After an al Qaeda truck bomb ripped through United Nations headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad in the summer of 2003, Carolina Larriera tried to dig through piles of rubble with her bare hands to save the man she loved.
Dazed from the powerful blast, her clothes covered in dust and splattered with blood from the horribly wounded colleagues she had tried to bring to safety, Larriera was only able to exchange a few words with Sergio Vieira de Mello before he died.
Their love story is chronicled in “Sergio,” the new Netflix biopic about the UN’s superstar human rights czar and envoy to Iraq, which started streaming April 17. The film stars Golden Globe-nominated Brazilian actor Wagner Moura in the lead role of the married envoy, and sultry “Knives Out” star Ana de Armas as Larriera, his Argentine economist girlfriend who was 25 years his junior.
But the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, leaves a lot out: It glosses over the messy personal life of one of the UN’s greatest humanitarians as well as the collateral damage suffered by Larriera, who was left emotionally shattered after his death.
The damage started with her callous treatment by her own employer. Despite their very public four-year relationship, the UN refused to allow her to accompany the Brazilian-born envoy’s remains to Rio de Janeiro, where his funeral was held. Instead, the world bureaucracy gave her a one-way ticket to her native Argentina, making it clear that she would not be a welcome guest at any official mourning. That was reserved for his long estranged wife, Annie, and the couple’s two adult sons. Undaunted and still wearing her torn and bloodied clothes, Larriera, then 30, made her own way to the funeral.
“I was focused on chasing Sergio’s casket around the globe,” she told The Post in an exclusive interview last week.
“Sergio” is loosely based on “Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World,” a rambling 666-page biography by former UN ambassador Samantha Power.
Vieira de Mello was both a skillful diplomat and a committed humanitarian, who joined the UN in 1969 and cut his teeth in some of the world’s worst trouble spots, including Lebanon, Cambodia and Rwanda. One journalist described him as a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy. Handsome and elegantly attired, he brushed his teeth with Italian mineral water and had a love interest in every war-torn country he was assigned to fix. He spoke four languages fluently, and before his death in Iraq, he was widely seen as an heir apparent to Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the world bureaucracy.
Vieira de Mello was also a womanizer who stuck to a lifelong pattern of sleeping with many of his UN assistants. For a bureaucrat who worked 18-hour days, “special assistants made natural partners,” Power writes.
His romantic conquests began with his wife in the early 1970s. He met Annie Personnaz when she was a young secretary at the Geneva headquarters of the UN where he was also working. The couple married in 1973, and at first she followed the rising bureaucrat to hardship posts in Mozambique and Israel. She also typed up his 600-page PhD dissertation, and raised their two sons on her own while Vieira de Mello took on increasingly longer assignments in even more dangerous parts of the world.
Yet Vieira de Mello seemed to have no scruples about his frequent romantic entanglements. In the early 1990s when he was stationed in Cambodia, he openly carried on an affair with UN executive assistant Mieke Bos, who lived with him in his Phnom Penh hotel suite.
When his wife came to Cambodia with his two young sons for a rare visit in 1991, Bos was hastily moved out of the executive hotel suite while his family was in town, according to Power.
At Vieira de Mello’s going-away party in Cambodia, a colleague asked Bos if she would accompany him to his next posting in Angola, an assignment that was later aborted. Power recorded the response in her book: “‘No,’ she said tersely. ‘I’m staying here.’”
Whenever colleagues and others asked why he wouldn’t officially separate from his wife, Vieira de Mello often replied, “I will never get divorced, neither from my marriage nor from the UN.”
Before meeting Larriera, his commitment to Annie seemed rock solid, largely because he knew he had been an absentee father for years, Power noted. “She is doing a wonderful job raising my sons,” Vieira de Mello said of Annie. “Without her sacrifice, I would never be able to do what I do.”
But he could also be callously matter-of-fact about the relationship: “Everybody has a cross to bear, and I am Annie’s cross.”
More than 30 years before #MeToo, “the UN … was still a Third World country,” an unnamed senior official confided to Power. “Nobody thought twice when the boss slept with the assistant.”
Larriera met Vieira de Mello in East Timor by chance — they bumped into each other jogging in the capital city Dili in 1999. She was a 26-year-old economist working on a microcredit program with poor women in the Southeast Asian country, and he was the UN administrator, jokingly referred to as “the viceroy.” The veteran UN bureaucrat, 51 at the time, was tasked with ensuring that the rebels who had won independence from Indonesia would make a peaceful transition to democracy.
In real life, Larriera initially wanted to keep her relationship with the boss secret. No doubt aware of his past reputation with women, Larriera was also determined to wring a more lasting commitment from Vieira de Mello. And she succeeded. “From now on, it’s the new Sergio,” he wrote on construction paper notes that he scattered through his sprawling home in Dili when he tried to win Larriera back after she initially left him — a scene dramatized to full romantic effect in “Sergio.”
