Sergio de Mello’s Quest to Save the World and Final Hours

Sergio Vieira de Mello

In one of the most ironic, and therefore wrenching, of the many ironic moments in Sergio, a documentary film about the fabled UN diplomat’s life and final hours, the dashing Brazilian is seen talking about the Iraq war in March 2003.

Speaking about a war he opposed but to which he would soon be dispatched in the final mission of his 34-year career, de Mello said in controlled anger,  “The casualties will be very high.”

Little did he know at that moment that, just five months later, he would become one of them.

The recent arrival home of the last American combat troops from Iraq-support troops remain in the country-only lend additional irony when one also hears de Mello say that the goal of his effort is to get out as soon as possible after successfully transferring power to the Iraqi people.

Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power’s biography, the film provides an intimate, almost minute-by-minute look at de Mello’s death after being covered in the rubble caused by the explosion of a bomb that drove into the Canal Hotel that was serving as United Nations headquarters.

His death was a painful one, not only because he lay trapped under a pile of bricks and mortar or because his colleague Gil Loescher was rescued after having had both of his legs sawed off by Andre Valentine, the New York firefighter paramedic who fought valiantly to save de Mello.

In some ways the most unkindest cut of all was the painfully pitiful resources he and William van Zehle, the army lieutenant who appears throughout the film had to bring to bear on their task.

In order to rescue one of the world’s top diplomats and trouble shooters, the planet’s greatest military power, fresh from dethroning Saddam Hussein, could only muster a woman’s hand bag and some string.

Sergio is far more than an indictment of the U.S. occupation in Iraq and an exercise in displaying the many level of irony in de Mello’s death (A relentless globetrotter and workaholic who was finally ready to settle down with his significantly younger and lovely fiancée Carolina Larriera, he had reluctantly assumed the mission after feeling pressure from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.).

Rather the film is a largely admiring, but not hagiographic, look at the impressive career and gradual evolution of a man who, in trying to save the world, ultimately gave added credibility to the United Nations.

After starting with the bombing, which was captured on film as it occurred right when a press conference was taking place, Sergio moves back in place and time to Rio de Janeiro, his hometown.  There his mother Gilda, who understandably is still wracked with grief, talks about what a lively and engaging child he was.

Power notes that, as the son of a diplomat growing up in different parts of Italy and Lebanon, de Mello learned early how to adapt to a wide range of people and cultures.  She explains further that he participated actively in the student protests at the Sorbonne in May 1968, throwing rocks at the police.

At that time, she says, he was a dedicated revolutionary.

The film traces his journey from ideas to action, from political ideology to a more practical yet still idealistic engagement with the world.

It was a journey with setbacks and triumphs.

One of de Mello’s lowest points was his seeming coddling of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader.  De Mello was so solicitious of Milosevic that people privately started calling him “Serbio.

This willingness to negotiate and deal with the most evil of leaders was part of what led him to his greatest accomplishments.

Among the very top: the negotiation at a remote location with Cambodian leaders to permit between 350,000 to 400,00 refugees to return to their homes.   This included some of the top Khmer Rouge who had been responsible for the Cambodian genocide that saw more than 1.5 million killed.

Another highlight, and perhaps the signature accomplishment of his career, was the peaceful transfer of power after two years from the United Nations to East Timor, a part of what had been Indonesia that had, like Cambodia, also experienced genocide at the hands of the government.

In each of these actions, de Mello took many grave risks to his personal safety.  Some of these were known, like when he walked across land mines to arrive at the place where the Cambodian negotiations took place.

Others were likely less conscious.

In one of the film’s most chilling scenes, an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi explains calmly that de Mello’s splitting of the largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, caused the Al-Qaida leader to say the Brazilian had to be killed.

This, of course, is precisely what happened.

In the book’s final sentences, Power writes:

“His end could not have been more tragic.  Just when he was poised to be most useful-to the United States, to Iraq, to the world-he was killed.  And on August 19, after the bomb went off, as he was pinned in the rubble, he found himself in the same impossibly vulnerable position as those whose fates he had championed during his career.  When he realized he had miraculously survived the blast, he must have expected that professional soldiers from the most sophisticated military in history would find a way to extract him from the debris. But as his life slowly seeped out of him, there must have been a minute-hopefully, not a long one-when he realized he was every bit as helpless in his time of need as millions of victims had been before him.”

Sergio moves us through the painstaking efforts van Zehle and Valentine made to free de Mello as well as their differing perspectives  on his death (Valentine faults de Mello for not considering him an angel sent by Jesus to help him, while van Zehle remains distraught over his inability to keep his promise to bring him out alive.).

While these men are not united in their vision of de Mello’s final moments, nearly all in the film share a unanimous sense that he was an unusually driven, charismatic and gifted man whose loss was an immeasurable one that still elicits great pain among friends and family alike.


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