Autumn 2001 (9.3)
of the Birth of a Nation - Azerbaijan
We Forget: The UN in Iraq - Sergio Vierira de Mello - Paolo Lembo
Interview with Paolo Lembo - Interview by Betty Blair
from Kosovo - Paolo Lembo
Short (Why Are We Killing Each Other?) - Paolo Lembo
Azerbaijan holds a special
place in the heart of Paolo Lembo, former United Nations Resident
Coordinator to the country. In 1992, shortly after Azerbaijan
became independent, the Italian-born Lembo became the first UN
staff member posted there. At 34, he became the UN's youngest-ever
UNDP [United Nations Development Program] Head of Mission. After
leaving Baku in 1997, Lembo was assigned to Tajikistan (1997-1999),
then Kosovo (1999-2001). He began writing these vivid memoirs
for us this past summer from an Internet cafe in Paris while
preparing for French language exams in anticipation of his new
responsibilities as UN Resident Coordinator in Algeria. We think
it's a rare glimpse of Azerbaijan in the early years of its nationhood,
written by a diplomat who developed a real passion for the country.
always believed that the UN should be impartial, but never neutral.
We, the UN, must have the courage to stand up for the losers
and the forgotten. We must take sides when there is just cause.
If the UN doesn't do it, then who will?
"There's a message for you. The boss wants you to go to
New York. It's urgent."
It was a hot evening in July 1992. I was at the Headquarters
of the United Nations office for Afghanistan, in the city of
Termez on the border with the Republic of Uzbekistan. I knew
what the message was about.
Left: Paolo Lembo, UNDP Representative in
Baku, meeting with Azeri journalists on the occasion of the Inauguration
of the Reconstruction Program in Horadiz, in southwest Azerbaijan,
on October 24, 1996. A few refugees have returned to Horadiz
and are currently trying to eke out a living there. Most of Azerbaijan's
hundreds of thousands of refugees have not been able to return
to their villages and towns in Karabakh and the surrounding regions,
which have been occupied by Armenian forces since 1992 and 1993.
months earlier (December 1991), the Soviet Union had collapsed,
leaving in its wake 15 independent republics. In a surprise move,
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had gained approval
from the UN General Assembly to open 15 new UN offices within
a record time of six months. Given the very tight deadline and
the insufficient resources put at the disposal of the UN for
such a task, it was to become one of the most formidable and
exacting operations ever undertaken by the organization.
As Chief of Mission for Afghanistan for the previous two years,
I was one of the few at the UN who were authorized to travel
in the region and knew the political geography of the republics.
I knew that one day there would be a telephone call for me. A
task force was being set up in New York City to open these new
offices, and I was being tapped as a Special Assignment Officer.
Two days later I was in New York. The Director was particularly
worried about a region that was becoming explosive - the Caucasus.
"I'd like you to leave immediately for that countrywhat
do you call it? I can never pronounce its name right - 'Abistrakhan'"
"Azerbaijan," I added graciously.
Left: Totally uprooted and exhausted, Azerbaijani
refugees of the Karabakh war fled the advancing Armenian troops.
Nearly 1 million Azerbaijanis were uprooted because of the war.
The lucky ones were able to bring out their belongings. Many
fled for their lives with only a few moments' notice. Photo:
Oleg Litvin, 1993.
The Secretary-General is concerned and wants to open an office
there immediately. We have to move fast. I'd like you to leave
next Monday and try to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)
with the government, for operations to begin in October at the
latest. You have two weeks."
His tone did not leave much room for discussion, so I started
to organize immediately. On August 2nd, the first UN mission
to Azerbaijan landed in Baku, with the goal of establishing an
When we landed on the tarmac, two gentlemen from the Foreign
Office were waiting for us. Shamil was from the Department of
Foreign Office Economic Relations and was there primarily because
he spoke English fluently. He had been working with the UN during
the Soviet period and knew the organization and the international
scene very well. I was impressed with him, especially once I
realized that he was one of the few individuals in the government
who could speak English. Courteous and well read, he soon became
a much-loved and constant presence at the UN.
With him was another individual, a rather funny-looking, round-shaped
young man from protocol. He had an enviable, but incomprehensible,
self-consciousness and a certain flair for incessantly asking
unnecessary questions, mostly related to the possible benefits
and privileges that the Ministry staff could derive from a UN
It seemed to me that this unique pair represented the two souls
of Azerbaijan. They revealed the contradictory, yet fascinating
culture of the country: the cosmopolitan, open, modern and dynamic
face along with the mercantile, opportunistic face.
The mission went very well. I discovered a wonderful country
and developed an immediate sympathy for it. Other members of
the mission had a different perception, probably because it was
the first time that they had traveled in the former Soviet Union.
They were shocked at how highly dilapidated the infrastructure
was. But this was typical of all Soviet republics. For me, the
Caspian Sea, Baku's bay, the passion, emotion, art, confusion
and, to a degree, the chaos, had a certain Mediterranean flair
and seductive power.
Left: The first Azerbaijan Human Development
Report was sponsored by UNDP (United Nations' Development Program)
in 1995 under the direction of Paolo Lembo. Subsequent reports
have been published in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.
the general atmosphere was grim, but what could one expect of
a country in the midst of three major transitions? Azerbaijan
was dealing with a war, a transition to a market economy and,
more specifically, the transition to democratic statehood.
Our team had the impression that we were the only foreigners
in the country. In the rare walking tours that we took around
the city, we felt like people were staring at us as if we were
extraterrestrials. The truth is, to a certain degree, we were.
Traffic was sporadic and very orderly; not a single foreign vehicle
was in the streets. No shops sold foreign goods. The people were
dressed in a rather uniform and gray style, a fashion that can
best be described as "Soviet". It was the same as what
you would find in every other former Soviet republic. But there
was also something different, something that I couldn't define
- a glimmer of
light that the darkness of the time could not completely extinguish.
