I was sitting in a front room overlooking the Hebridean isle of Jura when I heard the news. A bomb had gone off in the UN headquarters in Iraq. Twenty-two people had been killed. It was ten years ago this month, but I remember it well.
It seemed to the teenage me to be a turning point. Whilst revising for my school exams, I had marched against the invasion. Then, after some flashes of fireworks had been beamed into our sitting rooms, George W Bush stood in an implausibly tight uniform on the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner: “Mission Accomplished”.
Bombs had passed with the spring. That summer was about the Hutton Inquiry, the death of Dr David Kelly. Was this brief military adventure really it? Was the violence we had spent so long shouting against over already?
In a bang, that August afternoon, it turned out that it wasn't.
It's true that the short war – shock and awe, Elite Republican Guards and Rageh Omaar – had finished. The statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square had been torn down.
But that day, in the rubble, something else began: the long war, the grinding war, the war where words like 'IED', 'Blackwater' and 'Abu Ghraib', were learnt through fuzzy radio reports, which gradually merged into each other and the background noise.
But there were things torn apart in that bomb which were much more important than any perceptions of one teenager in Scotland.
Arthur Helton and Gil Loescher were refugee experts, writing a column for openDemocracy at the time. They were in the building when the bomb went off.
Before visiting the UN headquarters, they had gone to see the head of the US mission there, Paul Bremer. He gave them his mantra: “The security situation in Iraq is improving day by day. It is under control now”. So, that was that. Summer 2003. The war was over.
Then they went to the Canal Hotel, where the UN had placed their HQ in the city. The two men had got an interview with Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the UN envoy. As they sat down together the bomb went off under his office.
As a child, Arthur Helton had spent his spare time reading a copy of Webster's dictionary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he aced everything at school before heading home each day to share out household chores with his little sister, Pam.
“He had one very good friend through high school” the same little sister told me, “who later would need his assistance” with an immigration problem.
He took an interest in the civil rights movements of the 1960s and, after graduating from the New York University School of Law, spent time standing at the city's docks. As refugees arrived from Haiti, he would support them, represent them, ensure they were treated fairly.
Eventually, he wound up as program director of peace and conflict studies at the Council for Foreign Relations. His book, The Price of Indifference - Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century, won praise from Kofi Annan.
“Sometimes we would see him in news commentaries” Pam says. “He would let us know if he might be on TV. When he spoke on those commentaries, he was sometimes controversial. He certainly answered questions with well-informed authority that sometimes left interviewers speechless. He had virtually a photographic mind, knew his subjects well."
He was driven by his work, only seeing his sister if his job took him near where she was living. “He would always ask about family though”, she says, “even if they were not present.”
“Arthur experienced his field of work first hand. He was fearless and driven to accomplish as much as possible with the tools and skills he had. He knew full well he was dealing with peoples' lives, yet he was very disciplined within a framework of law."
“He was never partisan, always honest, always using the legal and technical approach to problem solving. He was a teacher of others because he saw the value in passing experience and knowledge on. He was extraordinarily patient, chipping away at obstacles like a stone sculptor, be those obstacles people or processes or governments.”
“New York had a massive power outage the weekend before he left for Iraq. Mom called him and he did not know the whole North Eastern area had been affected. He told her about going to Iraq which she did not like, but he said he would call again when he got back since he would be missing her birthday on August 18th.”
He never made that call. On the 19th of August, the day after his mother's birthday, he was killed by the bomb. He had dedicated his life to supporting refugees, and he lost it the same way.
Gil Loescher was in the room too. Ten years on, I stepped onto a bus then walked a couple of miles through the woods to get to his home.
The house itself is the sort of place that every Londoner dreams of retiring to – with an orchard at the bottom of the steep garden, a view over rural Oxfordshire, and plenty space for a brood of grandchildren to run around.
I met Gil as an open topped lift lowered him down into the kitchen. He was sat in the sort of chair which seems to consist of little more than wheels and a plank of wood, and engulfed my hand in his – Gil Loescher is, it turns out, a notably big man.
The hand itself still bears the scars of reconstruction. It was shredded in the explosion. His trousers are tied off above where, once, his knees would have been and he wears a hearing aid – another lasting effect of the blast.
