustration with the constant undermining of the UN by politicians who use the organization with impunity as a scapegoat during their national election campaigns.

I knew that Sergio was a man with a strong sense of duty and loyalty and that if he was called upon to serve, he would answer that call. The next time I saw him was on the news; he was standing next to Kofi at a press conference at the UN in NewYork City announcing his departure for Baghdad. Sometime after he arrived there we spoke and he assured me that he was going to do all that he could to be at my wedding to Ulf in August. When I asked about the Human Rights Commission, he said, “I will stay here only until the fall because I am committed to my work in Geneva, and by then my divorce will be final too.” As the date of the wedding approached, the chances were slim that he might be in Sweden on the sixteenth. On July 18, 2003, Sergio wrote:

Dear Barbara,

Thank you for your invitation. It has arrived here in Baghdad, a little late, but Cecilia, my secretary in Geneva, had immediately informed me of its arrival at theoffice. However, it is not probable that Carolina (she is here too) and I can be with you in Sweden on August 16. Believe me, we regret it. We said to each other, thinking about you and Ulf and this missed opportunity, that it’s enough now with all the sacrifices that we have made, particularly when it means missing an exceptional moment like your wedding. We have promised to put our private lives and our friends before everything else in 2004. But we will meet again, I am sure before the end of the year, in Switzerland. Carolina and I send you both a big hug.


Sergio had one last-minute plan up his sleeve. He was to travel to New York to meet with Kofi around the time of the wedding and was hoping to somehow go via Stockholm. When he told me this plan I feared that it was a very long shot and would not work, but I held out hope. On August 16, 2003, Ulf and I were married in the Swedish Archipelago surrounded by family and friends, but a few of my closest friends were not there. (…) Kofi suggested that he and Nane would celebrate our marriage with us when they would come to Stockholm on August 25. Kofi sent us a letter that was read by Staffan de Mistura, who had come from Beirut. On August 19 we waved good-bye to Sebastian, Jennie, their friends from Switzerland, and the last wedding guests. I went back into the house and put on the radio. Then I heard the unbelievable news that the UN headquarters in Baghdad had been bombed, many were killed, and Sergio was trapped under the rubble. Ulf and I were glued to the radio for the rest of the day, as we have no TV. I could not accept the possibility that Sergio would not make it out alive. I kept saying to myself, “Sergio always manages; no matter how difficult the situation, he always walks away.” But not this time. Sergio was under the rubble for hours before he died. Carolina had left the meeting in Sergio’s office and had been in her office only a few minutes when the blast occurred. Injured and distraught, she tried to pull away some of the rubble with her bare hands, to no avail.

(…) Sergio and those staff members were the very best that the UN had to offer. They were among that small group of dedicated servants that always answered the call to go into the most difficult situations, jeopardizing their well-being and even their personal lives (the UN has a very high divorce rate) because they believed in the principles of the UN—for which they eventually died. They always held out hope that by working together under a set of just and moral rules the world could become a better place for all, not just for a privileged few. I was still on a high from my wedding, one of the happiest days in my life, and the news of this attack at the heart of the UN brought me down (…).

I went to Geneva for Sergio’s funeral and tried in some way to comfort his sons, Adrien and Laurent. I realized that they had hardly known him. They vaguely remembered accompanying him to my home for the Christmas party. I told them that Sergio and I had often spoken about them and that they were his pride and joy. (…) I knew that it would have turned Sergio’s stomach to see how unjustly Carolina was treated—the UN excluded and almost discarded her.

(…) I greeted José Ramos-Horta at the funeral. (…). When he asked where Carolina was I had to explain to him that she had been flown directly from Baghdad to Buenos Aires and had not been allowed to be in Geneva for the funeral. I brought two red roses that I placed over his grave, one from me, and another one from Carolina and Gilda. (…) I said, “Sergio, you always asked me to sing a song in the most difficult and sometimes dangerous moments, whether I had warmed up my voice or not. You knew that if you asked me I would never say no, but tonight, Sergio, is certainly the hardest time for me.” And I sang in spite of my trembling voice and my tears.

In October 2003 I was on tour in Brazil and had a concert in Rio de Janeiro. Gilda invited Ulf and me to come visit her. A small, strong woman opened the door and hugged me for a long moment; neither of us was able to hold back our tears.(…) She and Carolina showed us the apartment where Sergio had grown up. Gilda showed us the picture of him on the beach where he always wanted to go for a swim as soon as he arrived back in Rio. We looked through all the family albums and I saw that the man who had become my brother had always been the same smiling, hopeful little boy who looked back at me from the photos in their albums.