In a building usually defined by the noisy quarrels of its 192 member states, the U.N. meditation room is a rare place of solitude. Designed in every detail by former Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, it is the most sacred place at U.N. headquarters: at its entrance, the organization has erected a solemn shrine in honor of the U.N. officials - including Hammarskjold himself -- who have died in the pursuit of peace for the United Nations.
"Please respect the sanctity of this room," reads a sign at the entrance.
So imagine the horror felt by Annika Savill, a Hammarskjold devotee who serves in the U.N. Democracy Fund, when she brought an intern to the room on Tuesday only to find a group of barefoot men and woman sprawled on the floor in various yoga stretches. They had stowed their belongings in a gym bag at the foot of the room's iron ore altar.
In the late 1990s, Savill, who served in the U.N. secretary general's office for eleven years and wrote speeches for Kofi Annan and Ban Ki Moon, led a campaign to reopen the meditation room, which had been shuttered for more than a decade to prevent young visitors from using it to smoke pot and make out. "When I campaigned for the room to be reopened in 1998 it was in large part because its closure was an affront to Hammarskjold's memory," Savill told Turtle Bay. "This today, seemed like an affront to his memory as well."
The meditation room, which was built in 1957, is framed on one end by an abstract painting by Hammarskjold's artist friend Bo Beskow, with shafts of light passing the edges of the canvass into the room. A large ore slab sits in the center of the room with a beam of light hitting it from the ceiling. "We may see it as an altar, empty not because there is no God, not because it is an altar to an unknown god, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms," Hammarskjold wrote.
After Hammarskjold's death, the U.N. converted the room outside the meditation room into a memorial. It is here that Marc Chagall installed his famous stained-glass painting in tribute to Hammarskjold and his colleagues killed in a 1961 plane crash on a peace mission in Congo. Nearby, there is a bust of Count Bernadotte Folke of Sweden, the U.N.'s first Middle East mediator, who was assassinated in 1948. There is a plaque honoring allied forces who died in the U.N.-authorized Korean War and a torn U.N. flag that flew over the U.N. headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad in 2003, when terrorists blew up the facility, killing 22 people, including the U.N. special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil.
Savill confronted representatives of the group, asking who had given them permission to use the room. U.N. security officials arrived within minutes and got them to leave the room, she said. "This is the first time I have seen anything of this nature," she said. "I asked them who in the U.N. gave them permission to conduct this activity. They answered that they were an ‘NGO'. Luckily security intervened very promptly."
Farhan Haq, the U.N.'s deputy spokesman, said Wednesday that U.N. security officers discovered the group exercising in the meditation room and "told the people in the room to leave, which they did. As far as DSS [the U.N. Department of Safety and Security] is aware (and they need to be told about such things), there is no permission to use the meditation room for any exercise purposes."
Back in 1998, when the room reopened, Savill had a plaque erected, quoting Hammarskjold, as a way of protecting the integrity of the room. It seemed to have worked, until today.
"There is nothing to distract our attention or to break in on the stillness within ourselves," part of the plaque reads.
Nothing, that is, except those five bodies stretched out on the floor.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.