UNsung Heroes

Vincent Cochetel arrives to Moscow after his release

In 2008, when Samantha Powers’s biography of Sergio De Mello, “Chasing the Flame: One Man’s fight to Save the World,” was published it was a bit of an oddity.  Jon Stewart’s interview with Rachel Weiz prior to the release of her new film “The Whistleblower” last month was more run of the mill. 

“I am going to lose faith in our institutions,” Stewart quipped, “to hear that the UN mismanaged military contractors in a war-torn nation.” 

I cringed.  As an American “International Civil Servant” you get used to a certain degree of reflexive anti-UNism in our political discourse.  But, when it comes from the left, from a pundit you actually respect, it is unexpected and stings. 

I happened to be in New York when Powers’s book came out and I excitedly bought it in hardback.  Powers painted a picture of Sergio De Mello as a very cool and deeply flawed guy who, while accomplishing incredible things at some of the defining UN missions of his era, was also (for most of his life) a hard-drinking womanizer.  I couldn’t put the book down and, okay, I admit it – I became a bit of a Sergio groupie after finishing it.*  Many of my UN colleagues gently chided me,

“It’s ridiculious to lionize a man just because he happened to be killed at the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.”

The unspoken paratheses at the end of this sentence seemed to be, “no UN staff member deserves to have such praise heaped on them.”  Why not?  Sergio’s death was tragic, but his life was extraordinary.  When I was in the Marine Corps I pored over the autobiographies of Chesty Puller, Dan Daly and all the rest.  I devoured every detail of these men’s lives and remained hungry for more – what made these guys tick?  Ask a Marine what he loves most about the Corps and the words you will hear mentioned most frequently include, comraderie, esprit de corps, tradition and history.  Part of this ethos is the mystquie of the larger than life men whose stories are the story of the Marine Corps.  Was it so strange to be fascinated by the UN’s luminaries?  More to the point, was it so strange to assert that we have even had luminaries? The UN has had its share of heroes: Ralph Bunche, Paddy Ashdown, Dag Hammarskjold – these men’s stories are the story of the United Nations.  And not every one of them gets the attention they deserve.    

In the summer of 2009 I attended the United Nations / Scotland Yard Hostage Incident Management Course.  Here 32 professional UN Security Officers were indoctrinated in the nitty gritty of the negotiation process and the ins and outs of managing a hostage incident.  All week I had been waiting excitedly for the Friday session, when we were to hear from Vincent Cochetel.  Vincent is a senior manager at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and holds the dubious distinction of being the UN staff member held longest in captivity – 11 months in Chechnya. 

As Vincent stepped in front the class I thought he looked a bit like the American comedian Robin Williams, like your favorite college professor – ruffled, scholarly.  At the beginning of this talk he apologized for his strong French accent.  You don’t really apologize for a French accent though, you draw attention to it and then smile as the crowd warms up to you.  Say what you want to about the French, but you have to admit, they are some charming sons of bitches.   

Vincent was abducted from his apartment in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia.  A gun was put to his head and he was told to kneel.  He commented that when you watch films or read books you always think of what you would do in such a situation.  No one thinks they will kneel.  But, as Vincent put it, when the gun is pointed to your brow, “You kneel.  And you are afraid.”  The weight of these two sentences hung in the room for several moments after he said them.  He spent 72 hours in the trunks of various vehicles on his way to Chechnya.  When he arrived he stank of dried piss and was so cramped he could hardly stand. 

The men tending to Vincent in captivity rotated.  He spoke of sexual advances, of days without food, of eating soup he knew had been fouled by a particular nasty pair of teenagers’ urine.  Don’t try to set limits for yourself he warned; when trying to purchase survival, you forfeit the right to negotiate the price.  He spoke of life inside his skull, playing translation games in his head from French to Turkish to English, of decorating an imaginary house in his mind, of working out with the frame of his bed.  He spoke of a near release.  He spoke of UN Security Personnel with a degree of respect that is not often heard in the organization.  Sometimes he paused and sometimes his voice wavered, but when it did so it wavered with courage. 

Vincent is a professional United Nations staff member who bravely endured terrifying conditions in the service of others.  I cannot imagine the pain he felt when one of his captors whispered his thanks for the UNHCR shelter that housed him and his family during the first Chechen war.  Vincent tells his own story much better than I ever could – here’s a clip of an interview he gave on World Humanitarian Day in 2010.  If there is a part of the heart that produces valor, then the experience left that part of Vincent’s heart swollen. 

Most days I’m glad I ended up a Field Security Officer in the United Nations and not in the alphabet soup of U.S. government agencies where I thought I would find myself after graduate school.  Like any big bureaucracy, the UN has its defects (but, as someone who has been a defense contractor, I cannot say they are any worse than the waste and abuse I saw at the Pentagon), but there are also great things about the organization and the people that serve within it.    In U.S. political culture, one’s attitude toward the UN traditionally constitutes a sort of political litmus test: positive = liberal, negative = conservative.  But, after you see the missions in Chad, Darfur, Haiti and all the rest, you understand that the United States is dependent on the UN for cost effective peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention.  My experience in the United Nations has made me a true believer in it. 

That’s not to say that I don’t find myself sometimes nauseated when my colleagues casually justify risky field trips with spongy humanitarian buzzwords like “encouraging sustainability,”  “fostering a gender balanced approach” and “capacity building.”  The end-goal of any humanitarian program should be to make itself unnecessary.  I worry that this is not always the objective of people whose livelihoods are tied to specific projects.  But, while it may sound hopelessly jingoistic, the raw fact of the matter is that if there was no UN the United States would often be forced to choose between letting chaos continue unchecked in many parts of the world or footing the bill of intervention alone.  What would be the third option?  In terms of human life, international security and money, it is bi-partisanly in U.S. national interest that UN peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions be done well.  The sooner American policy makers recognize this and give the organization the capabilities to live up to its obligations, the better.       

I made a point of approaching Vincent after his talk and I wish I could have come up with something better than a firm handshake and “Thank you so much for that.”  It was a good reminder for me: despite my occasional disgust with the more fervent tree embracers among my colleagues, the vast majority of the women and men serving in the organization are proud dedicated, international civil servants.  And many of them are made of tougher stuff than they are given credit for.  Happy World Humanitarian Day.**

**On August 19 2003 22 people were killed in the bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq.  World Humanitarian Day is held on the anniversary of this attack. 

***Vincent, thank you for your permission to write about this.  


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