Our first meeting with government officials confirmed the extreme
difficulty of the young republic's situation. The economy was
in shambles, military hostilities with Armenia were flaring up
in several border zones and the new democratic institutions were
very fragile. After taking into account the external influences,
the overall picture caused us grave concern.
Our meeting confirmed my worries. We discovered Foreign Minister
Tofig Gasimov, a scientist, to be a gentleman, an honest person
and someone truly devoted to his mission.
Nations and numerous other humanitarian organizations provided
survival essentials of food and shelter for tens of thousands
of Azerbaijani families who fled their homes and villages in
the Karabakh and the neighboring regions when Armenian military
forces invaded Azerbaijan's territory [1992-94],. Azerbaijan's
nearly 10 years later - still yearn to return home. Photo: Refugee
camp near Yevlakh. by R. Redmond, UNHCR, 1994.
"Mr. Minister, what are your primary concerns at this point
in time?" I asked.
"Everything," answered the Minister.
"Is there any specific sector you would like us to focus
I realized that to get at any answer, I would have to take a
"Mr. Minister," I began again, "Do you have any
particular question for us on our future cooperation?"
"Yes, I do. When do you start?"
Left: Paolo Lembo (right) with Abid Sharifov,
who was in charge of organizing the Horadiz Reconstruction project
in 1996. Today Sharifov continues in his position as Deputy Prime
Minister. Photo: Blair, 1996.
decided to meet as many ministers as possible to shape our first
general Memorandum of Understanding. I realized we had a considerable
amount of work to do.
I'll never forget the first day of our arrival when I asked the
hotel to place a telephone call to New York. I was impressed
when the desk officer answered that this would be no problem.
"Not bad," I thought, "at least we have connections."
"I'm not in a hurry," I told him. "After 8 p.m.
will be fine."
"Which day?" the receptionist asked.
The following day, during a discussion with one of the ministers,
I mentioned this episode and stressed the importance of telecommunications.
I asked him if there were any electronic mail system in the Republic.
"We're much more advanced than that," he replied. "Of
course we have mail! We also have Telex, and soon we'll be getting
We worked day and night to finalize the text of the Memorandum.
I met several young, motivated economists and the staff of the
new administration, and soon realized the Republic's enormous
potential. The human capital was remarkable. The issue was just
how to make my colleagues at the UN in New York understand that
Azerbaijan was not a typical developing country. Its infrastructures,
both social and physical, were very well developed and the labor
force was highly qualified. The primary challenge at the UN would
be to figure out how to promote a process of transformation.
Photo: Interior of Baku's
ornate Opera and Ballet Theater, view from the stage. Courtesy:
In the meantime, the dark clouds of war cast a huge question
mark over any project that we attempted to define.
On August 16th, Foreign Minister Tofig Gasimov and I signed the
first Memorandum of Understanding that would lead to the establishment
of the UN Mission in Azerbaijan and the launching of the first
operations there in October 1992.
The ceremony was very emotional. In front of the cameras and
the press, all the journalists and the notables applauded and
the Minister smiled. But his smile could not hide his deep concern.
On my return to New York, I held a debriefing for a group of
senior UN officials. At the end, they all shared their concerns.
The situation in the Caucasus did not augur well. Of particular
concern was the deteriorating relationship between Azerbaijan
and Armenia. It was suddenly decided that Azerbaijan would be
the first office to open and that I would be assigned as its
first UNDP Representative. I had just turned 34, making me the
youngest Head of Mission in the organization ever.
I was surprised by the sudden turn of affairs. After all, I had
intended to return to Afghanistan after my special assignment.
Naturally, I was also concerned about the daunting challenges
of my new assignment in Baku. I never quite found out how my
appointment had been finalized. Most probably, it was a question
of practicality: there simply weren't that many Western officials
with knowledge about that part of the world or previous conflict
experience. In the end, I concluded that my appointment was a
matter of accidental circumstances.
Arriving in Baku
On October 25, 1992, I left New York for Baku. Inside my suitcase,
I carried the light-blue flag of the United Nations. I arrived
the following day, which is the date that is considered the official
beginning of the UN Mission's activities in Azerbaijan. In its
initial stage, the Mission consisted of a single room at the
Azerbaijan Hotel in Baku.
For anyone who remembers traveling in the former USSR at that
time, it's not hard to imagine the situation. But I knew what
to expect. There were the tiresome "hunting" expeditions
to find necessities like toilet paper and toothpaste as well
as the many Fellini-esque episodes dealing with the various "matryoshka"
at the hotel, namely the "goddess" of each floor of
the hotel, who turned out to be indispensable for our daily survival.
Requesting a simple bottle of mineral water often meant promptly
receiving a bottle of Soviet champagne. (Admittedly, it tasted
somewhat like Schweppes.) Of course, there was the dubious privilege
of room service delivered by a Marilyn Monroe-style, self-appointed
"waitress". I thought that I had already accumulated
so much Soviet and post-Soviet experience that nothing could
frighten me. Or at least, almost nothing...
I'll never forget the day I entered my 10-square-meter residence
/ office. I opened the terrace window and went out on the balcony
to hang up the flag. The thought of trying to find a flagpole
didn't even cross my mind; it would have been faster to fly to
New York to get one there. And so the noble flag was simply draped
across the balcony railing overlooking the Caspian and Azadlig
Square [Freedom Square, which was called Lenin Square during
the Soviet period].
A passerby on the square looked up with bewilderment at that
blue piece of cloth hanging from the fourth floor of the Intourist.
He seemed puzzled that the hotel had purchased blue bed sheets.
But as he came closer, he realized: "No, it was the blue
flag of the world -
renowned Napoli Soccer Team!" Suddenly, he greeted me with
a smile, waving his hands. "Maradona, Maradona!!!"
he shouted with enthusiasm for the great soccer player.
When I think back on that evening almost ten years ago and consider
the changes that have taken place in Baku since then, it seems
like another world, another era, another people. The atmosphere
at that time was somber. An aura of mild, but pervasive, sadness
had settled over the people, wiping out the initial euphoria
that had followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the long-awaited
declaration of independence. The economic situation was desperate,
and talk of imminent oil fortunes did not alleviate the harshness
of the period. Above all, the pervasive specter of war engulfed
the country in a suffocating cloud.