“I'm an American”. I try to work out which corner of the country his accent points to. I can't.
It turns out he was born in San Francisco and grew up in California, but, in the late 60s did his PhD at the London School of Economics before spending 25 years working at the University of Notre Dam, near Chicago.
The PhD focussed on the Vietnam war, and it was then that he developed an interest in refugees and human rights.
“Refugees were just coming to the fore as an important issue. When… I was in London, [I] had done some work for Amnesty International, way back in the 60s and early 70s, and was very interested in human rights issues."
“And then when I finished my PhD, human rights was coming to the fore as a major political issue because when I finished coincided with the election of Jimmy Carter and a whole shift in American foreign policy towards incorporating a human rights element in its outlook.”
He speaks slowly, clearly. You can tell he's spent a lifetime teaching. He is, I would guess, very good at it.
“But it was also a time”, he explains, “when there was this huge boat people crisis and this came to dominate the policy of many people in the State Department in Washington and also it was headline news. The New York Times ran a story on it every day.”
“I was asked, with a colleague, to work for a new US Commission that was appointed by Carter, the President and the Congress - a joint Congressional/Presidential Commission - to look at US refugee policy.”
Since then, he has written or contributed to an impressive list of books on refugee policy, and is described on the websites of numerous university departments and influential organisations with phrases like 'long established expert'. The list of posts he's held, governments he's advised and foundations who have funded him is somewhat intimidating.
I find it difficult to see this academic outside his political context. All ideas are located in an ideology. This, surely, is triply true when it comes to migration and war.
My own job, for the last five years, has been organising and training student activists, and I wonder how much this student of the sixties – writing about Vietnam - was shaped by the famous movements he must have grown up with.
“I was an undergraduate”, Gil explains, “in Northern California, just over the hill from Berkeley and just very close to San Francisco during the late 1960s... it really affected me, influenced my outlook tremendously."
“It did influence me not only in terms of how I thought about things politically, but also socially and every other way. It's one of the reasons why then I went on to do a DPhil dissertation on the Vietnam war and trying to understand it more."
“I also did a lot of travelling in the early 1970s. I went to China for 3 months with a group of other young academics and non academics, some of the people were very politically engaged and lived on a commune and did all kinds of stuff. This was before Nixon went... The world was opening up in this time and these were new frontiers in a way and so all this was very exciting and greatly influenced my outlook."
It was also around this time, “way back in the 70s/early 80s”, that Gil Loescher and Arthur Helton first met.
“Back then the refugee field was pretty small. In fact he was primarily working on human rights issues then got into refugees and asylum”
“We all kind of knew each other.”
“We had, in the spring of 1980, the Mariel boat crisis when 130,000 Cubans came within a couple of months on flimsy boats, followed shortly thereafter by tens of thousands of Haitians doing same thing.”
It's worth noting, perhaps, that these refugees were fleeing two Caribbean dictatorships, each supported by a different side of the Cold War divide.
It was during this period that Helton had developed his habit of standing at the docks in New York, finding Haitian refugees to support.
In a tribute to his friend on the first anniversary of the attack, Gil explains that “Arthur was among the first Americans to put into practise the application of human rights principles in this way.” He had stayed in touch with this dedicated human rights lawyer “because he was someone who worked on issues that were important to me”.
They were, he told me, “colleagues, but also close friends”.
Decades after they first met, their joint sense of purpose led the two of them to carefully track the impacts of the Iraq war, and so to their joint column for openDemocracy. Gil, in particular, had recently developed an interest in the region.
“I had led a big project... looking at the policy of Western states... making asylum very difficult for refugees to obtain, but particularly maintaining that refugees could be kept in their region and dealt with in their region of origin.... the year before, I had spent some time travelling in the Middle East, in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, visiting Iraqi refugees and looking at their situation... That's how I got interested in the issue of the Middle East.”
And so, when it was “getting to be obvious” that there was going to be a Western invasion of Iraq, Gil and Arthur approached openDemocracy and started a series of columns.
Arthur Helton was by this time at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York – perhaps America's most influential foreign policy think tank. Gil was at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London – again, as establishment an organisation as they come.
