Newsmaker: Staffan de Mistura, face of the UN in Iraq; no stranger to death, violence

2 February 2009

The top United Nations man in Baghdad knows death and violence up close.

So it was with pride and satisfaction that Staffan de Mistura, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Special Representative for Iraq, observed this weekend's provincial elections taking place largely in peace, a far cry from the suicide bombers, fiery explosions and deadly gunfights that marked an earlier tour in the strife-torn country four years ago.

But it was a violent, senseless death that first brought Mr. de Mistura to work at the UN when he was a volunteer accompanying a World Food Programme (WFP) official in Cyprus in the late Sixties.

"I was just a young student, but on that occasion, as a young volunteer just carrying his backpack, I saw in front of my eyes, for the first time in my life, someone die," he told the UN News Centre in a Newsmaker interview. It was a young kid, killed by a sniper. It was on the Green Line, the line separating the two groups, the two entities.

"I could not understand why a young boy, a civilian, should be the victim of a conflict between two different ideas or two different political convictions. It produced in me a very strong level of calm outrage that then convinced me I would like to dedicate my life to make it difficult for war to take place and to affect civilians. That was the main motivation for me to join the UN."

Mr. de Mistura has now been with the UN nearly 40 years, and nearly always in conflict situations, in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Lebanon - and in Iraq four times - blood-soaked stations that mark the modern geography of war, violence, genocide and repression.

"What certainly did have an impact on me was the period in Somalia during the worst time, 1991, the siege of Sarajevo, the siege of Dubrovnik, the first period in Kosovo, the airdrops of food aid in Sudan, the hunger in Ethiopia in 1984 - each of them had an impact on my professional and emotional life and at the same time it taught me how we could try to improve in order to make sure that we could get the best out of the UN wherever we were," he said.

Of his first tour in Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was still in charge, there was a humanitarian crisis, whereas now it is much less evident, Mr. de Mistura stressed. "What I always noticed, at that time and even now, was that the Iraqi people have a unique resilience," he said.

"They believe in their country; they are very, very creative intellectually. The engineers and doctors were the best in the Middle East. They're able to rebuild their bridges. The challenge this time was not to build bridges but to build bridges between them."

And what of a realistic best-case scenario for Iraq in the next five years?

"I would not speculate," Mr. de Mistura said. "I could only tell you my hope - that Iraq will be finally what it always deserved to be: a much respected country in the region, a peaceful country, and will finally enjoy and share its wealth."

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