SWISSINFO: 24/5/20 Diplomat’s widow killed in Iraq criticizes UN

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Diplomat’s widow killed in Iraq criticizes UN

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Remembered in Geneva by a monument and a Center, the UN diplomat killed by Al Qaeda in 2003 in Iraq became the subject of the film "Sérgio". By Skype, we interviewed the widow Carolina Larriera, who remembers moments from the so-called "man who wanted to save the world".

24. May 2020 – 12:00

Valéria Maniero, in Geneva

Sérgio Vieira de Mello during a press conference at the UN office in Baghdad, Iraq, on June 24, 2003. Two months later he would be killed, along with 19 other international officials, in a bomb attack.

It has been almost 17 years since the death of the Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello in a terrorist attack on the UN office in Baghdad, when he was United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Brazilian’s story comes back to the fore now with the premiere of the film “Sergio”, on “Netflix”, with Wagner Moura in the main role. The love story between him and Argentine economist Carolina Larriera, who worked at the institution and survived the attack, is also there. In 2017, the Justice of Rio recognized the civil union between Carolina and Sergio, after ten years.

Swissinfo.ch spoke exclusively with Carolina Larriera, who lives in São Paulo today. Check below some of the main moments of the interview.

Carolina Larriera sees positive and negative points in the film and in the way she and Sergio were portrayed. “We, in Latin America, and I am speaking as an Argentine, living in Brazil, are portrayed as charming and, often, not as we really are: prepared people who have worked hard,” he says.

Carolina recalls that Sergio was Brazilian, from Rio de Janeiro, and had studied at UFRJ and Sorbonne. She, at Harvard. "Sometimes, when you are just reduced to a charming and sexy person, you are uncomfortable. We are much more than that," he says. According to her, the film portrays two people with their personalities, doubts and complexities.

“The film does justice to that part and clearly states that Sergio and I had a formal, stable relationship, recognized by everyone and made clear at the end that, after many years, our union, which already existed when he was alive, was recognized formally by the Brazilian Justice “.

Overall, the balance is positive, she says, but she sees unfavorable points: their story was not as brief as it seems to have been in the film. Their relationship was also more formal. There is also another crucial point – that of security. Carolina refers to the scene in which Sergio asks that the tank be removed, but in fact, according to her, “the UN senior management was the one who decided that in order to guarantee the United Nations independence in Baghdad this tank should be removed”. He explains that Sergio and his team were in charge of the political transition, not the logistics, where this security issue was.

Why Sergio has to be known and recognized

What Sergio represented is being rescued, in Carolina’s opinion. She says the film helps to spread the life and work of Sergio, the “most important employee in UN history, among young people”. Another important point is the appreciation of Brazilian culture and talents.

“We in Latin America often end up valuing what is outside much more. The film serves to inspire young people who are living in this complex political moment. It is more important than ever to remember that there are people who believe in ideals and that they strive to fight for them. That it is important to have good convictions and carry them out. And that there was someone who did. That person, the product of that society, touched the lives of the most vulnerable is priceless”.

According to her, Sergio left a legacy of empathy and the idea that there are solutions. “He believed that polarization led to destruction and that he had a way of bringing people together and that, when leaders approach, the first beneficiaries are the populations.”

The moments after Sergio’s death in Iraq

Sergio’s body was buried in the Plainpalais cemetery in Geneva, where important Swiss personalities and some foreigners rest, such as the writer Jorge Luis Borges. But Carolina was not present at the funeral, in Geneva, or at the funeral, in Rio. And it was not for want of will.

“The last time I saw Sergio was at the ‘morgue’ (morgue, in Iraq), when I went to recognize him. I was called because Sergio wore a wedding ring with my name. We had been wearing it for two years”, she says .

From there, according to her, several things happened that estranged her from her husband: “I was put on another plane. I asked to accompany Sergio, because we had entered Iraq together and had the commitment to leave together. Through a series of lies, I was separated from my personal belongings. They told me that Sergio was going to be put on a plane, so I got on that plane confident that in this very tragic moment nobody would dare to lie, but, in truth, I was deceived. They put me on a plane that was running all over the world. To my surprise, instead of being taken to where Sergio was, I was taken to my country, where I had not lived for 15 years “, she remembers, moved.  She says that when she arrived in Argentina, she bought a ticket to go to Brazil. When Carolina arrived in Rio, Gilda, Sergio’s mother, was waiting for her, but her husband’s body was no longer there.

Tomb of Sérgio Vieira de Mello in Geneva.

“What I do know is that Sergio deeply loved his country, his city. I think some things were not done the right way. It would have been nice if Sergio’s wishes had been respected,” she says.