Council for Foreign Relations building
The thirteen articles the pair wrote for openDemocracy from December 2012 to the fatal August eight months later – which were syndicated onto the websites of the two think tanks - had two main themes.
“First of all” Gil says, “we started the series before the invasion actually happened and we cautioned against an invasion, principally on the grounds that it was probably going to be a political disaster, that the history of Iraq made it evident that this would be very difficult to carry on successfully and that it would probably lead to further ethnic strife.”
“But more importantly that it would probably eventually result in a major displacement of people both internally and externally as refugees - all of which”, he says calmly, “came true”.
One of the things that stands out about the approach taken by the pair is the emphasis on dispassionate evidence and on a legalistic human rights discourse. In a world where both sides of debate were shouting slogans, here were two academics, carefully writing up their findings.
But that doesn't mean that they weren't aware of the political context – they were, Gil says, “trying to point out the wrong headedness of - if not the wrong headedness at least the difficulties that were going to be presented by invading Iraq.”
After the invasion they thought it was necessary to see for themselves the situation in Iraq. Alongside their column for openDemocracy, they had another purpose for their trip - as ever, concern for displaced people themselves was a significant factor for both of them.
“One of my interests”, Gil says, “was to make an initial determination as to whether the situation was safe enough for Iraqi refugees, particularly those tens of thousands I'd visited in the Middle East, whether it was safe for them to return home or not.”
Arthur had started a new NGO “that was supposed to be the intermediary between governments who were making policy and the NGO world but more expertise based.”
He asked Gil to join. “This was actually one of the first trips” for the NGO, “he just started this 6 or so months before”.
If they were there to assess the situation, then their question was soon answered. The bomb was a turning point in the Iraq war. After it, Gil explains, “you get a whole series of suicide bombings”.
“There had been these earlier attacks, suicide bombings, [but] it wasn't at all clear that this was a pattern. In a way, I think it only became a pattern with that attack on the UN.”
As an historical event, the bomb meant something else too.
“It was also a crucial moment in UN history” Gil says. “It was probably the worst incident in the UN history. In fact, I'm sure it was. They still sort of remember it that way. Every August 19th there's a commemoration at the UN for this.”
“It had tremendous effect” Gil explains, “both initially and more long lasting effect - on the UN in terms of its vulnerability, its independence, its perception of neutrality.”
“But even more important than that” he says, “I think it had a larger impact, a larger effect on the whole humanitarian community and in the sense of vulnerability.”
The bombing violently illustrated how perceptions of the UN had shifted.
“The importance of it is that the UN, at least globally, wasn't seen as an actor, as one of the military actors, in this... that this wasn't a military target as such. It was a more symbolic target.”
The UN's history in Iraq was murky however, “there has also been this difficulty of the UN involvement during the Saddam Hussain regime - of the UN food project and of the sense that this was very politicised.”
“And that was something, you know, there was some resentment among some of the Iraqi population towards the UN and then also because the UN had sanctions... imposed against the regime through the UN and other means.”
For Gil, though, there are more immediate concerns than the global ramifications of the bomb which took away his legs and his close friend. He is initially hesitant – it has been written about elsewhere, he tells me. But soon, Gil is outlining the story.
“For Arthur and me, it came out of the blue, it's still very unclear how it actually happened, how the truck loaded with the explosives got access to that back road that took them right up to the building. There's various conspiracy theories about this that some UN staff still believe. It's very unclear.”
“It came as a complete surprise. You know it was a – I don't remember. Apparently I was conscious the whole time. My rescuers, these two firemen on leave, tell me I was, you know, conscious and awake and co-operated and so forth the whole time.”
“I don't remember that. I blacked out - I have just kind of blacked that out. I have little specific memories of, kind of, regaining consciousness after the blast, having been thrown from the third floor down to the ground with the whole building collapsed upon us.”
Where before his explanations were clear, fluent, he now began to stumble a little, to stammer a little, and to pause often. You could feel muscles tense as he touched on still raw memories.
“I remember, you know, I remember… seeing, you know… waving for help, because there was just this long shaft up to the third floor… one of the guys who would come down to help me… waving to get his attention.”