Despite all of the hardships, difficulties and uncertainties,
the city maintained its warmth and passion for life. You could
feel it in the streets. Tiny cafes timidly started to open. Azerbaijan
was, above all, an outgoing society with a semi-Mediterranean
mentality. It was as if its tremendous culture and history, which
had been sealed for many years, was starting to emerge, chaotically
at first, but with hope and anticipation. It was a city of pioneers;
at least that's how it appeared to the first internationals who
arrived in the country soon after independence.
Hiring national staff proved to be much more difficult than I
had expected. They were to provide the backbone of the office
in Baku, so I needed strong personnel. I was amazed at how highly
educated the applicants were. Many university professors, especially
economics professors, applied for the position of Chief Administrative
Officer. Unfortunately, their knowledge and experience was based
on principles that were not relevant to our program. They were
still part of the academic culture of the former Soviet Union.
In certain sectors, this was very valuable, but in others, completely
After several days of hectic and unsuccessful searching, I decided
to look for very young, talented candidates who had virtually
no professional experience but potential for fast growth. I was
taking a risk that this would slow down our operation at the
beginning, but within time, it would promote the development
of a new class of staff entirely shaped by international civil
One applicant that drew my attention was very young, but looked
even younger. In fact, he looked so young that one would have
wondered how he had arrived for the interview without being accompanied
by his father. However, I soon found out that he was very bright,
quick thinking and surprisingly well-informed on issues related
to international finance and multilateral organizations.
There was one thing about him that puzzled me. When I asked if
he could start work immediately, he hesitated. He said that it
would be difficult because he was working as Assistant to the
Minister of Finance, and there were issues at the Ministry that
no one but he could handle. I was surprised by his response,
which seemed somewhat arrogant for an applicant who had just
graduated from the university. But he was by far the best candidate,
so I decided to contact the Minister myself.
Sure enough, it turned out that this very shy, 20-something-looking
youth was responsible for relations with international financial
institutions. As such, he was indeed indispensable, not only
for the Minister but for the country itself, especially since
at that moment it was at the embryonic stages of working out
some projects with the World Bank and the IMF [International
Monetary Fund]. He had already been in Washington and participated
in meetings with senior staff of multilateral financial institutions.
After a long talk with the Minister, we finally agreed to "share"
the young Elkhan Aliyev on a part-time basis. He turned out to
be extraordinarily professional. Later he became a full-time
staff member in our office, probably one of the best and most
competent in the entire region.
Later on, while still very young, he won a competition to become
an International Finance Officer at the headquarters of FAO (Food
and Agricultural Organization) in Rome, where he resides today
with his family.
Many other talented Azerbaijani staff of the UN started in the
Baku office and are now serving in international posts in various
institutions. They represent the best of Azerbaijani professional
culture abroad, and we're proud to have recruited them.
I'd have to admit that we Westerners were slow to adapt and properly
comprehend the gigantic problems related to transition. It was,
in fact, a threefold process: (1) from former Soviet Republic
to independent, democratic Republic; (2) from command economy
to market economy; and (3) most importantly, from war to peace.
Some international officials believed this transition would be
effected by rapidly introducing economic reforms, but it turned
out to be much more difficult than that.
At the beginning of December 1993, I received a delegation from
an important international organization. I organized a breakfast
briefing to share my impressions about the importance of understanding
the context and culture of Azerbaijan, its peculiarities and
complexities, before undertaking adjustment programs.
Azerbaijan did not fit the definition of a developing country
in the traditional sense of the word. The global environment
was totally different, and I found our organizations slow to
adapt to the real political and economic needs of a region that
was new to us.
Soon after the briefing started, a waiter came to take our breakfast
orders. The official who was sitting to my right announced that
he wanted two fried eggs-sunny-side-up-bacon and porridge. The
hotel waiter looked at him in total confusion. I gently urged
my colleague to simply choose something from the breakfast buffet,
which admittedly wasn't a Sheraton-style selection. "The
concept of breakfast in this part of the world is somewhat different
than it is in Washington," I suggested. "Perhaps it
would be better not to embark on a risky experiment."
But he insisted and kept querying the distressed waiter for ten
minutes. Finally, the waiter said, "OK, OK, I know, I know,"
"You see, Paolo," said the foreign official, "with
these people, it's only a matter of perseverance to bring about
an evolution in their system and culture. In the end," he
added with evident satisfaction, "they're not bad people."
It took nearly half an hour for the waiter to return with the
order. When my colleague saw the dish that was placed in front
of him, he was speechless: it was an enormous, greasy, fried
chicken, with boiled potatoes and rice!
"Talk about evolution of the system," I said quietly.
"Actually, there isn't much difference between what you
two eggs -
and what you received - a chicken! Perhaps certain 'systems' are able
to evolve more rapidly than you thought!"
Between the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994, the United
Nations deployed a full system of UN agencies in Azerbaijan.
The first was UNHCR, which quickly set up an exemplar operation
to support the government in tackling a problem that was to become
the most painful and perplexing issue for the country: how to
care for nearly a million refugees.
UNHCR reacted quickly. In a matter of days, the office was set
up. Relief supplies were flown in almost immediately, bringing
first aid to a growing tide of refugees. The operation, performed
in conjunction with other UN organizations such as UNDP [Development
Program], WFP [World Food Program] and UNICEF [United Nations
Children's Fund], as well as non-governmental organizations,
enabled the refugee population to at least stave off starvation
It became one of the greatest refugee crises in the world: nearly
a million refugees in a country with a population of barely 7
million. At a certain period, military hostilities became more
and more violent, and Azerbaijan continued to lose considerable
territory. The Azerbaijanis were in retreat when the region of
Fuzuli (near the Iranian border) came under heavy bombardment
In one of the most difficult moments, the Speaker of Parliament,
Isa Gambar, himself a native of the Fuzuli region, decided to
go to the front line and remain with the troops until the end.
