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The Weekend Interview

'I am Not Running away':
Meet Benon Sevan, the man at the center of the Oil for Food scandal

By Claudia Rosett
Monday, april 3, 2006

NICOSIa, Cyprus--"Medium or sweet?" asks Benon Sevan. He is inquiring how much sugar I would like in the Turkish coffee he's boiling up for us on his kitchen stove, and I am torn between thanking him for his hospitality and wondering if he might poison the refreshments. For the past three years, we have had a somewhat fraught connection, via a shared interest in the biggest corruption scandal ever to hit the United Nations--he as a star suspect, and I in writing about it. So when, together with a traveling companion, I paid a surprise visit on a recent Sunday afternoon to Mr. Sevan's current home--here in the capital of his native Cyprus--I really had little hope that he would do anything but slam the door on me.

This city of old sandstone walls, street cafés and orange trees is where the former head of the U.N. Oil for Food program has been living quietly since he slipped out of New York last year, shortly before he was accused by Paul Volcker's U.N.-authorized investigation of having "corruptly benefited" from the graft-ridden U.N. aid effort for Iraq. Since then, Mr. Sevan's name has been in the news, but the man himself has been all but invisible. He has refused to talk to the press, and he turned away a group of visiting U.S. congressional investigators who knocked on his door last October. The U.N., while paying Mr. Sevan his full pension, has deflected almost all questions about him. He has not been brought before any court of law. as a citizen of Cyprus, he is safe on the island from U.S. extradition, and there is no sign the Cypriot authorities are planning to bring charges against him.

Yet the questions abound. It was with trepidation that I approached the nine-story white building where Mr. Sevan now lives, in a penthouse apartment previously inhabited by his late aunt, a retired civil servant. Two years ago, as the U.N.'s Oil for Food investigation was about to begin, she was hurt in a fall into the building's elevator shaft, and some weeks afterward she died of her injuries. It later turned out that Mr. Sevan had declared as gifts from this same aunt--to whom he was quite close--some $147,000 in bundles of cash that Mr. Volcker in a report last year alleged were actually bribes skimmed out of Oil for Food deals. No foul play has been charged in her death, but it did seem worth taking a close look at the building's sole elevator. It appears to have been recently replaced. The new one, its steel doors gleaming, delivered us smoothly to the small stone-floored landing in front of Mr. Sevan's door.

I knocked. The tall, bespectacled 69-year-old answered, wearing a gray-and-blue T-shirt, warm-up pants, slippers and a thin gold watch. He recognized me instantly, and protested: "I don't want to talk to you. I have nothing to say." We stared at each other, and he volunteered: "I am not ashamed to look in the mirror when I shave myself." Then: "I am closing the door now."

But he didn't. What ensued instead was a quick bargaining session across the threshold. Recalling a statement released by Mr. Sevan's lawyer last august, that he was used by the U.N. probe as a "scapegoat" to "deflect attention from other, more politically powerful targets," I asked if he might like to share his own version of the events and characters involved in Oil for Food. He replied: "I will write my story one day." I offered to buy him lunch, if he'd like to come out and start telling it now. He declined, saying almost wistfully, "I used to be the one who bought the lunches." Then, in friendlier tone, he added, "I'm sorry I cannot show you Cypriot hospitality and invite you in for coffee." after some more dickering, I finally offered the compromise that I would not ask him to answer questions on the record about Oil for Food. With that, he ushered us into his living room for what turned into a 2 1/2-hour chat.

It is a strange limbo in which Mr. Sevan now lives, apparently alone and with a lot of time on his hands. Just three years ago, he was running a multibillion-dollar U.N. operation in Iraq, and together with his wife, Micheline Sevan (who also worked at the U.N.), was renting a midtown Manhattan apartment for $4,370 per month, owned a house in the Hamptons, and was jetting around the world on U.N. business. Today, if Mr. Sevan wishes to remain out of reach of various criminal investigations spawned by Oil for Food, he is basically confined to self-imposed exile on Cyprus.

Mr. Sevan denies this, saying, "I am not running away. I always planned to come back here." But it's hard to believe this is the manner of return he had in mind. His apartment is comfortable but not plush. There are several rooms and two balconies, but the interior is an odd mix of slightly shabby furniture inherited from his aunt and exotic souvenirs of his 40-year U.N. career. In the hallway, jumbled on a shelf just beside the door, is a heap of Muslim skullcaps collected during his 1988-92 stint in afghanistan. His living room sports two ornate Oriental carpets, but on the day we dropped by Mr. Sevan had set up next to them a small square laundry rack, on which he was drying a dozen pairs or so of dark socks, pegged with blue, red and yellow plastic clothespins. Saying, "I am sorry about the mess," he quickly moved the rack outside onto a balcony that looks toward Mount Olympus, though that afternoon the view was shrouded by storm clouds.

among the mementoes laid out on a living room sideboard is a long wooden statuette that Mr. Sevan says he picked up while working more than 30 years ago for the U.N. in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. He explains that he has not bothered to display it upright, on the wall, because he is waiting to move into another apartment in Nicosia, now being renovated--this one also a penthouse, but better appointed, with a "wraparound balcony." The current apartment, which he says he bought for his aunt--"very cheap," back in 1967--he plans to keep as well. He means to use it as "not exactly an office, but somewhere to work." He wants eventually to write two books, "one on afghanistan and one on Iraq."