“It was a completely, erm, botched rescue in the sense that - although I mean the two guys, the firemen were terrific. They worked against all these incredible obstacles to save us, because it was just Sergio and me who were alive, everyone else in the room, the six people that were in the room, apart from Sergio and myself, were killed. Instantly, I think.”
Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the man they had been interviewing, had from beneath the rubble managed to call for help on his mobile phone, it later turned out, alerting the rescuers.
“They had nothing. They were working in the dark – in 110 degree heat, Fahrenheit heat, 40C or whatever it was. The building was collapsing, concrete was falling down.
They had nothing to cut through – Sergio was trapped up to here [indicating his waist] with concrete. My legs were trapped. They had nothing to cut through that… which, you know, rescue operations nowadays have.”
“Water was pouring down. They were just scooping up with their hands. They had to lower a handbag, a lady's handbag, down to these two guys to put bricks in - and so forth. It was totally unprofessional.”
“When they finally realised that they… couldn't free me, they then decided the only way to get me out was to saw my legs off.”
“They had nothing except a pocket knife to do that.”
“And they also found an old rusty saw in the building. And that's how they did the amputations.”
“And... and then, to get me out, they had to take some curtains down from above and lower those curtains and then put me in the curtain and pull me up and out… and from there the stretcher out to a helicopter that took me to the airport, where some immediate surgery was done.”
“And then I was on a flight very soon thereafter to Landstuhl in Germany, the US military hospital.”
“It was, you know, given that this was the US military who came to rescue people, was unbelievably bad, unprofessional, the injuries were probably worse than they needed to be.”
Despite this lack of proper resources, Gil has only praise, though, for the two men - First Sergeant William von Zehle and Staff Sergeant Andre Valentine - who managed to save him. They were “on short term duty to do this kind of thing. One guy was from New York, the other was from Connecticut, they had been working as firemen there, where they presumably had much better equipment.”
De Mello was serving as Kofi Annan's representative on Iraq when the bomb went off. But he was doing this during a temporary leave of absence from his usual position – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Brazilian had previously been United Nations Transitional Administrator in East Timor and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi later claimed that he had been targeted specifically because of this. By helping East Timor become independent of Indonesia – the largest Muslim country in the world - he had, apparently, committed a crime.
The fire fighters managed after three hours to rescue Gil Loescher. But just as they freed his body from the rubble, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had been tipped as the next UN Secretary General, died.
When Gil arrived at the hospital in Germany, his doctors calculated his chance of survival: 25%. It's his family who describe the following months best. Day by day, they kept a blog from his bedside. Its pages are now bound in a book, stored at their home. In it, his wife and daughters lay out in detail the ups and downs over the months that follow.
For the first few weeks, Gil was largely unconscious. Every breath squeezed into his body was carefully counted. Every fluctuation in his heart signalled a potential crisis. Every change in his temperature could mean some fatal infection.
There were endless procedures to clean the wounds from where his legs had been amputated, endless operations to reconstruct his hand and upper lip, endless waves of antibiotics and fear.
Each time he was in the operating theatre, the surgeons also hunted through his body, finding ever more shrapnel to remove. At one point, they pulled a large lump of glass from inside his ear – explaining, perhaps, the hearing aid he still wears.
The family spent every day at his bedside learning to bathe him, and learning gradually whose touch would slow his heart, and whose voice would quicken it.
They talked to him, telling him again and again what had happened, that he was safe now, that he'd be OK. They read to him – the books he'd read them as children. They sang to him – returning regularly, they say, to 'Puff the Magic Dragon'.
For a long time, the situation was grave. The inevitable infections of a long intensive care stay kicked in – each one, a huge risk. The family's spirits rose and fell with every word from the doctors.
But gradually, the situation improved. As he stirred one day his exhausted daughter repeated, in case he could hear, 'you made it papa, you made it'.
After a couple of weeks, he was flown on a tiny bi-plane to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. Once there, once his many wounds were grafted shut, once the doctors said it was safe, he was slowly allowed to wake up.
For a long period, he couldn't speak – the tracheotomy hole he was breathing through made that impossible. But, finally, he was allowed to breath for himself – and so, finally, to speak for himself.