I decided to follow in order to assess what our response should
be. The events seemed to foretell an even larger humanitarian
When I reached the front line, the residents had already been
evacuated from the zone, as it had been bombarded with continuous
shelling for several days. Troops were changed. New contingents
were being sent from Baku. As we neared the front line, we passed
columns of trucks carrying the troops who were returning from
the front. Our military escort, arranged by the Ministry of Defense,
was driving very quickly. As we approached, the sound of the
bombs became more and more violent. Every time we passed a truck,
I searched the expressions on the young soldiers' faces.
I was amazed at how very young the soldiers were and also by
their composed, impenetrable expressions. It was as if the life
had been knocked out of them. There was a striking difference
between the aged maturity of their expressions and the gentle
features of their adolescent faces. Their faces didn't show fear
or pain; instead they seemed void of all emotion - like the numbness
that sets in when a person lives under the constant threat of
death for a prolonged period of time.
After crossing the last checkpoint, we arrived at a small garrison
that had been almost completely destroyed. It was guarded by
a battalion of heavily armed troops. At that point, the explosive
sounds of the heavy bombardment became more frequent. The ground
The door was opened very slowly by the Speaker's personal bodyguard.
I entered a small room, full of dust and rubble, where Isa Gambar
was sitting alone at a modest kitchen table. An empty chair in
front of him was the only other piece of furniture in the room.
Gambar was unshaven and rather pale, but his eyes were still
as strong as I had known them to be. His posture inspired a sense
of dignity. He seemed determined to reject the fatalism that
historic circumstances, at that point in time, seemed to have
He wore a dark, rather dusty, jacket. No tie. An ashtray, the
only object on the table, was full of ashes and cigarette butts.
I shook hands with him, took a seat and waited, saying nothing.
"This used to be one of the most beautiful parts of Azerbaijan,"
he began. "In spring the color of the hills was gold with
wildflowers; at sunset, the hills would fade into the horizon,
depending on the colors of the clouds, and the sky...
"Why did you come?" he suddenly asked after a long
pause, looking me straight in the eye.
We had a one-hour meeting. I came to understand the gravity of
the situation: the troops probably would not be able to hold
onto the territory much longer.
The bombing became heavier and heavier. Gambar continued to smoke,
unperturbed. He spoke quietly and slowly. His voice was firm
and calm. Not once did he show signs of fear or anxiety. But
his tired eyes could not conceal the immense pain and anger he
felt in not being able to save the land of his people, his memories
and his life.
A bomb exploded nearby. The ground shook violently, causing all
the windows to shatter.
"It's time for you to go," Gambar told me. "A
bomb could fall on this place at any moment. It would be much
more heroic for you to persuade the international community to
stop this carnage, than to die with me here in this garrison."
The door opened suddenly, and the same bodyguard who had escorted
me in announced that it was no longer safe for us to continue
to stay there. We were urged to rush back to Baku immediately.
Gambar stood up and came over to me. He stretched out his hand
slowly and shook my hand firmly. There was nothing more to say.
As I was leaving I noticed that when he returned to his table,
he was about to light up his last cigarette, only to realize
that the matchbox was empty.
It was November 1992. A meeting with the Minister of Foreign
Affairs had been scheduled for early the next morning. When the
telephone rang, I thought that I had overslept, so I jumped from
my bed to pick up the receiver. At that time I was still living
in the good old Azerbaijan Intourist Hotel.
"Hello, how are you?" came a woman's voice. I assumed
it was the secretary from the Ministry protocol.
"I'm fine, thank you," I replied, still quite groggy.
"Has the time of the meeting been confirmed?" I inquired.
"I don't know yet," she answered.
"I would appreciate it if you could confirm it at your earliest
convenience, as I still haven't alerted my colleagues."
"No problem, we can have a separate encounter with you first,
and then later with your colleagues," she replied promptly.
"No, sorry, that's not my style. I like being together with
my colleagues. I believe together is better. After that we can
"You're very demanding!"
"It's not a matter of being demanding. This was our agreement:
our first session would be a group meeting, and then I could
prepare for a one-on-one session."
"Won't you be tired by then?"
"Why should I be tired? I've had many similar experiences
with large groups. It's always been fine. Of course, sometimes
things may heat up a bit because everyone wants to participate
in his own way, but I can handle any unpleasant developments."
"Well, recently we had a bad experience with a group of
"Oh no, please, we're not like that! We're the United Nations,
we have a different attitude. Fundamentally, we have, how shall
I say it...'a humanitarian approach' to our relations. Trust
me, we would never do anything against the will of our Azerbaijani
"A humanitarian approach, I like that! I've never heard
of that before!"
"That's because you've never had a UN Office here in Baku.
It's just a new experience. Don't worry. With us, you will change
many of your ways of doing business. We're here for that, no
need to be shy."
"It sounds very interesting - this 'humanitarian approach'. Anyway,
with or without the 'humanitarian approach', the cost will be
quite high, you know."
"Of course! But you see, we shouldn't be discouraged. Every
radical process of change entails high costs. It is unavoidable.
It's only a matter of being strong in the initial phase, and
gradually it gets better and better. I'm very optimistic."
"OK, then it's agreed. But I'll need some cash in advance."
I must admit that I've never been very quick when it comes to
women. Whether it was the hour of the day, the stress or the
lack of sleep from the previous few days, I'll have to admit
that I was, indeed, particularly slow in catching on. I looked
at my watch and only then realized that it was 2 a.m. The person
on the phone was definitely not a secretary from the Foreign
"You're not from protocol?"
"No, no, I'm not from protocol. I'm from Baku," the
young voice replied cheerily.
"But who are you?"
"Here they tell me that I look like Sharon Stone. And if
you open the door of your room in five minutes, you can see for
I was furious. I had just been awakened in the middle of the
night. I was tired and overworked, and the following day I had
an important meeting with the Minister, a very heavy schedule
and a lot of work to do.
