Q and A: Gil Loescher

A survivor of the August 2003 suicide bombing of the U.N. Baghdad headquarters, refugee expert, and the subject of the documentary film Pulled from the Rubble talks about his recovery and present-day humanitarian challenges.

 

You’ve called the bombing and your recovery a beginning–how so?
I started from scratch. I taught my damaged right hand how to write again, and I learned how to walk again using prosthetic legs. The bombing also renewed my commitment to finding solutions to protracted refugee situations around the world. I’ve worked hard the last 18 months to strengthen the commitment of international organizations and governments to deal with these problems more effectively.

Between a harrowing online journal that updated your condition in near real time and Pulled from the Rubble, your recovery has been very public. Did you ever regret that the healing process remained so open?
Not really, partly because both were originally intended to be private. In the beginning, the website was meant to keep my family and friends informed. But it took on a life of its own, and readership expanded dramatically. Within a couple of months, it had more than 60,000 hits. People found it a very compelling read. The film was also meant to remain a private family record; everyone in my family has always used photography in our work and personal lives. It wasn’t until late in the filming process that the decision was made to make it public. And that decision was only taken after heated discussion. But in the end, we felt that people should really see how families deal with this kind of a crisis.

Your wife writes about this in the journal, as she recounts how similar bombings resonate with her much more now when she reads about them.
Whenever there’s an attack or bombing like this, the media tends to focus on how many people died. They don’t see the other victims–the people who are badly injured or psychologically damaged. And they certainly don’t describe the effect on the victims’ families and loved ones. That’s something we felt strongly about. For that reason, we thought it was important to get the story out.

Is it hard for you to watch the film?
It is now. Obviously, in the very beginning it was hard. I haven’t watched it in a long time; my wife hasn’t watched it in a long time. It seems like a long time ago.

Why was learning about your rescue essential to the healing process?
The bombing was a vitally important event in my life. I was in the rubble–apparently fully conscious–for almost five hours. During this time, both my legs were amputated, and good friends and colleagues died next to me. When I regained consciousness about a month afterward, however, I only retained a few vivid memories. I wanted to know how I acted, what I was thinking, why I survived and others didn’t, and who rescued me. Understanding these things helped me move on.

In your work, you’ve visited many refugees and displaced people over the years. Talk about the role their resiliency played in your recovery.
It’s not only refugees; it’s also when I visit my local prosthetic center, and I see people of all ages and backgrounds dealing with losing their limbs and picking up their lives. It’s very inspirational. You only need to look around to see the resiliency of ordinary people.

What’s changed about the rules of engagement to make nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and U.N. officials targets?
Particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military now plays an increasingly important role in delivering humanitarian assistance. In Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers wear civilian clothing while distributing food and other aid in an effort to win hearts and minds. This mix compromises the role and perception of NGOs and the United Nations.

How can this mix be untangled?
For one, the military should focus on logistics–getting aid from point A to point B. The United Nations has learned about the temporary administration of war-torn countries in Cambodia, Kosovo, and Timor. So it’s better equipped than the military at humanitarian assistance and development programs.

Can the United Nations maintain neutrality in places like Iraq, which it harshly sanctioned throughout the 1990s?
It’s difficult. The sanctions made them an early target. Can United Nations enforcement actions be separated from the United Nations humanitarian actions? The mantra now is to integrate missions and link up the two arms of United Nations activity. That needs to be reexamined in light of changing conditions on the ground.

What’s the most important lesson the United Nations can learn from the Baghdad bombing?
That above all, it cannot take for granted that local populations will perceive it as an independent and impartial actor.

Three years later, has the United Nations adjusted accordingly?
In a way, the United Nations is still recovering from what happened in Baghdad. There have been a lot of meetings about reinforcing the staff’s security, but that doesn’t hit at the issues I’m talking about. Part of the problem is that in recent years the United Nations hasn’t had the full support of all its member states–particularly the most powerful ones. It’s very hard to bring about change and reassert yourself if you’re constantly beleaguered and under attack.

 

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