1 September 2003

Within an hour's notice, distraught internationalist started arriving at the plaza across U.N. Headquarters on First Avenue and Forty-Seventh Street. They embraced and hugged, some openly sobbing, some holding their tears. Volunteers offered candles. About 7pm, men and women mingling regardless of rank or prominence started lighting from one another in dignified silence. Clerical secretaries mingled with Under-Secretary-Generals in the true spirit of dedicated civil servants. It was a vigil to honour beloved colleagues, victims of a terrorist car bomb the day before in Baghdad. Every face seemed somehow familiar. Everyone looked like a friend. UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brown intently listening, intent and confident as always; newly appointed Ombudsman former Jamaican Ambassador Patricia Durrant, casually attired as she joined in chanting "Amazing Grace." Micheline, wife of Food for Oil Chief Benon Sevan who was miraculously saved, alternating between French and English greeting other colleagues while awaiting a call from her husband in Baghdad. Security Chief Mike McCann discreetly surveying the scene, sensitive and courteous. Under-Secretary-General Nitin Desai, short-sleeved, surrounded by friends. Retired colleagues like Leona Forman, a Brazilian compatriot of Sergio Vieira de Mello and her husband, Professor Shephard, the unflinching internationalist, standing with members of the International Peace Academy. New Under-Secretary-General for Administration and Management Catherine Bertini, sincere and compassionately exchanging consolations. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette arrived and delivered brief sincere and effectively emotional remarks; she graciously stood aside in respectful silence. Apparently Shashi Tharoor, Mr. Annan's Under- Secretary-General for Communications, volunteered to speak in the apparent delay of the Secretary-General. But that was not deemed required. Sirens announced the approaching motorcade, though that was not necessary in such an atmosphere; the vigil was just across the street, and he sometimes walks all the way home. Someone mentioned wistfully that it was an adviser's ploy to alert the cameras; who knows. Kofi Annan is usually a master of handling emotional occasions, but it must have been a stressful day plus the jet lag -- having arrived that shocking morning from Sweden. He seemed perplexed as he was pushed through the side. One determined official placed a lit candle in his hand while he hesitated as another gently edged him towards the microphone. He looked around as if seeking fresh oxygen among friendly faces but then those determined handlers wanted him -- his head first then theirs -- facing the cameras. He made off the cuff remarks almost matter of factly, which was atypical, except for the last sentence when he seemed to regain his original self. But then again he was led to the corner of entry for a quick exit. Obviously seeking to linger on, self-appointed decision makers kept him in place. Instead of consoling with affectionate colleagues and friends at such a sorrowful occasion, he was brought three nervous young girls to shake the sole leader's hand, Soviet style, for the benefit of the cameras -- which, incidentally, turned elsewhere.

As Ed Mortimer aptly pointed out in the Financial Times: We are all in shock and may not be thinking straight. That is more reason for those in senior leadership position to reflect a dignified sense of shared sorrow. Most of them did. But obviously there were some who perceived a spontaneous heartfelt vigil merely as a photo opportunity.