At that time, a mission of senior UN colleagues was visiting
from New York. Why had I been the only one to be awakened and
suffer while my New York guests were sleeping so comfortably?
In the true spirit of UN partnership, I decided to solve this
situation before going back to sleep.
The head of the delegation was a German national-seasoned, respected
and, above all, very austere. He was also known for being very
active on issues concerning religious and humanitarian organizations:
in a word, "perfect" for what I had in mind.
It wasn't long before I passed along his name and number. Then
I went back to bed and slept soundly, without the slightest sense
The following morning the German arrived late for breakfast.
He was fuming.
"You know what happened to me last night? I can't believe
it!!! It's outrageous, simply outrageous. I was awakened by..."
"By what?" I asked.
"By a...you know, one of those girls...in the middle of
the night!!! This is very unpleasant. The most shocking thing
was that the woman knew my name and room number! I just can't
understand how she got it. She gave me a line about Sharon Stone
and who knows what else. I immediately hung up. I was so upset
that I couldn't go back to sleep. How could this have happened?!
It's a serious breach of security...We are all under threat here!
Tomorrow she could even call you, and we don't know what might
be behind all this! I'm going to complain to the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs! This is absolutely unacceptable..."
"I'm shocked," I told him. "A beautiful woman
named Sharon Stone phones you here in Baku, in the middle of
the night, talks to you using your real name and graciously proposes
an unsolicited visit to your room...
"You must have been very tired. It must have been jetlag
or the fatigue of traveling. You've just arrived from New York
and it was a long flight. I'm sure if you get some good, hot
chamomile tea and some sound sleep tonight, tomorrow everything
will be OK and your nights will be more tranquil."
"What, damn chamomile!!! That woman might call me again
and even attempt to force her way into my room. Do you understand
that?!!! At night this place is completely deserted...I need
police protection! Oh my God, this is a nightmare..." he
I replied, "But if everything you say is true about Sharon
Stone, how could it be a nightmare? Surely it was just a dream,
and a very sweet one"
Needless to say that when I finally admitted to the joke, we
all had a big laugh. The story made its way through the grapevine
of the United Nations.
The New Azerbaijan
In the spring of 1993 the situation became very tense. The tide
of the war turned against the Azerbaijani army, and large areas
of the country's territory were under occupation by the Armenian
military. Seurat Husseinov, an army colonel with a dubious past,
marched on Baku with a handful of troops loyal to him and seized
power, becoming Prime Minister in a bloodless coup.
I had always refused to have any dealings with him. I resisted
his attempts to organize official meetings with me, as I thought
doing so would somehow give him political credibility. I thought
that as representatives of the UN, we needed to send a clear
message. This was the most difficult period since independence,
and at a certain point, we felt that the course of events could
have erupted into civil war. Baku was under a curfew at night,
and several foreign companies were evacuated. We never evacuated,
but we did review and reinforce security measures for all of
the staff stationed in the country.
I became fascinated by the enormous cultural wealth, which has
hardly been known outside the country, as well as the fast pace
of economic and social development. Despite such progress, there
was no publication to document the events and profound changes
that were taking place and their impact on people's lives. We
decided to try to produce a Human Development Report to offer
a true picture of the "New Azerbaijan".
The government was suspicious of the idea. The old Soviet attitude
that every publication was to be used as an instrument of government
propaganda was deeply ingrained. But I knew that a global report
on the state of affairs in the country and its evolution would
promote a more realistic image of the country abroad and stimulate
debate about the country's future. I wanted the process to be
guided entirely by Azerbaijani intellectuals and scientists.
The issue of independence of judgment was of critical importance.
Key to the publication's final success was the selection of one
of the most respected Azerbaijani scientists as coordinator of
the report. When he first came to my office, I didn't know him
at all, but Professor Urkhan Alakbarov already had an international
reputation as a geneticist.
Just like all great men of science, he was a modest person with
gracious, simple manners. He was relatively short, in his early
50s and spoke broken English. Behind his very calm and serious
exterior, I could sense an enormous intellectual passion
- an energy that
his eyes could not hide.
He was the first person I met in Baku who was talking about sustainable
human development. He spoke about the future of Azerbaijan with
vision and realism, knowing full well that vast oil reserves
alone would not necessarily guarantee prosperity for everyone.
Many challenges lay ahead on Azerbaijan's path toward development.
Together we wanted to produce a book that would reveal the complexity
of the historic moment that we ourselves were witnessing. We
also wanted to portray the enormous potential of the nation.
He quickly assembled a team of independent Azerbaijani intellectuals
and scientists and began working on what came to be known as
the Azerbaijan Human Development Report.
It was the first-ever such report produced in the former Soviet
Union and became a milestone in providing a transparent glimpse
at the country's situation, both positive and negative. The report
was written with unprecedented openness and included guidelines
for future development. It included analysis from a broad range
of Azerbaijani representatives as well as international experts.
Even more remarkable was the fact that President Heydar Aliyev
himself launched the report, along with the Speaker of Parliament
and the Prime Minister, at a public ceremony. Aliyev understood
that he could benefit from allowing a larger margin of maneuverability
for the UN and its publications.
The ice was broken. From then on, many analytical studies and
essays about Azerbaijan began to be published and disseminated
throughout the country and abroad. As time went by, a new class
of intellectuals began to emerge. Gradually they brought to the
surface topics that up until then had been considered untouchable.
The Opera House
I was always amazed at how the Opera Theater kept operating,
even during the most tragic moments of the war. It had almost
no budget, and I learned later that it had remained open thanks
to the voluntary contributions of theater personnel and artists.
For a long period, during those early months and years, they
worked without any salary.
The first performance I attended was in late 1992. The theater
was nearly empty. There was very little electricity. The singers'
costumes were very old and in some cases, tattered. In fact,
some of the singers performed in their own clothes, instead of
It had been a very harsh winter and there was no heating; the
temperature inside the theater was below zero [Celsius]. The
spectators, few that there were, wore their heavy coats, fur
hats and gloves, but were still freezing cold.
