“I remember photographing the UN flag as we entered the compound around 3:45pm that day, on what was to be my last day on mission in Baghdad. That’s the one picture – eerily blurred – that has survived among all my belongings in the attack, and my laissez-passer [UN passport] which came scorched and shrapneled to me several months after the attack to New York.
“I went to my office which was exactly below Sergio’s [Vieira de Mello] in that part of the building which is now the famous picture of the collapsed three floors in the ground. I was not supposed to be attending the meeting that my boss was having with [UN Humanitarian coordinator in Iraq] Ramiro Lopes da Silva across the corridor but exactly at 4:05, the attack was at 4:15, [my supervisor] Benon Sevan came back across the hallway and said – I think you should attend this meeting. And literally 10 minutes later, I was sitting across from [head of UN World Health Organization in Iraq] David Nabarro’s assistant when I saw the diluting pupils, this light flashed first before we heard the thud and then felt the impact. And the next thing I knew was Benon grabbing me and Ramiro and crashing us to the floor to protect us from the flying shattered glass. Beyond that I have a huge gap, a blackout, in how I exited the room which was literally on the precipice where the second floor had collapsed and where Sergio, Arthur Helton and Gil Loescher were trapped. And when I came out onto the lawn, it was a scene of a massacre.
“I was soon told I was a non-essential despite my protestation at not wanting to leave the scene and sent to one of the US barracks which had become a triage hospital. I remember the moment that the news came through the walkie talkie to say that Sergio was gone. I remember I was the last one to be stitched up and wearing a t-shirt with “Operation Iraqi Freedom”; it was after the Baghdad curfew and the Americans suggested I stay overnight but I would have none of it…I happened to stay at the by now haunted Cedar Hotel because it was the hotel where Sergio and his team were staying. So three floors were all rooms of ghosts. And I remember Ghassan Salameh putting a shashlik and a stiff drink in front of me, and saying – drink up and go to bed.
“…I got my closure when I went back to Iraq four years later. Why I think it’s important to remember August 2003 Baghdad is simply because Baghdad was and is bigger than Baghdad: it has essentially changed everything for the UN. How we do things. Who we are. What the world thinks of us. What we think of us. And that doesn’t necessarily reflect only of those who we lost in Baghdad, but we have a responsibility I think to those friends and colleagues, and locals, lost in other places to this day – in Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia, Algeria, Libya, the list is endless.
“I often think about the colleagues we lost that day and the age they had many in their early 30s – there was a certain buzz around that dream team, and they embodied exactly the spirit of the UN flag – defying risk, rising above politics, speaking up for those whose voices were silenced, pushing against all odds and keep going back. It’s been 15 years later and I often think they would now be around their 40s and 50s, and the loss of potential, of people who believed in what they were doing, finding the sense of possible where no-one else could or would, the “UN blue” recruits as I call them.”
Elpida Rouka is currently a Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow at Yale University. She most recently served as Chief of Staff for Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy on Syria, and remains part of the UN’s “good offices” team to that country. She has spent over 15 years with the UN, and returned to Iraq in 2007.