By Amy Goldstein and Colum Lynch Washington Post Staff Writer| 1/23/2010| WashingtonPost
She had fallen in love with Haiti during the heady days when she was fresh out of Smith College and Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the fledgling president of a poor country seemingly filled with promise. By Tuesday afternoon, as she sat in a meeting in a basement room of the U.N. headquarters there, Lisa Mbele-Mbong had worked in Port-au-Prince as a human rights specialist for 3 1/2 years. When the trembling began, she was the first out of the meeting to find out why.
She walked onto a veranda. A large slab of concrete struck her head, killing her instantly, according to her supervisor, who was nearby. As he did every day after school, her 10-year-old son, Nady, was outside the complex with their driver, waiting for his mother to leave work.
Mbele-Mbong’s death in the earthquake — even as her colleagues in the basement of the U.N. complex’s human rights section survived, her family has been told — has not been officially announced. At 38, she was a woman of penetrating intellect and many cultures, as comfortable grilling gang members about genocide in Congo as nurturing her son’s passion for soccer. She is one of nearly 400 U.N. workers listed as missing or killed, a toll certain to eclipse by far the organization’s previous worst losses.
This week’s casualties come to a U.N. mission that has endured more than its share of trauma since U.N. peacekeepers arrived in force in 2004, the main security presence in Haiti amid the chaos that followed a coup against Aristide. In 2006, the peacekeeping force’s commander, a Brazilian general, was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Two years after that, the U.N. mission was overwhelmed when the Caribbean island country was struck, in rapid succession, by two hurricanes and two tropical storms.
“This is a humanitarian catastrophe of a scale that is beyond the capacity of the government, [or] of the U.N. stabilization mission here,” the mission’s special representative, Hédi Annabi, a Tunisian bureaucrat who mentored a generation of U.N. peacekeepers, said after the 2008 storms. Now, Annabi is missing. Haiti’s president said he died. U.N. officials have not confirmed his death, but say they do not expect him to survive.
‘Very happy to be here’
The events in Port-au-Prince are a microcosm of the spasms of tragedy that have struck the United Nations in the past decade — including deadly attacks in Baghdad, Algiers and Kabul.
“It’s been a tough decade for U.N. staff everywhere: We’ve faced trauma after trauma after trauma,” said Ahmad Fawzi, who was the U.N. spokesman in Baghdad when the U.N. headquarters there was bombed in 2003.
In Haiti, the United Nations had set up its headquarters in the converted Christopher Hotel and surrounding buildings in the hills near Pétionville, a Port-au-Prince suburb of interspersed mansions and slums that was favored by diplomats and other expatriates. The earthquake collapsed the hotel.
Annabi had an office on the top floor. A consummate U.N. insider, he had spent a decade running the largest foreign expeditionary force outside the United States — nearly 20 U.N. peacekeeping missions — from a corner office in the organization’s glass and marble headquarters in New York. Aides recalled him as the “schoolmaster” who marked up poorly edited reports with a bright blue pen. He started his U.N. career as the desk officer during the Rwandan genocide. It was, colleagues say, a defining moment for him. “He was a man who had seen a lot of cynicism but who did not become a cynic, but became a realist,” said Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008.
Annabi had “blossomed” in Haiti, Guéhenno said, with his first chance to lead a field mission. In a New Year’s e-mail, Annabi told his former colleague that he was preparing for challenging elections. “I must tell you I’m very happy to be here,” he wrote in French. “This is a very difficult task, but it’s very fulfilling.”
The mission’s second-in-command is missing, too. A Brazilian national, Luiz Carlos da Costa, has been a larger-than-life figure in the U.N. peacekeeping department, where he was responsible for hiring most of the civilian peacekeeping officials. Da Costa was sent to Kosovo in 2000 to help restore order to the U.N. operation there and later to Liberia.
Most of the United Nations’ confirmed dead — 37 as of Friday — were less well-known. The body of a peacekeeper, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was found under his house. Other peacekeepers who were killed came from Brazil and Argentina, China and Jordan.
‘She fought to go back’
Mbele-Mbong was the daughter of a mother from Minneapolis and a father from Cameroon who grew up on three continents. After graduating from Smith, she moved to Washington, but gravitated to Haiti again and again. She volunteered twice as an election monitor and later worked there as a consultant for the National Democratic Institute, trying to foster civic education. She had a romance with a Haitian economist, her parents said, and gave birth in 1999. She moved to a U.N. job in Geneva to be closer to her parents in France and eventually left her son, Nady, with them to go to Congo as a humans rights officer.
“She fought to go back to Haiti,” said her younger sister, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, because “she had this built-in warm community” there, that would enable her to bring her son.
She had returned to Port-au-Prince on Jan. 6, after a three-week Christmas visit with her family in France. “Her last days, she was . . . very discouraged” about Haiti, her father, Samuel Mbele-Mbong, said. “She could see where the country was going, contrary to the hopes she had.”
After she was killed Tuesday, a peacekeeper from Cameroon, a friend to whom she rented a room, raced to the U.N. complex and found Nady outside. His father, the economist, gave permission for him to leave the country, as soon as an embassy can transport him to his grandparents.
And in the middle of the tragedy, a small but crucial fragment of good news materialized. Nady can leave Haiti because he knew that his mother usually carried his passport in her pocketbook. A U.N. worker picked through the rubble and found the pocketbook. Nady’s passport was inside.
Lynch reported from the United Nations. Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
The National Security Archive Mourns the Loss of Lisa Mbele-Mbong
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May she RIP.