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Chasing the Flame (thoughts)

May 2, 2008

In Their ShoesFirst off, thanks again to Katrina of Stone Soup for buying me a beautiful, brand-new hardcover book!  Speaking of which, she’s having a particularly great giveaway right now. I spread out my reading of Samantha Power’s excellent biography Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World for several reasons. First, I knew the ending from the beginning, and I wasn’t looking forward to that truck bomb in Baghdad. Then, there is the sheer beauty of Power’s writing: like her friends Philip Gourevitch and George Packer, reading some of her work in college made me flirt with a journalism minor (this dream quickly withered in the face of an awesome class taught by a part-time professor, part-time NYC editor who turned the class into her newspaper staff-real journalism, focused on the minutae an local scene, is deadly boring to someone with an international relations interest). And of course, there was the fascinating retelling of the world’s crises since the 1970s, and how the UN responded, and how Vieira de Mello grew up and came into his own.

For those who might not know, Sergio Vieira de Mello was a Brazilian UN official; he spent most of his career with the High Commission for Refugees, but he was appointed as the UN envoy to Iraq after the American invasion, and he died there when a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives into the UN headquarters at the age of fifty-five. (This wasn’t a spoiler, because if you hadn’t read about it in the news or in other books on Iraq, Power tells you in the prologue) He joined the UN straight out of university (his father was a Brazilian diplomat, so Sergio grew up speaking multiple languages, barely lived in Brazil, and went to uni in Switzerland and France), so by following his career Power can look at how the UN has changed its responses over the decades. By reading this book, you’ll get a guided tour to the world’s hotspots: Cambodia, Bosnia, the Congo, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq. Sergio spent the majority of his career in the field, which makes for fascinating reading.

I’m trying really hard to write a short review, so I promised myself I wouldn’t go into telling you about all the fascinating things Sergio was involved with. Suffice it to say, if you have any interest in nation-building, or peacekeeping, or diplomacy, or the UN, or conflict resolution, you’ll devour this book.

But obviously, this isn’t just a book about international relations. First and foremost, it’s always a biography of a man who was preternaturally self-assured in some arenas (languages, dealing with war criminals) and substantially flawed in others (fidelity, condemning unjustifiable acts). Sergio was obviously a larger-than-life kind of guy, and Power conducted over four hundred interviews with people who knew him, personally, professionally, or both, in order to make the reader really see who he was. It’s an incredible biography: one of the best I’ve ever read (the other one would be Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, which is completely different). There’s enough important detail to fill out Sergio’s life without anything extraneous to bore the reader or slow down the narrative. You can tell that the manuscript underwent ruthless editing by some talented people to get it down to 535 pages of text (there’s also a multipage chronology in the front, sixty pages of notes and sources, and a twenty page index-this is Real non-fiction, nothing fluffy in sight), and I promise you’ll enjoy every page.

Gee, it sure is tough to try to be brief. But this book looks at what it means to try to help people, the inevitable comprises that have to be made, and how Sergio, so full of life, approached those choices. It’s a powerful and important book that really examines recent world history and what the UN (and mainly the West) has done right and wrong. Go read it.

Favourite Passages (wherein the brevity dies a sudden, painless death)
On December 24, 1993, while most UN officials around the world celebrated Christmas with their families, Vieira de Mello’s sypmathy for the BOsnians prompted him to undertake one of his boldest schemes as a UN official. He summoned his new forty-four-year-old military aide, a Canadian major named John Russell, to his office. …”I want you to find a way to get people out,” Vieira de Mello explained. “Peope who don’t fit within the UN rules, but who need to get out-because they can’t get the medical care they need here, because they are seperated from a loved one, or because they can do more good on the outside than they are doing on the inside.” …Russell would manage wath Vieira de Mello dubbed “the train,” a UN convoy that transported BOsnian civilians out of the city. The Canadian began timin trial runs to the airport. He clocked his trips down Sarajevo’s main boulevard, which had become known as “Sniper’s Alley.” In order to smuggle civilians out of the city, he would have to first pass through a checkpoint at the airport manned by armed Bosnians, then get by a Serb checkpoint, and finally get UN authorization. …All told, in the 110 days that he ran the train for Vieira de Mello, Russell rescued 298 people. Pay Dray, the Canadian captain who replaced him, evactuated several hundred more. Vieira de Mello did not discuss the operation, or his role in laungh it, with his friends, his colleagues, or critics.

