Sergio, if you showed great confidence at all times, it was because you had so much to be confident about. Why did you never seem tired, even while working 18-hour days? Why did you never look crumpled, even after an 18-hour flight? Why were you never sick? Why were you never grumpy?
—-Kofi Annan, 19 September 2003
What I found heartbreaking is that Sergio assumed the Bush Administration—having begged him to go Iraq—actually wanted him to draw on his 30-plus years of conflict resolution, and he set about trying to end the occupation as soon as possible. Instead, he found himself accused by the growing insurgency as being a tool of the Americans… until on August 19, 2003, Sergio himself became the target.
“I asked him personally to take the job in Iraq. I said, ‘You’re the right person and I hope you’ll do it.’” Remembering her part in the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, Condoleezza Rice looks much as you expect her to look, as she always looks. Composed and precise, she describes what she had in mind and what she said in 2003, without emotional elaboration or any sign of self-reflection. She’s very good at her job.
So was Sergio, who died in Baghdad, serving as Special Representative of the Secretary General to Iraq and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He was good and he was also beloved. In fact, Rice’s recollection is striking for its lack of emotion, set alongside the many other memories assembled in Sergio. Named for the man Kofi Annan memorialized as “the only top official in the UN system known to everyone by their first name,” Greg Barker’s documentary tells the story of de Mello’s brief, brilliant life. It also makes a pointed critique of the war in Iraq, specifically, the recklessness of its U.S. planners.
Inspired by Samantha Powers’ biography of the 55-year-old Brazilian de Mello, Chasing the Flame, the film traces the route by which de Mello’s brilliance collided with the war on 19 August, 2003, when a truck bomb exploded just under his UN office. It cuts back and forth between that day in Baghdad and life-shaping moments in de Mello’s experience, from his childhood in Rio de Janeiro (his mother Gilda recalls that by the time he was three, he was singing in four languages) to his studies at the Sorbonne. In May ‘68, Powers says here, de Mello participated in student protests: “He manned the barricades, threw stones at the police. He is a revolutionary to the core.”
His political sensibility transformed—or more accurately, refined—de Mello seeks a way to affect the world following his graduation in 1969. His first field mission for the UN takes him to Bangladesh, where, Powers says, “He discovered himself.” Powers and others tend to speak of de Mello in exalting language, the sort used to describe fictional heroes (“He realized he was not merely a man of thought, but if he wanted to make his ideals real, he had to be a man of action”), as the film lays out Sergio’s excellence. During his 34 years with the United Nations, he served in Geneva, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Peru, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, East Timor, and Kosovo.
A couple of specific events make the case that he was innovative and compassionate: he negotiated with the Khmer Rouge to get Cambodians back to their homes following the regime’s fall. Calling de Mello “the most dazzling, charismatic person in the area,” Richard Holbrooke remembers as well his work in East Timor, helping to establish a nation following its break from Indonesia. Here he met Carolina Larriera, his fiancée at the time he died: the film notes his first marriage and his inattention to his sons (Powers says, “He was never a terribly faithful husband”) and underscores the change he was making with Larriera, a UN economics officer: Baghdad was to be his last mission.
The footage of that last day in Baghdad is horrific, beginning with the press conference that is cut off by the blast, and including the awful aftermath: dust and chaos, bloody injuries and screams. De Mello was trapped under two collapsed floors, a frightening situation sketched on a white sheet of paper by one of the two men who tried to save him, William von Zehle, Master Sergeant, Civil Affairs Battalion. Bill, a fire chief stateside, recalls his determination to rescue Sergio and American professor Gil Loescher, who landed in the same narrow shaft of rubble with Sergio, essentially on top of him.
Loescher recalls the meeting in Sergio’s office (“I was sitting directly opposite him, just a couple of feet away”), and then the explosion: “The flash is what I remember,” he says, “The ceiling collapsed, the floor collapsed.” And then, “I heard someone say, ‘Oh shit,’ as if someone had expected it. I’m pretty sure it was Sergio.” When he woke up, Loescher says, he was unable to move, his lower body pinned under concrete. Andre Valentine, the fireman paramedic who arrives on scene a few minutes later, then spends three and a half hours with von Zehle, working to free the two victims, remembers trying to convince de Mello to pray with him, to believe in him as an angel send by God. Von Zehle remembers de Mello saying, “F- prayers,” as well as Valentine’s upset at such a dismissal. Von Zehle reads the response differently, insisting that de Mello remained focused on making sure others in the building were looked after (at least 22 others died that day). “I construe [him] as being pretty selfless,” von Zehle says.
Nearly everyone remembering that day ends up in near-tears. Paul Bremer has a specific memory, that when he was told de Mello had died, he couldn’t say it for reporters, as the family hadn’t yet been notified. “I basically lied,” he says, a necessary and, in hindsight, abjectly telling response. For this is the primary conclusion of Sergio, that he was incredible and adored, and that he was abused. No matter that the abuse was a function of ignorance or arrogance, no matter that it was unintentional.
De Mello was put in a place where he would be targeted, understood as a tool of the Americans and so, hated by the Iraqi resistance. Nesri Tehayneh, an associate of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says as much here (in a remarkable interview, most striking for his expression on camera, alternately blank, furtive, and exhausted): “Zarqawi said that the UN was a nest for secret services and American spies. He said he needed to attack the UN and attack that criminal Sergio” Powers adds that the rescue efforts, however noble on the ground, were undermined by the lack of preparation or thinking ahead. In de Mello’s death, Sergio locates what went wrong in the American war in Iraq.