From our early Vietnam connection, I knew Richard Holbrooke in many of his groundbreaking roles.
Richard could be rough on colleagues and friends -- of which I was both -- but at the end of the day, I have worked with no one else who has had the same life-saving impact as Richard.
It is sometimes overlooked, because Richard was the master diplomatic strategist and global historian, but he was also a man of intense compassion who used all his skills to alleviate human suffering. Richard didn't advertise this; his political and negotiating skills dominated his public persona, but he thrived on using all of his experience and wits to help some of the most marginalized people in the world -- refugees, displaced people, victims of AIDS and others on the bottom rungs of the global ladder.
Literally and figuratively, Richard got his feet wet in the Foreign Service while serving in the Mekong Delta as a field officer with the American effort to extend security and development to the rural population of South Vietnam. Like most of us in that endeavor, we learned more than we imparted. Vietnam was never as black and white as many thought, but came in many shades of gray. We did learn that to begin to understand such a conflict meant that you had to be there on the ground.
In 1977, Richard was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, the youngest Assistant Secretary of State in the nation's history. Less than two year's earlier, our allies in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had fallen. Some 150,000 Indochinese were evacuated to the U.S. as the war ended; under the leadership of Shep Lowman in the State Department, I led the field effort to select and resettle the first 11,000 refugees from camps in Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere.
In early 1977, refugees were still fleeing to neighboring countries in the region, but the U.S. had moved on and was not engaged. Richard gave us a chance to brief him; he was clearly interested in doing something, but how, he wondered. Initially we would have to form an ad hoc, under the radar effort. I was studying Chinese at the time at the Foreign Service Institute. Richard encouraged me to come over in the late afternoon after language classes and work quietly with Shep, Dick's deputy for southeast Asia Robert Oakley and Special Assistant Kenneth Quinn, to devise ways of protecting, assisting and resettling refugees.
These ad hoc efforts resettled less than 50,000 refugees, but at least showed the countries of the region that the U.S. was involved. This also set the stage for a major Richard Holbrooke-led effort to stimulate Congressional support for accepting more Indochinese refugees.
In 1979, a major exodus of Vietnamese emerged as the communist regime clamped down on the ethnic Chinese mercantile community. Boat refugees were swamping Thailand and Malaysia and many refugee boats were repelled or towed out to sea. Tens of thousands of Cambodians were flocking to the Thai border to escape chaos and famine and not allowed to enter. Forty thousand were pushed back to Cambodia.
Richard was instrumental in forging a U.S. response which restored asylum for fleeing refugees and accelerated delivery of rice and rice seeds to Cambodians along the Thai border with assistance from then-American Ambassador Mort Abramowitz. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians survived because of this American-led effort.
Sue Morton, the founder of Refugees International, worked tirelessly with Richard and the Carter White House, and in June 1979, the U.S. doubled its resettlement levels for Indochinese refugees and instigated an international conference in Geneva in July 1979.
Ultimately, 1.5 million Indochinese refugees were resettled abroad in a wide variety of countries. Two thirds came to the U.S. and have enriched us ever since. Richard Holbrooke was key to this.
Fast forward to Bosnia. In December 1992, Bosnia was entering its first winter of war. Sarajevo was under siege and without power and heat and most food supplies.
At the invitation of UNHCR spokesperson Sylvana Foa, I found myself in central Bosnia on December 30, 1992, poised to enter Sarajevo with a UN military convoy the next day. A phone rang and it was Richard calling from a nearby town where he had been visiting refugee camps with the International Rescue Committee. He was seeking a way into Sarajevo. I indicated that I had no way of doing this, that I was an invitee myself. Never one to take no for an answer, Richard commandeered a vehicle and drove at night to find me and insist that a way be found for him to join us on the convoy going into Sarajevo the next morning. A photo and details of the tale are told in Richard's book "To End a War." I fashioned a fairly miserable UN ID card for him and, while keeping his thumb on the photo, he charmed his way past the Bosnian Serb policewoman who checked all of our papers.
Richard was then the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, coming to Sarajevo to learn for himself why a European capital was under siege and how it felt to be trapped there. Had the Serbs known of his identity he could have been very badly treated. Richard often recalled that only days later a very senior Bosnian official was removed from a similar UN vehicle and executed.
Three years later, Richard Holbrooke laid siege to Serbian President Milosevic, sequestering him at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, to end the war with the Dayton Accords. Holbrooke was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for this effort, but never received as much recognition as he deserved. A war was ended, sparing hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers who might have perished.
Richard may have had his greatest life-saving impact when, as U.S. Ambassador to the UN, he led an effort to improve the international response to internally displaced persons (IDPs), people who are forced to flee their homes, but have not crossed into another country. Richard pioneered a new approach to IDPs and the UN reorganized to focus much more effectively on their plight.
Richard always had time for the underdogs. I introduced him to two weavers from the tiny Mlabri tribe of northern Thailand. Richard could often be impatient, but he stopped all calls and interruptions to make two women from another world welcome in his office. He promised to visit them one day and had he lived, I know he would have kept that pledge. Richard still had so many promises to keep, so much more he wanted to do.
I last saw Richard earlier this year when he spoke at a Refugees International dinner. As always, he graciously and publicly remembered his friends and colleagues in the humanitarian field, including me and Ken Bacon who succeeded me as president of Refugees International, but passed away in August 2009.
And now Richard, the global giant among us, has passed away as well.
Lionel Rosenblatt served as president of Refugees International from 1990 to 2001. Read more from a statement by Eileen Shields-West, Chair of the Board of Directors of Refugees International.
Photo Credit: Thema Hadeba / AP
December 15, 2010
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