CHASING THE FLAME: SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO AND THE FIGHT TO SAVE THE WORLD by Samantha Power (Penguin), 622 pages, $32.95. Rating: NNNNN
The Iraq war has spawned many tragedies. Among the most terrible was the enormous explosion in Baghdad that ended the life of one of the most remarkable men to rise through the bloated and often dysfunctional United Nations bureaucracy.
Sérgio Vieira de Mello was anything but a grey apparatchik of the world body. With movie-star good looks and disarming humour, the Brazilian made his reputation as a man who, in pursuit of humanitarian objectives, could charm even the sourest war criminal.
Vieira de Mello’s dramatic life is told with verve by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power.
The son of an alcoholic intellectual father, he embraced Marxism in France in the late 1960s and moved on to many postings with the UN.
His work took him to the steaming jungles of Cambodia, where he met Khmer Rouge killers; to the camps in Zaire where Rwandan refugees lived at the mercy of the genocidal war criminals in their midst; to East Timor, where Indonesian death squads hunted supporters of independence; and finally to war-ravaged Baghdad.
His career was often marked by controversy. In 1981, he volunteered to act as political adviser to the commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, only to watch as Israeli troops swarmed past the pathetic UN force in its bloody mission to destroy the PLO.
While this was one of the darkest moments in Vieira de Mello’s career as the UN’s go-to guy in crisis situations, his neutrality during the wrenching Balkan wars of the 1990s led to accusations that he favoured Serbia.
This is a terrific book that will break your heart.
Power is interviewed by Heather Reisman at Indigo, Monday (April 14).