I was enchanted by the shining beauty of the representation and
by the spectacle of a nation that even during its most tragic
circumstances had not abandoned its cultural dignity and traditions.
A war was going on. There was little water or electricity. The
country was in a state of economic emergency, but still the opera
refused to close down.
Regrettably, for a long time, I was not able to do anything to
support the Opera Theater. As UN funds were very scarce, and
the humanitarian situation in the country was so disastrous,
no resources could be diverted from much-needed assistance, considering
that bilateral donors had never been particularly generous with
In 1996 we finally succeeded in convincing a group of international
oil companies to finance a UN-sponsored Opera Trust Fund, in
support of the Azerbaijan Opera Theater. After long discussions,
the Fund was established at the very end of my tenure, with a
significant budget that allowed for the long-awaited rehabilitation
of the Opera.
Much credit for the survival of the Opera is due to its director,
Akif Malikov, a tireless and truly devoted cultural promoter.
His admirable and solitary efforts kept the Opera together during
the most difficult times.
For me, the Opera Theater was like a quiet refuge where I felt
at home more than anywhere else in Baku. When the challenges
of the political situation brought me to the edge of anger and
frustration, I would go to the Opera, no matter what was being
Many times I escaped to the empty theater and sat there alone
in one of the plush red velvet chairs, just for the pleasure
of being surrounded by the theater's beauty and breathing in
the atmosphere of its art and history. All of my battles would
be left outside those huge carved wooden doors, and harmony and
beauty would embrace me for a few brief moments.
"You see, Mr. Lembo, the core of Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and
Punishment' is in its many ambiguous intersections, including
the sense of guilt, collective human ethics, the individual's
code of conduct, public law, personal remorse (or the absence
of it) and divine judgment. When a society displays a harmonious
balance among all those elements, the job of the Prosecutor General
becomes unessential. Although we in Azerbaijan are far from having
found a proper equilibrium in our society, it seems more and
more that my functions in this country are of modest relevance."
Eldar Hassanov, Prosecutor General, was quite a rare character.
In almost every UN Mission around the world, relations with the
Prosecutor General are inevitably complex. That was not the case
in Azerbaijan. In fact, in the office of the Prosecutor General,
the UN had one of the most constructive relationships of all.
It is certainly rare to call on a senior government official
for an official visit and discuss matters of utmost relevance
amidst a quotation from Dostoyevsky, a comment about Michelangelo
and a reference to Mozart. But Eldar Hassanov was a true intellectual,
a cosmopolitan and, most importantly for me, a true believer
in the United Nations. He was always ready to receive me and
discuss the most delicate of subjects with a genuine commitment
to finding a solution. He did not hesitate to intervene personally
in highly controversial issues and assume the responsibility
for making sensitive decisions.
There was nothing I felt I couldn't discuss with him. We frequently
had disagreements, even disputes, but they never affected our
mutual respect for each other. He was a highly qualified man
of law who tried to exercise his authority with wisdom and justice.
He was Prosecutor at a very difficult time, and within the limits
of his mandate and considering the legacy that he had inherited,
he is remembered as someone who did his best to advance the rule
of law in his country.
He was particularly known for his competence in the drug-control
sphere, an area in which he had written several specialized publications
that were valued internationally. He and the Minister of Internal
Affairs, Ramil Usupov, deserve to be commended for their efforts
against drug trafficking.
The UN organized an International Conference on Drug Control
in Baku in 1997. An important agreement was reached there on
an international protocol (still referred to as the Baku Protocol)
to better coordinate international police efforts against narcotics
traffic. Overall, the law-enforcement authority in Baku always
provided excellent cooperation in our efforts to fight drug trafficking
in the region. When it came to drug control at that time, Azerbaijan
was a positive example that stood out among many other countries,
both inside and outside the region.
Horadiz [in the southwestern part of Azerbaijan near the Iranian
border] was one of the zones that were hit the hardest by the
war. The destruction there had been very extensive, and sporadic
shelling still took place even after the cease-fire agreement
[May 1994]. The region had been almost completely evacuated.
My thought was that it could become the starting point of a reconstruction
program that in phases could be extended to other neighboring
Our idea for reconstruction in the area was not met with much
enthusiasm at first. The word "reconstruction" had
not yet been used in any of the ongoing international programs.
Most of the international institutions feared that a full-scale
war would resume, destroying what was being reconstructed and
hampering future funding for international programs in the country.
On the contrary, I felt that launching a large-scale reconstruction
program in Horadiz, funded by international organizations, would
help restrain the bombardments from the other side of the border.
Any damage to the infrastructure that was being rehabilitated
would be seen as an act of hostility against the UN, not simply
against Azerbaijan. With an international witness on the scene,
it would have been irresponsible and dangerous to resume shelling.
I admit that it was a gamble, but as I think back on my activities
in Azerbaijan, I recognize that half of the decisions that we
made were risky. A seasoned diplomat in New York once told me
that there were two categories of staff in the UN: those who
start a project only when it is "safe", and those who
start a project only when it is just, no matter the risk. When
I began my career, I well understood the importance of good,
safe and traditional programs, but I decided to start implementing
them after I had retired as a consultant. In Baku, I was far
from retirement age.
We decided to create an Azerbaijani institution responsible for
overseeing the reconstruction activities in the country
- the ARRA (Agency
for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Areas damaged by the
war). Within a few months it was operational, and we started
formulating and implementing reconstruction programs. Initially,
it was funded by UNDP alone, but soon many other international
and bilateral donors joined.
We organized an international conference on reconstruction, where,
for the first time, oil companies were invited to get involved
with the program. It was an unqualified success, and we gained
sufficient resources to launch a large-scale plan. As I had hoped,
the military shelling came to a halt, and building activities
were carried out without incident. The Horadiz railway station
was reopened, and trains started traveling to and from the region.
