A Voice for Victims of Terror

Remembering Kofi Annan, Sergio Viera de Mello, the good work the UN can do, and victims of terror

by Carolina Larriera

As New Yorkers remember exactly were they were on Sept 11, UN staff around the world remember where they were on August 19, 2003, when the UN headquarters in Baghdad was blown up.

This year, the UN pays homage, for the first time, to victims of terrorist attacks. Fifteen years ago, on Aug. 19, 2003, a suicide bomber responding to Zarqawi (later rebranded as ISIS), drove a cement truck into the back gate of the UN Canal Hotel Headquarters in the capital of Iraq.

Within seconds, a deadly blast of thousands of pounds of TNT reduced the carpeted interior of our office building to dust, killing 22 of my colleagues, and wounding hundreds more.  Trapped in the rubble was my life partner Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who was also the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and head of the UN in Iraq. He was also Kofi Annan’s envoy, then the UN Secretary-General.

Sergio was the most experienced person the international body could ever afford to lose. He had inaugurated the novelty of UN nationbuilding in Kosovo and East Timor (the UN’s success story), and he had also built extensive refugee credit in every major conflict that defined the last thirty years.

Life in war zones is unimaginably rough: East Timor in 1999, just like Iraq 5 years later, was like Germany in the last months of 1945. We found both countries in ruins: homes with curtains drawn in the midst of daylight, a curfew to restrict movement, prepackaged food, no hot water. If to destroy is easy, to build a new administration and services for the population is excruciatingly grueling.

Sergio and I had both left our native countries of Brazil and Argentina at the young age of 18 in search for meaningful values. This is what brought us together. Love revealed for Sergio new strength and wisdom, and a profound desire to start over. At 50, he felt he had earned the right to a life away from the fire of conflict.

Then, the war in Iraq started. Twice Sergio declined the request from Kofi Annan to Iraq before reluctantly acquiescing, mobilized by deference to hierarchy and discipline. He agreed on condition I was officially acknowledged as part of the Baghdad team. I was engaged in women’s rights. And yet Sergio and I talked about everything. I particularly remember the moment, weeks before the date that would be our final departure from the country, and during a rare Saturday of rest, when I learned that Annan, after repeated requests from Sergio to expedite our departure from there, finally confirmed that he intended to appoint Antonio Guterres de Portugal as Sergio’s successor and substitute in Baghdad. (Guterres is today the UN’s top man)

Then the bombing took place. I was in the very same building and I was not able to get him out and save him.  He died without me while I survived the attack.

One aspect is the problem of terrorism; Another aspect are its victims.

After the bomb that killed him, my evacuation was hindered to prevent me from accompanying his coffin, or arrive in time for his wake, under the pretext of not being, on paper, his family. I also exposed the flaws in security and the problems in investigating the attack, but was ignored.

What no one paid attention to then was that the bombing was shaping a new era and a new chapter defined by a growing number of victims of terrorism had just started.

Recently, justice gave recognition to our civil union at the time of his death, attesting that, in the eyes of the law, we were husband and wife. This is a new and important event that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil took seriously and notified the UN authorities to respect not only the institutions of his home country, but the nationality he held until his death.This recognition is crucial because, for those who suffer a terrorist attack, in that moment of extreme vulnerability, when one escapes the wreckage of violence and horror, denying the existence of the victim, preventing him from venting his own mourning, is the equivalent of being crushed a second time. For me it was a vindication of my relationship with Sergio, but even today hundreds of survivors of terrorism continue to struggle to have their rights recognized.

Terrorism is a cruel strategy that leaves deep scars on the survivors and the families of those killed. If the goal is to pay homage to those who have suffered such violence, it is not enough to create a commemorative date on the calendar. As a first step, it must be admitted that every survivor is the same, regardless of their sexual orientation or civil status.

When the definition of family is limited to a traditional view, the numerous combinations that exist in a modern society are ignored: civil unions and same-sex unions, couples without children, children under the care of single parents or grandparents and uncles. The best way to pay a real tribute to those who have suffered and continue to suffer from such violence is to recognize the victims and help them in the process of rebuilding their own lives.

A terrorist is devoid of empathy, does not see the humanity of his targets, a trait that is not uncommon in environments devastated by violent conflicts. International institutions should deviate from this characteristic. To see the world in black and white, without admitting the existence of the various shades of gray that compose it, is to see it with the blind eyes of extremism. Ensuring inclusion and respect for diversity will help overcome the hatred and exclusion that fuels terror. This will remain the best way to prevail over darkness. Sergio Vieira de Mello would have agreed.

Carolina Larriera is an economist, and the partner of the late Sergio Vieira de Mello