On the day that the bridge into Sarajevo actually opened for the first time, Bosnians and Serbs who had not seen their family memebrs for more than two years crossed into lands held by their battlefield rivals. Hundred of people gathered to see if their relatives or friends would appear. One sixty-seven-year-old Bosnian man, Hasan Begic, whom the Serbs had evicted from his Sarajevo apartment with ten minutes’ notice back in September 1992, made the trek across the Bridge to the Serb neighborhood so as to find his disabled son Edhem. An hour after he crossed the bridge, he returned, horrified. “They told me my son was killed by a sniper on January 11 in front of the house,” Begic told a reporter. “I have nothing more to do over here.”

Although the Security Council had given the UN mission a $456 million budget, the money came from assessed contributions and thus, as had been true in Cambodia, could be used only to cover the needs of UN employees: staff salaries, vehicles, computers, and air conditioners. If he wanted to pay Kosovars for their labor as security guards, civil servants, road builders, teachers, or garbage collectors, he had to drum up a seperate trust fund, to which countries in the UN had no obligation to contribute. …”It is like being asked to perform Olympic gymnastics and then being placed in a straight jacket,” he later wrote.

[Some background: in East Timor, Timorese civilians are being massacred. Many took shelter in the UN compound, but the UN has ordered all of its staff to evacuate.] Burgess, Robinson, and Stewart [UN officials] sat together. “I can’t believe we are doing this,” said Robinson. “We can’t do this,” said Stewart. Burgess was nominated to return upstairs and ask Martin to reconsider. “When we leave here tomorrow,” he pleaded, “all these people are going to be killed. I don’t want to live with that for the rest of my life.” Martin agreed but said he had an obligation to protect the UN staff. Burgess challenged him. “We are not in immediate danger, and a lot of staff want to stay.” Martin, who had been hearing mainly from this police and security advisers about imminent militia attacks and about staff panic, looked surprised. “How many people feel that way?” he asked. Burgess guessed fifty or sixty. Martin asked Mark Quaterman, a thirty-nine-year-old American aide, to survey the staff and take down the names of those willing to remain. Quaterman returned several hours later with a list of more than eighty volunteers. Martin was persuaded and told New York that he intended to remain with UN staff in Dili until the evacuation of non-UN Timorese civilians could be negotiated. “We had decided to serve the flag,” Perelli recalls, “instead of serving the bureaucracy. Sergio always said that serving the flag gave you the power to do what you should do, not just what you were ordered to do.”

Looking back, it is almost impossible to recall the brief period, between early April and lat ejune 2003, when Iraq was a relatively peaceful place. The two months after Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled to the ground by American soldiers brought some joyous scenes of Iraqis celebrating the toppling of the tyrant and some traumatic scenes in which families located the remains of missing relatives. But mainly those two months brought creeping uncertainty and shock that the Colation wasn’t more organized.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2008 5:34 pm

    You’re back!!! I’m so glad to see that you’re posting again and sorry you were so sick.

  2. May 2, 2008 9:19 pm

    Nancy, thanks! I loved your post today, btw. Can your husband bring back a viking for me too? :D

  3. May 4, 2008 6:55 am

    Because I work as an employee of our Foreign Affairs Department as an employee of Passport Canada, I am very aware and interested of the things diplomats do. I am in awe of diplomats who go above and beyond their bureaucratic duty, which happens more often than the public is made aware of. I think this is partly because it is from idealism – wanting to make a difference in the world – that makes people go into the Foreign Service. As well as want to travel! We had a story on Sergio on our tv channels here not too long ago, so I was fascinated to read your review and accounting of his life and book from a US perspective.
    I also am fascinated by the account of the Canadian role in Bosnia. I remember the role we played in Tehran with the first Gulf War, with the US embassy hostage taking. We too often forget the diplomats after the event, when I think more books like the one for Sergio should be written. Thanks for reviewing it, Eva!! I’ll have to go look for it. I might make a list to read war accounts, next year, since our General Dallaire brought out Shake Hands with the Devil, about the genocide in Rwanda, that I have yet to read. Have you read it?

  4. May 4, 2008 2:58 pm

    Susan, thanks for the long comment-it was so interesting to read! :) My desire to join the Foreign Service definitely has a lot ot do with idealism! After all, I would have been a Peace Corps volunteer if they’d let me. There was a really interesting book about the Tehran hostage crisis from the American diplomats taken hostage point of view called Guests of the Ayatollah. It also discusses the failed US attempts at a rescue. I haven’t read Shake Hands with the Devil, but now it’s on my list! An absolutely stunning look at the Rwandan genocide from an American journalist’s perspective is Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. I’m fairly certain he had good things to say about Dallaire (it’s been a few years)…it’ll be interesting to see the official point of view. :)

  5. Myrthe permalink
    May 5, 2008 3:08 am

    Thanks a lot for your review, Eva. Have you read Power’s book about genocides? If not, I highly recommend it. I think you’d find it interesting.

    And it’s very good to see you’re back. I missed you! :-)


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