It’s Baghdad, 2003
16:17:21 hs. 19 August 2003 – inside the bombing of Canal Hotel, UN Headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq.
Carolina had just hung up the phone and had placed her fingers on her computer to start writing a report, when her surroundings collapsed and disappeared. A suicide bomber had just slammed one of the walls of the building where she worked – he crashed through a window three stories below her. He was driving a giant cement truck. In an instant, everything was going to change. Suddenly, everyone around her were dead: buried under concrete slabs or agonizing after being pierced by the glass. Walking through the pieces that were still erected inside the building, she searched during three hours for Sergio, her partner. When she found him, buried under furniture, carpeting, and beams, he told her that he loved her and that he was in great pain and could not break free. As she found herself without enough strength to move the several tons of concrete, they exchanged words of love and comfort, promised to get him out of there, and get help. She was soon forcibly pulled out from the rubble, while she was alerting who Sergio was and where he was trapped, and the urgency to get him out. Instead of helping him, they placed all efforts in blocking her from returning. This is her story.
She survived the attack; Carolina was in a civil union with Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN chief, who had been trapped, and eventually died three hours later. Carolina is the only victim and survivor of the terrorist attack who is both a survivor and a family member.
Sergio had resisted the bomb. After three hours without significant help, he died.
In 2003, Carolina and Sergio had been living together for over three years in a lasting, stable civil union, with the support of both their families: they were already engaged and had the intention to marry after leaving Baghdad at the end of the month But after the bomb went off, as soon as he died she was first barred and soon excluded from every ceremony organized by the UN, even in her condition as official UN international civil servant, who was also a survivor of the attack.
The Brazilian justice system recognized formally Sergio and Carolina’s civil union (União Estável, in Portuguese, with equal rights to a marriage), and now are working on setting the record straight. Carolina Larriera is Sergio Vieira de Mello’s widow recognized by law. Gilda Vieira de Mello, Sergio’s mother, was a key witness in the lawsuit, in addition to a Nobel Peace Prize and others. The lawsuit against Sergio’s ex-spouse, heirs, and Estate, that declared the civil union, was granted by a panel of 5 (five) magistrates* (see below) led by Judge Regina Fábregas Ferreira of the Family Court of the Capital District, Judiciary, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, after a process of more than ten years, where all parties were represented, presented evidence, and had time to appeal. It can be found officially published here.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was separated from his first ex-wife Annie Personz, for nearly two decades. Sergio Vieira de Mello’s legal court separation from his first marriage can be found here. Sergio Vieira de Mello’s contentious divorce petition can be found here. His family in Brazil, includes his mother, Gilda Vieira de Mello, cousins, uncles, and many others, and goes back to 500 years of history in Brazil. However, against his stated wishes, he is buried outside Brazil.
Sergio: family and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
In a contradictory paradox, while Sergio Vieira de Mello represented the world’s highest authority on human rights, Carolina became a victim of what he had devoted his whole life to protecting: human dignity.
Sergio and Carolina formed a family that was destroyed. His story is also important to all those who find that imposing only one form of family represents a violation of their dignity, through stereotypes, or social or political prejudice. Today, families can also be led by different family members, such as grandparents, aunts, men and women, and can change over time and according to the social context, respecting the distinct culture of each nation. By limiting the definition of the family to a single form, we limit the vast family diversity that occurs within societies according to individual choices, social norms and circumstances of life, as in the case of Sergio and Carolina. This narrative is a reminder to respect practices around the world, without imposing a single vision and creating an inclusive approach. We hope this story of exclusion is an example that may never be repeated.
Seventeen years later, Carolina and the group of survivors continue to work together to rebuild and are grateful for their lives. They also wait for the moment to find those who are responsible for this attack and for justice to be done.
Also see the Centro Sergio Vieira de Mello at sergiovieirademello.org
*The Full Panel was constituted by the Chief Judge Regina Helena Fabregas Ferreira; Acting Judge Ana Cristina Nascif Dib Miguel: Acting Judge Leise Rodrigues de Lima Espirito Santo; Substitute Judge Rafaela de Freitas Baptista de Oliveira, and Assistant Judge Juliana Cardoso Monteiro de Barros.