I ask if he is working anywhere at the moment. "No," he says. But in keeping with old habits, he gets up early in the morning--"I study." He says he needs only about four hours of sleep a night, and "10 minutes meditation after lunch," which he says served him well while working at the U.N. office in New York. This rouses the specter of Oil for Food, and he adds, in one of many protestations of innocence throughout our conversation, "I sleep at night in peace," and, more ominously, "I hope others can sleep at night."

On the coffee table is a stack of books, the top one titled "Teach Yourself Modern Greek," though Mr. Sevan--an ethnic armenian who speaks fluent Turkish and English--says he hasn't been doing much with this particular volume: "Maybe the cleaning lady put it there." Under a window is a flat-screen TV. Mr. Sevan says he doesn't care much for its entertainment offerings: "I only watch the news." When he gets up to make coffee, I offer a packet of chocolate Easter eggs I happen to have in my purse. He declines, slapping himself across the chest and saying "I have gained seven pounds since I came back"--though for a man pushing 70, he looks fit enough.

In keeping with our devil's deal, I am not asking about the U.N. But it is neither out of mind, nor even out of sight. Mr. Sevan's kitchen window, above the sink, looks out on the so-called Green Line, patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers, which runs right through Nicosia, dividing Cyprus into the Turkish north and Greek Cypriot south--now the Republic of Cyprus. "It's a tragedy," says Mr. Sevan, referring to the division of the island. I ask if it's appropriate in this southern part of Cyprus to use the term "Turkish coffee." He quips, "In Greece they call it Greek, in the north they call it Turkish. I sometimes call it Byzantine."

Turning to current politics, he asks, "So what's happening with america and Turkey? Is america withdrawing its support from Turkey?" I say I'm not up on the latest, and Mr. Sevan chides me for caring only about Oil for Food.

The first cup of coffee--small and strong--is quickly gone. Mr. Sevan offers a second round, and this time pulls out a pack of cigarettes, noting that once he starts, he tends to smoke them all. Lighting up, he begins to reminisce about his years working for the U.N. in afghanistan, during and just after the 1989 Soviet troop withdrawal. "Kabul was like a big open target," he says, recalling the rockets that would hit the city. He observes that even the dogs learned to interpret the sounds of an attack: "Incoming, the dogs would howl; outgoing, they would bark." He remembers, in particular, landing at the Kabul airport during that era, in front of a plane that was shot down on approach, and getting out of his own plane just before it was hit on the airfield, leaving it looking--he searches for the simile--"like a honeycomb."

That memory, and the coffee, reminds him of the terrorist truck-bombing, in august 2003, of the U.N. offices in Iraq, post-Saddam, at Baghdad's Canal Hotel, in which U.N. special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed. Mr. Sevan, then wrapping up Oil for Food, was visiting from his U.N. headquarters and was in the Baghdad building when it was hit. He says he escaped alive only because he'd left his desk to see a deputy who was late for a meeting and had the appeal of keeping an espresso machine in his office: "That's what saved my life."

Mr. Sevan goes into a back room to retrieve some photos of the bomb damage, and when he returns he is also carrying a cigar. "I need it for this," he says, showing one by one some dog-eared paper-printout photos of the collapsed hotel wall and the interior of his office there, littered and pocked with debris from the blast. Mr. Sevan says he decided at that point he'd had enough. He returned immediately to New York, although Mr. annan's former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, "called and asked me to stay longer."

He looks into his empty coffee cup, and we chat about fate, and the custom of fortune-telling from the shape of coffee grounds. He says he is resigned to what happens, "I am not born again, but I've always believed in God."

We get up to go, and Mr. Sevan walks us not only to the door, but just outside it, to the elevator. We are still saying our goodbyes as the elevator doors start to snap shut. With his help, we pry them open long enough for Mr. Sevan to say, "I hope you enjoy your stay in Cyprus." and we descend to the small vestibule where, on one of the battered old wooden mailboxes, the former U.N. undersecretary-general, alleged bribe-taker, self-described scapegoat and retired pensioner at the heart of the biggest corruption scandal in U.N. history has taped his name, perhaps unsure himself whether it is meant as a gesture of impunity or invitation: "Benon Sevan."