“The security situation in Iraq is improving day by day. It is under control now”. These were Paul Bremer’s parting words to Arthur Helton and me at our briefing with him at the United States administrator’s office in Saddam Hussein’s former palace in Baghdad. It was 19 August 2003. Arthur and I were in Iraq to assess the human cost of the war and the occupation for openDemocracy. In addition to writing our column, we planned to report our findings and recommendations to the UN, the occupying powers and NGOs.
Later that afternoon we were taken to the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel in central Baghdad. We went straightaway to the office of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special envoy, on the third floor. We exchanged greetings with Sergio and with several members of his staff before sitting down all together to discuss the work of the UN in Iraq.
At exactly the same time, a truck driven by a suicide attacker and loaded with explosives was racing along a perimeter road to the building heading directly to the space just under Sergio’s office.
Almost immediately after we all sat down, a deafening explosion threw us all into the air, collapsing the ceiling of the third floor upon us, which crushed several of us to death.
Others in the building were killed or severely injured as the bomb shattered windows filling the confined space with high-velocity glass fragments.
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The bomb left twenty-two people dead, among them both Arthur Helton and Sergio Vieira de Mello. Scores more were injured, some with lasting internal wounds.
This event has had a huge impact on my life and the life of my family. The only survivor in the most devastated part of the building, I lost both my legs from above the knees, severely damaged my right hand and suffered numerous shrapnel wounds to my body.
I am incredibly lucky to be alive. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, I found myself trapped upside down in what seemed like a shaft, my legs crushed in the wreckage. As I looked up, one thought surged through my mind: I was not going to die in the rubble. Somehow I was determined to survive and rebuild my life.
Later, I was told that Sergio had also been hurled down close by and had used his cell phone to tell rescuers that both he and I were trapped but alive. Two teams of emergency medical officers climbed down to us and worked desperately to release us. It seems that Sergio’s heart gave way from loss of blood before they could extract him. It also seems that my being upside down saved my life when, after three hours, I was finally pulled out of the shaft with the help of US army medics.
It was weeks before I was to regain consciousness. I was rushed to the nearby field hospital, then, within hours, air evacuated to a US military hospital in Germany where my condition was stabilised. After two-and-a-half weeks, I was again air evacuated, this time to the emergency care unit at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England. After several more surgeries, I was transferred to the plastic surgery ward at the Radcliffe Infirmary also in Oxford where my right hand was reconstructed.
In early November, I was finally released home. I have been getting stronger by the day and have already started my prosthetics treatment. I remain determined to return to my normal life as soon as possible. Next year, I intend to resume the openDemocracy series on humanitarian action that Arthur Helton and I started in December 2002
The humanitarian future of the UN
But now, as soon as I can, I want to salute the humanitarian efforts of the UN. The Baghdad attack of 19 August 2003 was a devastating and cathartic event for this organisation and its staff.
Over the past decade the UN has worked in highly politicised and militarised environments, from Bosnia to East Timor. In many of these settings UN, and related NGO humanitarian organisations, were used as a substitute for unsuccessful political and military interventions. But in the midst of bitter intra-state conflicts, the traditional separation between military and humanitarian operations now often disappears. Consequently, in the eyes of the local combatants, the UN can become closely identified either with one side or the other – or with the intervening forces.
The attack on its headquarters in Baghdad has brought a new and unprecedented degree of anti-UN hostility to the surface. It has probably changed forever the way the UN and others view the security context in which they have to conduct their operations.
This dangerous new environment raises several old but now extremely pressing questions for the UN and the international community. How can the UN and NGO humanitarian agencies avoid being too closely identified with the military forces of intervening and occupying forces? How can the UN better balance the necessity of engaging in life-saving operations in war zones with the risk such actions pose to its staff? Do the UN and the international community need to greatly bolster multilateral humanitarian and human rights norms even if this involves a restraint on the national interests of states?
The solutions to such questions may not be clear-cut or easy to obtain, these questions need to be addressed both by governments and the UN itself.
Especially in settings like Iraq and Afghanistan the UN is needed to help obtain the resolution of chronic sources of instability. It has become more, not less essential in the epoch of the “war on terror”, if there is to be international and regional security. Yet states still remain a long way from helping the United Nations realise this potential.
This is one of the themes which I aim to address in 2004. I have grown more determined and stronger after the blast. I hope the same will prove true of the United Nations.