Some of the media from a neighboring country accused me of "having
financed the re-opening of an Azerbaijani military supply line
by railway." There was a lot of noise about it in New York,
also. I answered that, given the speed and technology that the
Azerbaijani railway could afford at that time, it would have
been faster to utilize donkey caravans for a military supply
In 1996 we celebrated United Nations Day [October 24] in Horadiz
with the first families who were returning to resettle the area.
Finally, Some Refugees are Heading Home," in AI 4.4, Winter
SEARCH at AZER.com.] We organized a simple celebration in town,
where we shared bread with the families who had moved into the
first houses that we had helped to reconstruct. Many of the Ambassadors
accepted the invitation to come out the four hours' distance
to Horadiz. A number of oil company managers and friends from
the international community joined them in a demonstration of
solidarity that was documented by CNN.
Abid Sharifov, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of construction
activities in the country, was my partner in the initiative.
Certainly, he's the person who deserves the credit for its success.
Sharifov looks like a character right out of a Francis Ford Coppola
film: he has a large build and a strong, deep voice, memorable
features, a prominent nose and brusque manners.
He was certainly not what one might call the quintessential diplomat.
He would only meet with you if he had something very concrete
to discuss. He was not willing to just chat and didn't even seem
to know how to do that. I liked this characteristic about him
and thought that we could work together well in that difficult
and politically charged venture related to the beginning of reconstruction
activities. In fact, he proved to be an excellent manager, surrounded
by people he had chosen who were equally professional. I felt
that my sympathy was reciprocated, although we were, in every
aspect, very different.
I had only one complaint about Sharifov: he was resolved to marry
me off in Azerbaijan. Now nothing is wrong with such an idea.
I was, and still am, a bachelor, and I'm certainly not against
the idea of marriage. Sharifov's thought was that he knew me
well, he knew Azerbaijani women well, and that Italians were
similar to Azerbaijanis, so he somehow felt the necessity to
take it upon himself to identify the right person for me so that
I would settle down.
What scared me most was that he undertook rebuilding Horadiz
and finding me a wife with the same intensity. He didn't earn
the nickname "Bulldozer" for nothing. I feared the
moment would come when I would exhaust my Italian resourcefulness
in escaping the final decision on the long procession of (nevertheless,
very appealing) candidates.
He would typically introduce me to a potential candidate at a
business dinner down at one of the sea resort restaurants, usually
in some romantic location. Just the appearance of Sharifov inculcated
the fear of God in all the restaurant personnel and management.
(Yes, I have to admit that Sharifov was very well known, and
the restaurant service for him and his friends was always solicitous.)
For the occasion, he would appear with a young "interpreter"
- a beautiful woman
from a good family. Of course, her linguistic qualifications
often left something to be desired. Instead of Azeri-English
translation, it was more frequently an Azeri-Azeri translation.
In any event I always had my (real) interpreter beside me, who
would proceed to interpret for me and for Sharifov's interpreter
When I met Sharifov for the last time at my farewell party [in
1997], he embraced me and said: "I have cracked many walls
in my life, but I didn't succeed in cracking your wall. You managed
to escape me, but you won't be able to escape for your entire
During my final months in Baku, I was named "Man of the
Year" in Azerbaijan. I was given a bronze plaque at a ceremony
at the Respublica Palace. It is simply engraved: "To Paolo
Lembo, Azerbaijansevari." In Azeri, "Azerbaijansevari"
means something like, "The lover of Azerbaijan."
That plaque remains one of my fondest memories of Azerbaijan.
It seemed to symbolize my attachment to a people I identified
passionately with and with whom I had shared the first period
of that country's independence - the most difficult moments of peace and war,
hope and despair, success and failure. Never before had I experienced
that intensity and that fire for a cause that I had felt throughout
my stay in Azerbaijan. Perhaps it was because I was young
- I lived it with
all the unrestrained passion that is only possible during certain
seasons of one's life.
Toward the end of my tenure, I came to realize that I had become
quite a popular figure in Baku. When I walked the streets of
Baku, people recognized me and approached to offer a word of
sympathy, appreciation, or on occasion to complain about what
they thought the UN should have done but did not do (and they
were usually right). Sometimes they simply shook hands and smiled.
At restaurants, it was not unusual for bottles of champagne to
be offered by guests sitting at nearby tables.
On one of my last days in Baku, while I was waiting for my car
in front of one of the ministries, a taxi driver was smoking
a cigarette next to his very old Volga. He didn't recognize me,
so I decided to approach and ask him: "What do you think
of the UN here in Azerbaijan?"
"Ah," he answered, "Paolo Lembo!"
"No," I emphasized, "not 'Paolo Lembo'. 'The UN'."
"Yes, the UN -
Paolo Lembo!" he repeated.
"No, I didn't say anything about 'Paolo Lembo'. I said 'the
He appeared surprised. I was about to lose my patience. "Look,
Lembo is a man, like you and me, the UN is an institution. I'm
not asking about the man, I want to know your opinion about the
institution, the United Nations' organization in Azerbaijan?"
I paused and waited attentively. But my explanation made him
even more confused. The situation was hopeless.
"OK, I understand, so what do you think of the UN / Paolo
"He's a good man."
"Yes, but why do you think the UN is a good organization?
What has it done here in Azerbaijan?" I continued.
"I do not know, but he is a good man."
"Can you tell me at least one good project that the UN has
done for the people of Azerbaijan in the last five years?"
He suddenly assumed a serious, almost philosophical attitude,
somewhat puzzled by my insistence.
He stopped smoking and looked up at the sky. My persistence seemed
to be paying off.
"He's a good man, a very good man," he said and slowly
left my investigation, which by then must have seemed rather
I eventually realized that there was nothing I could do to separate
myself from the public image of the organization. I also had
the somewhat uncomfortable feeling that perhaps it was not so
good that I had arrived at a point where everyone knew me, but
nobody knew why I was known.
