Interview with Wagner Sarmento, the author of the book Sergio Vieira de Mello: O Legado De Um Herói Brasileiro”

Zaz Produções - April 08, 2020


In times of “war” against COVID-19, we remember a Brazilian hero, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who served on a peacekeeping mission in major world conflicts, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Rwanda and Timor -Leste, and died during a terrorist attack (claimed by Al Qaeda) on the United Nations (UN) building in Baghdad (Iraq), on August 19, 2003.
Sergio was born on March 15, 1948 in Rio de Janeiro. After finishing high school in the capital of Rio de Janeiro, he joined the University of Paris (Sorbonne), where he obtained a degree and a master's degree in philosophy, and a doctorate in letters and humanities. For 34 years, the Brazilian diplomat was an employee of the UN Organization. During this period, Sergio worked at the United Nations refugee office, UNHCR. Between 2002 and 2003, the diplomat held the position of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Brazilian with the most brilliant career at the United Nations.
The trajectory of Sergio Vieira de Mello is the subject of the book and documentary “Sergio Vieira de Mello: Sergio Vieira de Mello: O Legado De Um Herói Brasileiro”, released in 2018. Produced and directed by André Zaravize, CEO ZAZ Produções, the documentary is available for free on Youtube.
The book was written by journalist and historian Wagner Sarmento. Born in Recife, capital of Pernambuco, at the age of 35, 11 of them dedicated to journalism, Sarmento received the Embratel, Caixa, Cristina Tavares and CNT awards for articles and reports related to Human Rights and vulnerable populations in Brazil.
Before writing the book, Sarmento took the historian out of the “drawer” and placed him to study the main world conflicts from the second half of the 20th century, such as the Cold War, the Vietnam War and even the terrorist attack on World Trade Center, in New York, in 2001. The original idea was to highlight Sergio's work in Iraq, where he was killed, but the difficulties in obtaining the necessary documentation to produce the book and documentary there, made Sarmento reflect on the entire career of the former UN official and understand that Timor-Leste was the country most transformed by Sergio's work. We spoke with journalist and writer Wagner Sarmento who told us about the book creation process.

ZAZ - How did André Zavariza, CEO of ZAZ Produções, invite you to write the book with Sergio Vieira de Mello's biography?
Sarmento - I met André in a course at the Joint Peace Operations Center of Brazil (CCOPAB) for journalists in war zones and conflict areas. André took the course in the same class as me, in 2017. We became friends quickly, due to some common interests. André is a very inspiring guy, very passionate about everything he does. He's a guy who knows how to make things happen. From our friendship, we started to fine-tune this project (Sergio's book and documentary). The project was born long before André's invitation, it was born there. CCOPAB coincidentally or not (laughs) is called Centro Sergio Vieira de Mello. So, Sergio's name was present from the moment we met.

ZAZ - As a historian, tell us about your research process to produce the book?
Sarmento - The preparatory work was very hard, very laborious and complicated, no matter how much we are talking about a person, however much the work has a biographical character, but it does not refer only to the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello. To talk about Sergio is to talk about the main conflicts in the world during the second half of the last century. I had to study and prepare myself on several fronts, such as the decolonization of Africa, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union with the countries of Eastern Europe, since he also worked there. Timor-Leste is a place totally unknown to many Brazilians and is a country that speaks Portuguese embedded in Asia. September 11th because Sergio's death, which occurred in Baghdad, is directly related to the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York, promoted by Al Qaeda in 2001. So, I also studied Islam, Islamic extremism, the United States . Anyway, the current geopolitics, that 9/11 event is still present today. There were many topics to be researched, so that we could discover sources, in addition to meeting people who knew Sergio, we also had to research specialists on these topics.

ZAZ - Why did you choose Timor-Leste as the setting for the book and documentary?
Sarmento - When André called me for the project, initially, it would be in Iraq and Syria. He even checked in the documentation, but it was very difficult for us to get the documents. In the middle of this process, I reflected “ok, Sergio died in Iraq, but it was a very small part of his life, of everything he accomplished in 34 years at the UN”. There, in my research, I said to André “We have to go to Timor-Leste”. It is the most successful, most important UN experience there, where the United Nations had a broader, more complete mandate, which was important even for the reconstruction of the country, for the rediscovery of a country. It was also fundamental in Sergio's history. He was considered to be the future UN Secretary General. Of course, throughout his career, Sergio was a great negotiator, a guy who fought for refugees, for Human Rights, but a lot for his action in East Timor. So, we talked about it, André was very receptive from the first moment, then we both decided that Timor-Leste was the place where we should go. What we wanted to show (in the book and in the documentary) was what Sergio changed in the lives of those people 15 years later, in a country so suffering. It was Timor-Leste that guided our work, but we also went to Cambodia, Vietnam, other places, since André wanted to portray the situation of refugees. The work was full of remarkable moments.

ZAZ - Talk about Sergio Vieira de Mello that you met during the whole process of researching the book?
Sarmento - What impressed me the most was the passion with which people talked about Sergio, they spoke with sparkles in their eyes. Sergio was a very passionate guy and very passionate about everything. He didn't do things to do, he did it with lust, with desire and because he believed. Although he was very pragmatic, he had a very different contextual reading, someone who had his ideals, his dreams and his passions. He exuded that, everyone who talks about Sergio, speaks with passion.

ZAZ - What made the most of Sergio for you?
Sarmento - Sergio is very up to date. I went to a refugee event in São Paulo, we created a hashtag #SergioVive. This was very clear to me, especially in the world we live in today. Sergio worked in the area of ​​Human Rights, but much of his career at the UN, he worked with refugees, in the area of ​​UNHCR. Sergio helped millions of refugees to return to their homes or to be relocated in other countries and to live in safety, without political, ethnic, religious persecution, among others. The situation of refugees with conflicts in the Middle East or Israel and Palestine, Palestinians are historical refugees, a very difficult knot to untie. Sergio is present in all the people who work with refugees. We are all finite, we live and die, no one escapes that, but some beings manage to transcend. Sergio is one of those people, he is alive in many people, in many ideas.


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