“When I regained consciousness, I was with my family, and one of the first things I asked was “Arthur? Is Arthur alive?” And they told me.
His family recount how he wept bitterly for much of that day.
“But I somehow, I somehow think I knew it” he tells me, “but I don't know how I knew it, but partly maybe because, apparently, if I was conscious all that time, those four and a half hours, maybe I kind of figured it out, because it was just me and Sergio around, so, but – anyway...”
He was similarly aware that he had lost his legs, and seriously injured his hand:
“I had also realised that somehow. Because when I woke up, I, yeah, I did, I said ‘I've lost my legs, haven't I? Can I just... can I be reassured that that's what had happened?’ All of that, I was conscious of when it was happening, but then I kind of blacked it out.”
“Obviously there were things that were there, that were still there, that I knew about. That's why I was perhaps not too surprised that Sergio and Arthur died either.”
The doctors who cared for Gil in those terrifying weeks thought, if he did survive, that he wouldn't be home before Christmas. But his recovery, given the scale of the injuries, was remarkable. In fact, he was back for Halloween.
Gil arriving home with his family
An extra sheet – written many months after the blast – is folded into the end of the book. It describes Gil, surrounded by friends and family from across the world, on a pair of prosthetics. It's his daughter's wedding, and he's walking her up the aisle.
Tens years after it happened, it is clearly still difficult for Gil to tell the story. But he finishes with a detail he also wrote about on this site only a few months after the bomb went off – in a piece entitled “I was not going to die in the rubble”.
“The other thing is - that I think is important - is that I survived partly because – I do remember this very well – that after the actual bombing, in the rubble, before the firemen came down, I looked up, this hand was completely… all the skin was gone, the bones were all broken and so-forth, and I realised that I was really in a bad shape.”
“And I realised that I didn't want to die. I didn't want to die.”
“That whatever it took I was going to get through it… and that, moreover, that I had somewhere to go to recover, and I knew that my family would get me through it if I got through that.”
That one word – family - came out with such emotional power that it cracked Gil's voice.
Since that day, Professor Loescher's work on refugees has continued:
“That was also part of my motivation in the rubble – I still had things to do. I wouldn't want to give that up. And it was part of the motivation of my recovery too. I had incredible help. I had a younger colleague. I had only met him a couple of years before we went to Baghdad. James Milner's his name. I've written a lot since with him.”
“Before going to Baghdad, he and I had decided that a big project we wanted to do was to work on protracted refugee situations – refugees who had been in displacement for ten, fifteen years, twenty years or more – two-thirds of the world's refugees now are in protracted refugee situations.”
“So one of my first visitors to the hospital at the IC [intensive care] unit was James. And he came, and he said ‘you know we have this project to do’. I couldn't even speak. And he said ‘I'll come back next week, we'll make an early start’. And he did. Incredible.”
As with the mention of his family, it was not the memory of the crushing in Baghdad which moved Gil most, but the love which carried him afterwards.
Within a year, he had started his job at Oxford – an impressive feat, given his injuries, which he puts partly down to significant help from a number of colleagues. And soon enough he was back doing what he loves most, with James Milner.
“Three, no two, two and a half years after being injured, we went back to the field together, went to the Thai-Burmese border and travelled two thousand kilometres - spent two, three weeks visiting camps. It was great, and I couldn't have done it without him. Yeah, I've had enormous help.”
“And it's been wonderful” he says, teaching in the Refugee Studies Centre's graduate programme. “I teach one course every year, and it's really enjoyable. The masters level students are all in their 20s to 30s and a lot of them have had experience in the field, it's a great group of students I have every year.”
Learning to do all of this in a wheelchair, is, of course, “very difficult”.
“I've kept to a manual wheelchair because I want to be physically strong as long as I can.”
For such a well travelled man, there is a clear frustration at his own home city and university:
“Oxford is a nightmare – the pavements, the cambre, of the pavements! Try going on that cambre! It's just a nightmare. It's kind of humiliating at times having to be carried up in my chair, up a flight of stone steps to get to the dining hall at one or two of the colleges... I find that hard to swallow.”
