Sole Survivor

Author: Gil Loescher


I left for Baghdad from my home in Oxford last August 18. I remember waving and smiling at Annie, my wife, from the window of the bus to London’s Heathrow airport. The last words I shouted to her from inside the bus were “I’ll see you in a week!” In a little over 24 hours I was crushed, covered in dust and fighting for my life in the rubble that had been the United Nations headquarters in Iraq.

I had gone to Baghdad with Arthur Helton of the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy research institute in New York. I was a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a policy research think tank in London. We were in Iraq to assess the human cost of the war and occupation and were planning to report our findings and recommendations to the United Nations, the Coalition Provisional Authority and NGOs (nongovermental organizations).

Both of us were experts on refugees and humanitarian issues and had traveled to far-flung parts of the world for decades to do field work and to meet with others who cared passionately about refugees and other vulnerable people. Over the past 20 years I had spent some long days and nights in refugee camps throughout Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Central America, sometimes in precarious and dangerous situations. I had always returned home safely and relatively unscathed. This time, however, things would be different.

On our arrival, we went directly to see U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. His office is in Saddam Hussein’s former palace in Baghdad. Later that afternoon we were taken to the U.N. headquarters at the Canal Hotel in central Baghdad. We went straightaway to the third floor office of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. envoy to Iraq.

At exactly the same time, a cement truck driven by a suicide bomber and loaded with explosives was circling the compound, looking for a way in. As Arthur and I exchanged greetings with Sergio and with several members of his staff, the suicide attacker was able to turn into the space directly under Sergio’s office and detonate his bomb.

The deafening explosion collapsed the ceiling of the third floor upon us and crushed to death several of the people in the room. Others were killed or severely injured when the bomb shattered the windows of the building, sending fragments flying everywhere. The bomb killed Arthur Helton and 21 others and left 150 people wounded. Sergio de Mello survived for nearly three hours while medics attempted to rescue him, but he died before they could get him out. I was the only survivor in the most devastated part of the building. I lost both my legs above the knees, severely damaged my right hand and suffered numerous shrapnel wounds (see picture above).

I am incredibly lucky to still be alive. The massive explosion had catapulted us all down to the first floor, and everyone but me was buried in the rubble. I lay trapped, hanging by my ruined legs that were caught between the floor and the collapsed ceiling of Sergio’s office.

Somehow I regained consciousness. One thought dominated my mind: I was determined not to die in the rubble; I would survive and return home to my family. I did not realize that I was but a few feet from Sergio, who was using his cell phone to direct rescuers toward himself and me. Soon I was able to get the attention of an emergency medical officer who was peering down a shaft at me from what remained of the third floor.

I drifted in and out of consciousness during much of the rescue effort. Apart from initially regaining consciousness after the blast, signaling for help and then telling the rescuer my name, I don’t remember a lot. Since the incident, one of the U.S. Army medics who worked to save me has told me details of the rescue effort. The medics faced many obstacles. The building was collapsing around us, and a mudslide caused by a drainage leak was inhibiting their desperate attempts to rescue Sergio. With considerable effort the medics were able to release my crushed legs, apply tourniquets and inject me with morphine.

Later I was to learn that I didn’t bleed to death because I was hanging upside down. When one medic tried to pull me onto the stretcher, he grabbed for my badly shattered right hand. He told me he balked at doing this because he did not want to damage it further. But almost immediately, he related, I put my left arm tightly around his shoulder. This enabled him to pull me out and onto the stretcher. So after about three hours I was pulled out of the shaft and rushed to a U.S. military field hospital. I remembered nothing else for nearly a month.

My hopelessly injured legs were amputated above the knees. My right hand, which appeared to be almost impossibly damaged, was not amputated on the small chance that a surgeon further down the line could deal with it. The shrapnel wounds to my face were stitched and particular attention was paid to repairing my upper lip, part of which was missing.

Within hours of the blast I was flown to a U.S. military hospital in Germany where my condition was stabilized and where I was reunited with my frantic family. These were pretty scary days for Annie and our two daughters. I was in critical condition, and doctors gave me only a 25 percent chance of survival. But my family remained determined to see me through this crisis. They felt sustained by the hundreds of messages of support and prayers sent by family and friends over the weeks that followed.

After two and a half weeks, I was flown to the emergency care unit at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. At this stage I was still on a respirator and intravenous drips. There were several more operations, including some incredible reconstructive surgery to my right hand. The morphine was slowly withdrawn, and I began to regain consciousness. Soon afterward I was taken completely off the morphine, and my only painkiller thereafter was acetaminophen. When I could breathe unassisted, I was transferred to the plastic surgery ward at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

My doctors are amazed at the speed and extent of my recovery. No one thought I would return home before Christmas. But beating all predictions and with incredible support from my family, I left the hospital and arrived home on Halloween. The next Monday I started my prosthetics treatment at the Nuffield Orthopedic Centre in Oxford and took my first steps on very short legs that day. I get stronger day by day and am now walking with two crutches at the orthopedic center. My goal is to be walking independently at home by Easter.

It is difficult to fully explain why this awful event happened or to place myself in the minds of the attackers. The continuing conflict in Iraq involves a mindset on the parts of all the antagonists of “either you’re with us or against us.” This attitude leaves little room for independent, neutral action on the part of the United Nations and humanitarian agencies. The United Nations is identified by local opposition to the occupation as taking sides and collaborating with the United States. This does not excuse either this reprehensible attack on the United Nations last August nor the later terrorist attacks on the International Committee of the Red Cross. These actions aggressively flout widely held international norms that protect civilians and noncombatants in situations like Iraq.

Despite the injuries I sustained, I do not dwell on the past but remain focused on the future. This attitude, combined with my stubbornness and optimism, will help my recovery. I also draw upon the courage and example of others. During my career, I have had the great privilege of visiting refugees and displaced people all over the world. I have learned a lot from their resilience and optimism in the face of seemingly insuperable difficulties. In my own recovery I try to draw upon my special experience of knowing these people and appreciating their incredible inner strengths.

This tragic event has given me greater strength and a renewed sense of commitment to continue studying and reporting on the issues that mattered so much to Arthur Helton, Sergio Vieira de Mello and to all those others who died that day while working to ensure the survival of humanitarian norms.

As horrendous as this experience has been for the victims of the blast and their families, the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad has had a huge impact on the United Nations and on the future of humanitarian action generally. The Baghdad attack was a devastating and cathartic event for the United Nations. It was the U.N.’s “9-11,” changing forever the way the United Nations and its staff will view the world.

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Gil Loescher, emeritus professor of political science, taught international relations and peace studies at Notre Dame for 26 years.