Thursday, 11 February 2010
Haiti: United Nations Staff
On 13 January the television news started to penetrate Australia’s summer reverie with images of the devastation in Haiti caused by the earthquake that had occurred in the late afternoon of the previous day—the anguish on faces of shocked and terrified survivors, the bodies in the streets, the injured, the crushed buildings, and aerial views of the national palace, the cathedral and the Christopher Hotel, which housed the United Nations headquarters, all collapsed in ruins.
I talked on Monday in this place about the devastation suffered by the Haitian people in this disaster. Again, I offer to the citizens of Haiti my deepest condolences. This terrible event also resulted in the largest loss of staff lives in the UN’s history. Over a number of days the news emerged that almost 100 UN staff from 28 countries had perished in the mass of concrete and rubble. This included four of my friends—people I had worked and socialised with in Kosovo and Gaza. In such difficult places, your friends are your family.
Luiz Carlos da Costa was the deputy head of the UN stabilisation mission in Haiti. Words can hardly do justice to this gentleman of the world—a brilliant, warm, charismatic, soft-spoken Brazilian man who was also, as described by his wife at his memorial service, ‘drop-dead gorgeous’. Like the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Luiz started out in the UN as a messenger boy and worked his way up over four decades to one of the highest posts in the UN system. He was responsible for recruitment in UN peacekeeping for decades and he signed my own appointment letter when I started with the UN peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in 1999. Luiz was known for his professionalism and dedication to the UN, for his kindness and for his egalitarian treatment of staff and his fierce loyalty to them. As the secretary-general said in his condolence statement:
He was a mentor to generations of UN staff … His legacy lives in the thousands that serve under the blue flag in every corner of the globe.
I remember Luiz once telling me how sad he was at the death of his fellow countryman Sergio Vieira de Mello in the Baghdad bombing in 2003. What a devastating blow to Brazil, the UN and the international community to have now lost both of these incredible international civil servants. I worked with Luiz and his assistant Jerome Yap in Kosovo and later in New York. Jerome, from the Philippines, steadfastly supported Luiz over the last 15 years—accompanying him to Kosovo, Liberia and Haiti. Jerome was a happy person who loved to sing, and he was a member of the UN choir. I kept in touch with Jerome through Facebook but my last message to him went unanswered as he too was tragically killed in Haiti.
Emmanuel Rejouis, from France/Haiti, and Emily Sanson, from New Zealand, were friends of mine in Kosovo—staying with me and my housemate Matthew at one stage. They later married and had three beautiful daughters. After stints in many countries they were posted to Haiti. Emily was at work at the UN when the earthquake struck. She ran home to where Emmanuel was taking care of their daughters, but the building was collapsed. She found her youngest daughter Alyahna alive under Emmanuel’s body—he had been sheltering her when he died. Their other two little daughters did not survive. Emmanuel was a kind and gentle person who loved his family and his fellow human beings. Their daughters Kofi-Jade and Zenzie were beautiful and sassy children.
Another close friend lost in the Haiti quake was Jean-Philippe Laberge, a French-Canadian with whom I worked in Gaza, along with his wife Victoria. I was on the UNRWA panel that interviewed Jean-Philippe for the job as an Operations Support Officer in Gaza. I liked him immediately as he was smart and funny and laid back, while being completely professional. As his friends have noted in our condolence letter to Victoria and his mother Marjolaine: he had a mischievous style, which masked his essential shyness, and he was one of the most sensitive and caring persons you could meet as well as being a thoroughly reliable colleague and a true leader, making the right decisions in difficult and dangerous situations, as was often the case in Gaza.
The nicest New Year’s Eve I ever experienced was a few years ago at a party Jean-Philippe and Victoria held in Montreal. Many of the Gaza friends were together again—such a lot of champagne, such beautiful memories. In one of those strange coincidences, Jean-Philippe’s memorial service is happening now in Montreal as I speak and my thoughts are certainly with him and his family, especially Victoria and their two young children.
To all of my UN friends who are gone, it was a privilege to have known and worked alongside you. As one mourner put it:
You thought only of bringing good to the world—
… represented all that is best about the human race … Marcel Proust thought that people who have passed away remain with us through our memories of them. “It is as though,” he wrote, “they have gone abroad”.
So, then, Luiz, Jean-Philippe, Jerome and Emmanuel, you and your fallen colleagues have gone abroad to join Dag Hammarskjold, Sergio Vieira de Mello, Count Folke Bernadotte, Iain Hook, Jean-Selim Kanaan and many other UN soldiers for peace. But our memories of you will remain strongly with us and will fortify us in carrying on your work to restore dignity to the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. In the immortal words of Wordsworth:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.