Poisoned Chalice: The UN in Iraq

Poisoned Chalice: The UN in Iraq.

On 19 August 2003 Francis Mead was working as a freelance journalist in Baghdad, reporting on the humanitarian situation with the help of the UN. He was sitting in the UN’s Baghdad headquarters when a suicide truck bomb smashed into the building. He survived unhurt, but 22 others, including the UN’s Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed. 150 were wounded. 

Wanting to tell the story of unarmed aid workers in an intensely challenging country, Francis Mead returned in late 2005 to film an independent documentary – “Poisoned Chalice – the UN in Iraq” – which aimed to bring home the human experience of trying to bring about change in Iraq.

Extracts from interview with Francis Mead with Diva International magazine:

Q: What were you doing in Iraq at the time of the explosion?

I was working there for IRIN (the United Nations web-based news service) for about
3 or 4 weeks. My main remit was to write about humanitarian and social
issues in Iraq. So I was writing about things like the electricity
shortages, water shortages, and their impact on ordinary Iraqis. 

At that time, it was really the last time you could travel around
relatively freely, so, I saw Baghdad. It was possible to travel as long
as you went with a UN vehicle. So I went with the UN and NGOs, and I saw
different communities, and different locations. I remember doing a piece
about a clinic based in a very poor area at the edge of Baghdad,. I even
traveled down to Karbala which was south of Baghdad and did an article
about disabled people. It is a big subject in Iraq. You know, they have
had several wars, and there are at least a million disabled veterans
from the wars, and the disabled people in Iraq are having a very tough

An Iraqi who had set up an association for disabled people was basically
trying to get support for his organization to obtain equipment, money
and so forth for the people in Karbala. So I went down to Karbala and
met him, and it was very interesting. That was the last time you could
travel around the country. The bombing was a kind of watershed. 

On the actual day of the bombing, I was in fact doing a piece on
unexploded munitions and bombs in Iraq. One of the features in Iraq
after the war was the abandoned munition factories and the enormous
amount of ammunition all over the country – most of it was unguarded. I
remember that when I went to Baghdad I used to see these huge factories
that were abandoned, and they were full of munitions, missiles, guns –
all sorts of things. So of course that made it very dangerous. Anybody
could just create a bomb or blow something up. It was just lying there
and most of it was unguarded. 

So that morning I had gone and written about some old Russian missiles
that had been deployed around Baghdad in anticipation of the invasion.
They were very old missiles, from the 1950s, and they were very
unstable. They had been deployed in residential areas, not very far from
where the UN was, the Canal Hotel. 

I went out with somebody that morning, and there was a missile with a
launch pad right next to a couple of houses. It was very hot,
mid-summer, and the temperature was around 50 degrees C, and the
missiles were very unstable and could have gone off from the heat. I
took some photos. 

That afternoon there was a press conference at the UN mission, and you
can see images from that in the film, and they are unique images as the
bomb went off while they were filming – and you see the reaction of
people at the time. I’m in the footage myself, covered in dust and
looking bewildered. I was very lucky in that I escaped injury, but of
course many people were wounded and killed. 

Q: What made you decide to do this film?

After the bombing…I thought about writing about it. First of all I
thought about gathering people’s impressions and doing something like
that. But I work in broadcasting and I’m a video producer, so,
eventually I decided I wanted to do a documentary film. There have been
plenty of documentaries about the war in Iraq, but I wanted to show
something that no one else has covered: the life of the UN staff who are
there today. I felt I’d met some remarkable people working for the UN in
2003 – people who were doing their best to make a difference in nearly
impossible conditions. I wanted to tell their story, or at least give a
glimpse into the kind of lives they were leading.

Q: What was the attitude of the UN toward your project? 

After the bombing, the United Nations took a very low profile in Iraq. They didn’t want to attract attention to what they were doing for obvious security reasons. But eventually, I think a decision was made that it was important for people to know more about the UN’s role there – and eventually I was given permission to go out there in late 2005. I went out during the period when the UN was advising on the drafting of a new constitution for the country, and also helping prepare for a national referendum on the constitution. I got a warm welcome from people working in Baghdad. Nicholas Haysom, who was Nelson Mandela’s former legal adviser, and who was head of the UN constitution team, said that he felt it was important that the UN’s work was documented. I ended up spending around two months in Baghdad, with a break in Jordan in the middle of it. Most of my time was spent in the Green Zone – where the UN headquarters was moved after the 2003 bombing, but I managed to get on a helicopter trip up to Erbil in northern Iraq, where the UN was in the process of expanding its operation there. I’d been hoping to go out on convoys with the UN, but because of the security situation, there were virtually no convoys outside the Green Zone at this time. I also employed a local Iraqi crew to do some filming for me in Baghdad. They did a good job – interviewing two Iraqi families, and filming voting as it took place at a polling station.

This enabled me to show both the behind-the-scenes stuff at the UN, but also to get at least some idea of the lives of Iraqis in Baghdad.

I did the documentary as a completely independent, journalistic project. The only condition – one which I readily agreed to – was that UN security could view the final product to make sure that none of the footage actually put staff in danger. In the end, I was only asked to make a few small changes. I hope the documentary is interesting to all people who are involved with the UN, or in the aid industry generally.

One of the points I wanted to make is that the world generally has become much more dangerous for aid workers. I could have made a similar documentary about Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan or other places. It’s one of the confronting and sad realities of today that many, many missions now have an element of danger – and aid workers, and the UN itself, are a potential target. That’s why the UN bombing was a watershed – in that at the time it was the largest, deliberately targeted attack against civilian aid workers.

I wanted above all to pay tribute to the courage and dedication of many UN and NGO workers around the world who put themselves at risk, as they try to help improve the lives of people wherever they live.

Francis Mead

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