How long did I stay in Baku? Was it five years, fifteen years,
five months or five days? Perhaps the archives of our memory
classify the files of life's milestones according to the intensity
of emotions we have lived. In the end, the statistics of years,
months and days and their actual sequence gradually fades away.
When the moment came to leave, it almost took me by surprise.
I suddenly received a notification that my name was being proposed
for Tajikistan, which ranked as one of the most difficult duty
stations. The UN at that time was struggling to broker a peace
agreement. I have always been attracted by challenges, so I accepted.
I also felt that Azerbaijan had evolved tremendously since independence
and, given my background of working in countries under extremely
difficult circumstances, I could be more useful someplace else.
Still, leaving Baku felt strange to me. I had lived my life so
intensely on the Caspian bay that I wondered how I could live
without it. It turns out that I was mistaken, as the peace process
in Tajikistan proved to be an even more challenging adventure.
But never again would it be the same for me as it was in Baku,
in terms of witnessing the birth of a nation.
After my departure from Baku, some thought that the UN should
be more neutral. I have always believed that the UN should be
impartial, but never neutral. It must have the courage to take
sides with the losers and the forgotten. If the UN doesn't do
it, who will? I have always refused to initiate projects that
would only appease government officials and bind them to the
UN with a few material privileges. I have never been able to
be everyone's friend, and I'm convinced that there are still
people in Baku who do not sleep well when they think of my name.
I would be the first to admit that not every project I promoted
was successful; however, each of them did constitute an effort
to work in an area where no one else had worked before. The important
thing was the aim, not the project.
In the larger picture of Azerbaijan's history during the first
decade of its independence, the UN played a marginal role. Within
that, my personal role was insignificant. In Azerbaijan I only
began a small fraction of the projects I would have liked to
have done. I left the country with the regret of having received
much more from the people than it was possible to give them.
My story is the simple tale of a UN bureaucrat who arrived in
Baku one day in October 1992, as a young dreamer, with a suitcase
and a big blue flag. I left several years later as a man who
had lost some beliefs but gained more faith in values.
On my last ride from Baku to the airport, I sat in the car with
two people who had been close to me throughout my mission in
Azerbaijan: Mahir, my assistant, and Fuad, my security officer.
I looked out at the beautiful architecture of the buildings
- the elegant decorations
of turn-of-the-century palaces that had recently been restored.
I was amazed at the incredible combination of styles, art, fashions
and customs that could be read in the buildings that lined the
city's avenues. What a unique place this was, I thought. And
I realized that I had had that exact same thought while entering
the city for the first time a few years earlier.
At a certain point, the car changed its route and headed toward
the city center.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"One last appointment, Mr. Lembo," Mahir explained.
We pulled up in front of the Opera Theater, and a guard appeared
to open the main entrance door. I was invited to enter the foyer,
where a valet was waiting, alone. He ushered me into the theater,
to a seat in the center of the music hall. He then smiled and
left, without saying a word.
The theater was completely empty. Never had it looked to me as
beautiful as it did at that moment. In the silence, I felt suspended
between the elegant rows of empty, red velvet seats and the celestial
frescoes of the theater's ceiling.
Only then, for the first time, did I note the graceful golden
cherubs carved on the main balcony. The left cherub seemed to
be looking in my direction. There was something in the expression
of its face that caught my attention. I stood up, slowly moving
toward it. I noted that its expression was not completely happy;
a tiny frown between its eyes revealed a sentiment of apprehension,
something that contrasted with the joyful expression on its face.
It was as if it feared an imminent event that it did not wish
to happen, but was conscious of its inevitability. What did the
Suddenly, a light appeared on the stage, and to my surprise,
a tenor appeared. The grand silhouette of his body was backlit.
The rest of the stage remained dark, as did the rest of the theater.
He greeted me, the only spectator, with a slight nod of his head
and after a pause, began singing. I immediately recognized his
song as "E Lucevan Le Stelle" [And the Stars Were Shining]
from Puccini's "Tosca" - my favorite aria.
His was a powerful, elegant voice; the notes were strong and
pure. He sang for a few minutes with the great intensity, passion
and talent that made him the most reputed tenor in the Caucasus.
I listened, overwhelmed.
When he finished he came up to the edge of the stage, stopped
and said with a perfect Italian accent: "Grazie, Paolo."
I slowly stood up and looked at him, speechless for what seemed
like an eternity. Then the lights faded and the theater was cast
It was cold at the airport, and for once, the Turkish Airlines
Baku-Istanbul flight was not overbooked. In fact, there were
only a few passengers waiting in the lounge. A fat Turkish tradesman
was smoking, reading a football newspaper with deep concentration;
an Azerbaijani yuppie was restlessly talking on his cellular
phone (a new fashion in Baku at the time); a mother was screaming
and running after her two mischievous sons, who enjoyed kicking
passengers' suitcases; a small group of custom officers, bored
as always, were discussing the prices of a vacation to Anatolia
[Turkey], mechanically following with their eyes the legs of
the stewardesses who were passing by. Every detail of that ordinary
scene was as familiar to me as if it were the last chapter in
a book that I've enjoyed reading over and over again.
I waited for everyone else to embark before I approached the
plane. Mahir and Fuad insisted on following me to the plane.
I embraced them both. They asked if I would ever come back. I
answered that I would. I did not know how or when, but yes, one
day I would come back. They wished me luck in Tajikistan.
I climbed the stairs to the plane, but just before entering,
I heard someone call me. I turned back, but the tarmac was deserted.
I looked out on the horizon and could see the sun slowly disappearing
into the horizon of the silvery blue sea.
"Sir, could you please board; we're already late,"
said the blonde hostess at the plane's door, in her tender Turkish
"Yes, I'm coming." I had the impression that someone
was calling me, but it must have just been the sound of the wind.
I now live in another beautiful city along the Mediterranean
coast. In the evenings, when I walk along the seaside boulevard,
sometimes I hear the whisper of the wind of Baku calling me and
I feel it gently touching my face. But it's only for a moment.
Soon I recognize that it is not the same wind. It is not the
(9.3) Autumn 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.
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