Poisoned Chalice – the UN in Iraq Interview with Francis Mead, author and producer

Poisoned ChaliceIt’s a forceful film, showing the lives of these men and women who have accepted to serve the United Nations in Iraq, despite the risks to their own lives.
The film was checked by the UN Security people – so that nothing can harm those who are still in the field.
Francis Mead’s film pays tribute to those who were killed in the terrible attack in the Canal Hotel on the 19 August 2003. If you have a chance, see it – it’s definitely worth it.
Q : What did you do in Iraq ?
I was working there for IRIN [the United Nations 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 time.
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 : How was the support of the United Nations ?
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
e-mail : francismead@airpost.net