Mazen Dana, father of four young children, Palestinian, award-winning cameraman for Reuters wire service, was shot dead at close range by a US soldier while filming the damage from a mortar attack on an Iraqi prison. Sergio Vieira de Mello, father, Brazilian, UN envoy to Iraq, was killed when a truck bomb exploded beneath the window of his office in Baghdad. They both died within 48 hours of each other.
Iraq is a dangerous place right now, still in the grip of war, where US soldiers, young and petrified, are stuck in automatic-kill mode. All cars are suspect. Driving too fast or turning the corner into an unmarked roadblock can get a whole family slaughtered by automatic weapons fire. Hold something up to your face and a terrified soldier might see a gun or a grenade launcher where none exists. All targets are soft in a guerrilla war.
What did Mazen Dana and Sergio Vieira de Mello have in common? A lot. Mazen Dana’s home was in the city of Hebron in the West Bank, where he filmed Israeli military incursions into the West Bank, and where he’d been shot and beaten, camera in hand, several times in the past three years. Sergio Vieira de Mello was the UN’s triage specialist, handling refugee populations in Kosovo, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Peru, and Sudan. He stepped into the aftermath of a horrific Rwandan genocide overlooked by the Clinton administration and spent three years guiding East Timor on a rocky road to independence.
Both men, it turns out, were witnesses to conflict and genocide, to murder that comes in the middle of the night, kicks down the door, irreparably separates families, destroys homes, and leaves its mark as brown bloodstains on the floor.
Such witnesses sometimes become ambassadors for the dead. Mazen Dana’s recordings of the terrible destruction of his homeland are a window into the world’s worst continuing conflict, now unfortunately forced into the background by another war–the one that’s killed him.
Other such witnesses try to help living victims cope with the aftermath of violence. Sergio Vieira de Mello stepped into the role of UN High Commissioner for Refugees to do some of the hardest and most rewarding work imaginable: to bring the half-dead–the homeless, stateless, displaced, and dispossessed–back into the world of the living. Both Dana and Vieira de Mello straddled the boundary between life and death.
Both men were also internationals, world citizens. There was no nation that could claim Vieira de Mello’s full allegiance, unless it was the whole world community. And, truly, there is no nation for Mazen Dana and the people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and all hope of one seems to be receding further with every passing day.
Both men belonged to a small community of fearless people. Not the “courageous” boys who go to war, gun in hand, to defend a lie. Vieira de Mello and Dana were part of the fearless community of people who walk into danger with nothing in their hands but a camera, a pen, a sack of grain, a handful of medicine, a canvas tent, or a press pass–the people who meet violence with only their humanity as a shield. This takes a kind of courage that simply can’t be comprehended by the people who are running this inexplicable war.
Take, for example, the man supposedly in charge of US forces in Iraq, George W. Bush. He recently visited my home, Washington State. It was a one-day, breathtaking smash-and-grab. After lecturing us about salmon restoration while standing next to a dam that has nearly extinguished several salmon runs, Bush bypassed Seattle entirely so he could rub elbows with multi-millionaire, suburbanite cellphone magnate Craig MacCaw and collect $1.4 million for his reelection campaign. With cowardice leaking from the pores of his sweating face, Bush rode an armored limousine into Boeing Field and hopped onto Air Force One so he could beat it out of town before sundown. The Wild West scares him half to death. Six hours and not a single face-to-face meeting with an ordinary human being.
It’s ironic that the UN, which has now been attacked by both sides in this unforgivable war, must sit quietly and listen to Colin Powell’s demands for more international troops in Iraq. Powell, surely, has become the anti-Sergio Vieira de Mello: a man who is the ambassador from nowhere and represents nothing. The Bush administration has undercut him so many times now that he can’t be taken seriously anymore. Instead, the international community turns its ear to Donald Rumsfeld, the man who’s obviously in control in Washington DC. Rumsfeld, however, is the anti-Mazen Dana: a man who can’t show us any proof, tell us any truth, give us any facts or figures, or describe Arabic people as anything but terrorists or victims. If Dana and Vieira de Mello were ambassadors for the disaffected, for people who are literally dying to find their way to some kind of freedom and peace, then Rumsfeld and Powell are surely the undertakers for Empire.
In a world run by the exterminators, men like Vieira de Mello and Dana, who routinely walk into war with only their wits and honor for weapons, are destined to die in some violent and terrible way. Did their deaths have meaning?
Certainly the international community will remember Mazen Dana. Of course, they had more access to his film footage than we Americans do. We’ve only been allowed to see film stock taken by reporters in bed with the US Army, flat on their backs with their conscience squashed beneath them. Mazen Dana inspired a whole generation of reporters in Israel and Palestine who admired and loved him and were inspired by his professionalism and courage. The real news will continue to flow in his honor, even if the wave never reaches our shores.
Sergio Vieira de Mello, likewise, will be mourned by the international community that had hoped he might one day replace the retiring Kofi Annan as UN Secretary General. Vieira de Mello’s death has already had a serious impact on the international community: the Bush administration’s few allies in Iraq are having second thoughts about participating in this ill-conceived war. Poland has withdrawn its troops from a 1,000 square kilometer region just south of Baghdad. Japan has postponed deployment of 1,000 troops to Iraq. Thailand also is reviewing its original commitment to send 400 troops. Even Turkey, eager to gain access to the northern oil fields in Iraq, is suffering second thoughts: its parliament may not approve a commitment of 10,000 troops promised by the Turkish military. And other nations that haven’t made firm commitments–India, Pakistan, Egypt, Germany, Russia, France–have carried the burden of peacekeeping operations in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia with little or no help from the United States. What goes around comes around.
In the end, Mazen Dana and Sergio Vieira de Mello might both, in death, become ambassadors for peace. We can only hope, and try to help make that happen.