Netflix’s Sergio: How No Hindu or Abrahamic God Saved My Friend

“In addition to the God of Abraham, may the 333,000 Hindu gods watch over you, my friend.”

Updated30 Apr 2020, 05:52 AM IST
Opinion
6 min read

One of the features of the current lockdown era in our COVID-19 restricted lives is the amount of time people are making for books and cinema, especially on video-streaming services. Those with Netflix have made a well-deserved hit out of the new film Sergio, about my friend and colleague, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was assassinated in Baghdad in 2003 when the United Nations Headquarters in that city was truck-bombed by an Al-Qaeda terrorist.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was killed in Baghdad. 
Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was killed in Baghdad. 
Photo Courtesy: UN

The film is beautifully made and acted, and its images have haunted me since I saw it three nights ago. It brought back painful and emotional memories of 19 August 2003 when we at the UN lost 23 friends and co-workers amidst the devastation. I am grateful that the film has reminded the world that the UN is not just a faceless bureaucracy—by paying a richly deserved tribute to the selfless courage of those who had gone half a world away from their homes to die in the service of their fellow human beings. But ultimately, it is still a film. The real people it depicts are gone for ever.

Shashi Tharoor at Sergio’s remembrance meet.
Shashi Tharoor at Sergio’s remembrance meet.
(Photo Courtesy: Shashi Tharoor)

Netflix Film Didn’t Capture Sergio’s Charisma

I lost many friends and colleagues amidst the rubble that tragic Tuesday. But one loss continued to stalk my waking days and restless nights for weeks, and that was of a friend I had cherished throughout the 25 years of my United Nations career—the principal target of the killers and the head of the UN mission in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The film portrayed him well, as the most brilliant and most widely experienced of the remarkable officials who have served the United Nations in trouble-spot after trouble-spot. But even the romanticised footage of him could not fully capture the extent to which Sergio, killed in his prime at 55, was full of life, and of all the qualities that make life glow.

Wagner Moura as Sergio in Netflix biopic.
Wagner Moura as Sergio in Netflix biopic.
Photo: Netflix

His charisma was of the kind that lit up a room as soon as he entered it, boyishly handsome even after his hair began to grey, with movie-star good looks that many women found irresistible. He was often described as charming, but there was neither arrogance nor superficiality about his charm. His manner was consistently open and friendly; he spoke with sincerity and directness, yet knew how not to offend; he laughed easily, inveigling those around him into the shared complicity of his humour.

Shashi Tharoor at Sergio’s remembrance meet.
Shashi Tharoor at Sergio’s remembrance meet.
(Photo Courtesy: Shashi Tharoor)

Here’s What My Friend Sergio Was Like

Sergio was an outstanding listener. I can still recall him in conversation, his eyes narrowing in concentration, his head nodding in engagement with your argument. He had that rare gift of establishing a close rapport with strangers in a matter of minutes; a staggeringly large number of people considered themselves amongst his closest friends. This was partly because his warmth was genuine. He embraced his fellow human beings whole, whether individually or collectively, and his gregariousness came infused with a tangible affection.

Sergio’s bust in Geneva.
Sergio’s bust in Geneva.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He was generous to a fault: invite him to dinner, and he would come proffering a box of chocolates the size of the coffee-table. Many of us he called his brothers, and there is no doubt at all that he meant it, sweeping us into a fraternity of shared commitment to the ideals of the organization to which he devoted his entire adult life.

Sergio’s India Connection

Sergio joined the United Nations in 1970 at 22 (the very age at which I followed him on to the staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees eight years later). From very early on he was marked as a man of exceptional ability in an organization full of high achievers. He had all the skills of the international diplomat—grace and elegance, self-confidence in unfamiliar situations, a talent for communicating easily across cultural barriers, an instinctive respect for other points of view, and a re markable fluency in several languages (he was articulate in a sparkling, idiomatic style in Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English).

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Shashi Tharoor at a candlelight vigil in Sergio’s memory. 
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Shashi Tharoor at a candlelight vigil in Sergio’s memory. 
Photo Courtesy: Shashi Tharoor 

But he was above all what the French call “un homme de terrain”—a man of the field, a man of action. The first major refugee crisis on which he cut his teeth was on our soil—the influx of ten million Bengali refugees into India in 1971, the largest refugee exodus known to humanity. Sergio went on to serve the refugee cause in Latin America, Africa and South-east Asia. But though refugee work was a passion, he was too restless a spirit to be confined by any single endeavour. He had stints in peace-keeping, in Lebanon and later in the former Yugoslavia (at a time when I worked on the same issue at Headquarters in New York) -- both situations in which he amply demonstrated both his courage and his excellent political judgement.

Why He Was a Trusted United Nations Man

To get him back to UNHCR headquarters, the United Nations invented a job for him that had not existed before: Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees. But soon thereafter he was promoted by Kofi Annan to Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in New York.

Co-ordinating humanitarian action was never going to be, for Sergio, a long-term alternative to conducting humanitarian action. When the United Nations was asked, at 72 hours' notice, to take over the civil administration of Kosovo, Sergio it was who was sent down there to set up the operation.

He had no sooner returned to the tranquillity of New York than a bigger challenge loomed—running the newly-liberated land of East Timor during the troubled period after the departure of the Indonesians. He was an outstanding success: no territory could have had a more capable, more compassionate short-term Viceroy to guide it to independence. Sergio’s accomplishments were crowned with his appointment as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Sergio in East Timor.
Sergio in East Timor.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He had done the job for only seven months when the emergency summons came again, to Iraq. This time he took it on reluctantly. He was looking forward to the more settled life he was simply not destined to have.

No God, Hindu or Abrahamic, Could Save Sergio in Iraq

When he left for Iraq we had an email exchange that will remain forever seared in my memory. During the war he had made some statements in a television interview that rankled some Muslim friends of mine. Knowing Sergio as I did, I sent him one friend's email, even though it was harshly critical of him. Sergio replied to my friend with such extraordinary receptivity and honesty that the critic (an Iranian) was instantly disarmed. He wrote to Sergio praying “May the God of Abraham protect you in Iraq.” I added, only half-jocularly, “In addition to the God of Abraham, may the 333,000 Hindu gods watch over you, my friend”.

Sergio's reply was typical. “Thank you, my brother,” he wrote. “I will need every one of the 333,000 to keep me safe.” Sadly, not one of them, it seems, was listening.

Sergio’s mortal remains wrapped in the UN flag.
Sergio’s mortal remains wrapped in the UN flag.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When the news came of his passing, the journalist who conveyed it to me recalls I screamed out “No” in a voice that was heard down the corridor from my office. I remember dialling his cell-phone number in a stupid, impossible gesture of hope that his familiar voice might answer. It took me more than three years to delete his name from my phone-book. I am grateful to Netflix that, thanks to the film-makers, Sergio’s name and his life will ring with meaning for a new generation.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Published: 28 Apr 2020, 09:43 AM IST
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