“There are places I can't go to, and if there's an interesting lecture I can't go to it.”
Perhaps partly as a result, his shoulders are starting to give now.
“I'm fighting to delay having to go in an electric wheelchair for as long as I can, but inevitably it's going to happen, I think.”
Rebuilding his life also meant making the whole house wheelchair-accessible.
“It was a big venture. Huge venture.”
However, he's happier when telling me about his outdoor vehicle:
“It's called a tramper. It has a 30 mile charge, it goes up a one in four grade. We have a trailer, and we go to Scotland and the Lake District.”
“We used to walk, and one of the hardest things for me is not being able to climb mountains and to walk... I've been able to keep some of that life.”
“I was very athletic – I was 6ft 8 inches tall – I was on a basketball scholarship at an American college. I played basketball. It was a big part of my life when I was younger. And all that's... so, you know, yeah, in several ways it's been difficult.
It's not just in Oxford that it's hard. Disabled people have been in the front line of the current government's cuts.”
“I am very angry about the present government and the fact that they have just kind of used the economic downturn – the recession – as an excuse to carry out these politically motivated reforms, to create the kind of society that fits well with conservative thinking, and that there are a lot of people, not just disabled people, who are suffering the consequences of that. It makes me angry as hell.”
“Particularly in a way, last summer I went a couple of days to the Paralympics. That was really very inspiring to me. I've never seen so many wheelchairs in one place in my life. It was just wonderful – it was all set up for people. And then, on the other hand, the next year, they start to initiate all these cuts.”
Gil Loescher's story over the last decade is, though, ultimately a happy one. Since lying crushed in the rubble he has rebuilt his life. The future he imagined as he clung on for those hours has, largely, played out.
The same cannot be said for the broader story.
“Things haven't got any better in Iraq in the ten years – nor have they got any better in the broader region”.
“I remember writing these articles before going, the policy makers don't appreciate the history – Sunni/Shia. There's nothing new in this” he says, “it's just the tyrants of the past many decades have suppressed that, but that's what's happening – it's not a surprise that there's this growing Sunni/Shia rift throughout the region. It's a nightmare.”
I suggest a simple hypothesis: “You were right”.
“At least” Gil says, “the way they went about it – I mean an outright military intervention and then with no thought, or very little thought, about what you're going to do with that, in terms of a new political and social order.”
Gil is a major character in the history of openDemocracy. As I'm about to take on the task of co-editing one of its sections, I ask him what advice he can give me.
At this point, a voice appears, with an almost joking tone, from upstairs – Gil's wife:
“You want my advice? Don't go! Don't go!”
Gil, however, has a different attitude:
“I can't give advice about going to places. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had been to lots of places before. The highlight of my professional life has been the missions overseas – particularly to refugee camps.”
“I feel tremendously privileged to have spent time with distressed, threatened people who are willing to spend time talking to me about their lives. That's the highlight of my life – one of the highlights of my life, very much so.”
“And I think, if you're going to be a journalist, I think that it's probably really important to go to the field, to speak to the people who are victimised, and not just to rely on speaking to people in the corridors of power. I think it brings a whole new life to journalism and to how we perceive the world ourselves.”
This advice reminded me of something. Jean Baudrillard argued that the 1990-91 Gulf War did not take place. It was, he said, an atrocity which masqueraded as a war. The US military developed an extraordinary ability to spin the media and so warp the public understanding in the West of the bombing. This meant that what happened in reality was only tangentially related to the performance we call “the Gulf War” played out on our tellies.
We can't, he argued, give the two events – the TV fiction and the deadly reality - the same name. By the time of the Iraq war, Bush's guru Karl Rove was mocking opponents of the regime for residing in the “reality based community”.
“That's not the way the world works anymore” he famously said. “When we act, we create our own reality.”
Arthur Helton and Gilburt Loescher went to Iraq because they cared about the old fashioned notion that reality does matter. They went partly for the readers of their columns and, more importantly, for tens of thousands of refugees who just wanted to go home.
That struggle to establish the truth is a dangerous one. It cost Gil Loescher his legs and Arthur Helton his life. But it is the only defence there is against those who wish to control what we know.
Arthur and Gil's columns can be read here.
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