Vieira de Mello appeared deeply in love. At a gala independence dinner in East Timor, Vieira de Mello broke with protocol when he said, “East Timor is special for me for many reasons, but none more than because this is where I met Carolina.”
When his term was up in May 2002, Larriera accompanied him back to a desk job at UN headquarters in New York where the two bought Tiffany gold rings engraved with each others’ names.
Months before the fateful decision to head up the UN mission in Baghdad that would end his life, he also petitioned a French court in January 2003 for a divorce from Annie. Their separation agreement was signed five months later, on May 23, 2003, court records seen by The Post show.
While he waited for the divorce to be finalized, Vieira de Mello promised Larriera that they would go on a long vacation to Rio de Janeiro and start planning a wedding after they returned from what was to be a four-month assignment in Baghdad. Vieira de Mello, now head of human rights for the world body, had refused the Iraq assignment three times, and only accepted it after US President George W. Bush leaned on Kofi Annan to send the UN’s brightest star to aid in the reconstruction of the country. Vieira de Mello asked Larriera to accompany him, and in June 2003, the couple flew to a war-ravaged Baghdad.
But as the special representative of the UN’s secretary general, Vieira de Mello knew that the UN mission faced distrust and opposition from the Iraqi people. He was outspoken about distancing the UN mission from US forces on the ground, even refusing to have US tanks guard the Canal Hotel where the mission was located.
Larriera was in her office at the Canal Hotel when the al Qaeda truck bomb hit at 4:25 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 19. She later learned that Vieira de Mello, 55, was the target of the attack, and the truck which carried the explosives was parked under his office window where he was chairing a meeting. Al Qaeda said the hit on Vieira de Mello was revenge for helping East Timor consolidate independence after throwing off their Muslim overlords in Indonesia.
Vieira de Mello initially survived the blast but remained buried under rubble for more than four hours as US forces scrambled to find heavy equipment to dig him out. When his remains were lifted out of the wreckage, one of the first responders gave Larriera his Tiffany gold band engraved with her name, but UN officials refused her access to their apartment in Baghdad. Similarly, she was barred from his homes in New York and Geneva, she said.
At the funeral in Rio, Larriera comforted Vieira de Mello’s elderly mother. But it was Annie, still his legal wife, and the couple’s sons, Laurent, 25, and Adrien, 23, who were accorded official mourning. It was to Annie that Kofi Annan handed a folded UN flag at his funeral, and it was Annie who accompanied the official delegation of diplomats to Geneva for the burial. Annie also received his UN pension.
Larriera was cast aside by the UN, and for a year after the bombing that killed 22 UN workers and injured 100, she did “not even appear on the list of survivors,” she said.
“To this day, I still can’t work it out,” she told The Post from her home in Rio de Janeiro where she has been embraced by Vieira de Mello’s Brazilian family. “That the UN would totally desert one of their own after a tragedy like this, to this day, it’s a paradox. I had worked for the UN for seven years on my own right; I was the legally recognized partner of their High Commissioner for Human Rights who was murdered on the UN’s most crucial mission.”
A few years after his death, both of the women in Vieira de Mello’s life set up charities in his name. Annie and his sons set up a non-profit in Geneva that organizes lectures and hands out annual prizes for diplomacy.
The foundation did not return The Post’s emails or calls seeking comment.
The Geneva foundation did not sit well with Vieira de Mello’s family in Brazil. “I find it incomprehensible that someone who spent the last few years of my son’s life fighting in a litigious, bitter and rancorous divorce proceeding should now be responsible for preserving his memory,” said Vieira de Mello’s mother, Gilda, in a letter to Annie when the foundation opened in 2007.
In Rio de Janeiro, Larriera, now 47, set up the Centro Sergio Vieira de Mello, a non-profit that works in local schools and shantyowns.
Larriera described herself to The Post as “the civil union spouse of Sergio Vieira de Mello,”and said that Brazilian authorities recognize their civil union. After Vieira de Mello died, she dedicated herself to taking care of Vieira de Mello’s mother, who is now 102, she said. She didn’t remarry or have children.
While he was in the prime of his life, Vieira de Mello often joked to colleagues, “I would like every one of my girlfriends to come to my funeral and walk behind my coffin.”
Although that did not come to pass, Larriera was determined to mourn in her own way. In Rio, she gathered a bag of sand from Ipanema beach — Vieira de Mello’s favorite stomping grounds — and traveled to Geneva where she scattered the sand over his grave at the Cemetery of Kings. He is buried there next to writers Jorge Luis Borges, Rainer Maria Rilke and James Joyce.