After mourning Sergio’s death, the struggle

What came after that August 19, 2003 was even worse than what was shown in the film, “even portraying a tremendous tragedy”.

“All these years have been very difficult for me. My struggle has to do with being excluded from all the lists of survivors of the UN attack. My statement about what I witnessed that day, being in the attack, was out of investigations. I had obstacles to get to the funeral. In fact, I didn’t get to Sergio’s funeral (in Rio). My personal belongings were taken from me and also the keys to our apartment. I lost all my personal belongings “, says Carolina, who had post-traumatic stress after the attack and was welcomed by her husband’s mother in Brazil.

She tells how things happened:

“At the time, what was explained to me was that, because we did not have a signed paper, I, in the eyes of the UN, was nobody. Neither in my condition as Sergio’s wife nor as a professional, official UN worker for 7 years who had gone to Iraq with a signed contract. I didn’t understand. At that time, I was totally stunned by his death and the attack, when 21 of my friends died, not just colleagues “, she says.

Criticisms of the UN

Carolina criticizes the UN for the way it was treated after the tragedy.

“The United Nations puts, in public, concern for the status of women and the safety and well-being of its employees, especially those injured when they served the organization. But what I can testify, because it was what I suffered, is that the concrete actions have been inferior to the great declarations “, she says.

Monument in memory of the victims of the Baghdad attack, behind the Wilson Palace in Geneva: bust of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, by sculptor Zurab Tsereteli.

According to Carolina, until today, the institution refuses to recognize the union of the two.

“The UN could and can recognize the judicial process, which took place in Brazil with all parties, and legally recognized the stable union between Sergio and me. Until May 2020, the UN refuses to recognize for reasons that have not been explained. I have traveled all the internal bureaucratic path, including also the UN internal judicial part, and I still haven’t found an explanation on why the Brazilian judicial system is not being recognized. I don’t understand. I have no answers. I don’t know “, she says.

She says that after the attack, it was “deleted from all lists with the excuse of not having an officially signed paper”.

What do I think of the movie “Sérgio”?

“Today, I realize that was just an excuse. I wonder why I – and my fellow survivors of the attack – were treated the way we were treated and why in particular today, after our stable union was recognized by a member state of the United Nations, the Organization persists in putting that distance between the oratory and the principles of claiming the rights of women, of having empathy for the victims of terrorism “.

The meaning of Switzerland

Carolina says that she and Sergio had great respect for that country.

“He thought that Switzerland had an incredible standard of living, which put even more emphasis on the suffering of the populations where he went to work. Each time he returned to Switzerland, he was even more agonized by abandoning the populations that they were really suffering in these post-war places. So I think Switzerland represents what it could be, “she says.

Life in Brazil

Carolina moved to Rio, where she had the support of Sergio’s mother after the attack. He lived for several years a block from Arpoador, the first place Sergio went to when and I was there. Then she went to São Paulo, where he works as an economist, with projects in the areas of transparency, accountability and international relations.

Sérgio de Mello’s legacy and criticisms of the UN

“In Brazil, I felt that Sergio was there and I felt good. I needed to survive as a person and Brazil gave me that space”.

Democratization of diplomacy

Carolina also spoke about the work done by Centro Sergio Vieira de Mello, created in 2008 by her and her mother-in-law. He said it was a way of bringing certain concepts of diplomacy to young people, such as negotiation, conflict resolution and public speaking.

A book to tell the other part of the story

Carolina is writing a book to tell what happened after Sergio’s death.

“There is a story until the trip to Iraq and, from the moment that his death is confirmed, a new, totally different story begins. And the position of the United Nations was different after the attack,” she says.

According to her, organizations like the UN can “learn from their mistakes and correct them, because those who thrive are those who see, improve and advance”.

The best tribute

There is a bust in honor of Sergio in front of the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. For Carolina, however, a good tribute would be to respect the personal choices he made. In addition, “putting an end to the inconsistency between an official speech and an internal policy that does not speak to each other is the best way to pay homage to the ideals that Sergio embraced.”

The reunion with happiness 

The swissinfo.ch reporter asked the economist if, after so many years, she had found happiness again. When answering, Carolina quoted “In search of meaning” – a psychologist who survived the concentration camps “(Viktor Frankl).

“What is left after losing everything? What is left is what is inside and what keeps us alive. We need to keep this spirit nurtured, careful, with good friendships. It is the most important thing. In these last 17 years, I have been working very inwardly to identify that true happiness is in here “, he says, pointing to his own body.

Keywords: POLICY CONFLICTS SOCIETY