OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Fernando Guillén, a 22-year-old gamer and YouTuber, switched on his computer, took a sip of water and a deep breath and thanked God for being alive, before beginning his live stream on video games from his bedroom in San Antonio, Tex. Sitting in a high-backed gaming chair and dressed in a black hoodie with a white bandanna wrapped around his head, Fernando began:
“My heart’s beating. I’m a little bit nervous, because I usually wouldn’t do this, but,” he exhaled. “O.K., so, as of May 27, 2020, my biological father passed away and it . . . it came to me as a surprise,” he said, before breaking down. Fernando’s girlfriend, Fatima, entered the edge of the screen wrapped in a pastel-blue blanket and hugged him as he wept. “I got it; I got it,” he said.
More than 5,000 miles away across the Atlantic, in the landlocked West African country of Mali, Fernando’s estranged father, Lieut. Col. Carlos Moisés Guillén Alfaro, a 46-year-old pilot with the El Salvadorean air force, had become the first United Nations peacekeeper to officially die of Covid-19, on the afternoon of May 28. Seven peacekeepers have died of Covid-19 on UN missions throughout Africa so far, and four of them have been uniformed officers, like Guillén, according to a spokesperson from the UN Department of Peace Operations in New York City.
[To read the story in Spanish, click here.]
“He died doing what he loved. He died doing good for the world and helping others,” Fernando said and spoke about the uncertainty as to whether Guillén died of Covid-19 or malaria. He also spoke about the distant relationship he had had with his father, who separated from his mother when he was a child. His biggest regret, Fernando said, was not telling him the news that his girlfriend was pregnant, and that he too was expecting to become a father in the coming months.
“I just wish I could have talked to my biological father one last time,” Fernando told his followers, dedicating the stream to his father.
Fernando flashed the military hats his father had given him over the years — a blue fatigue cap, a dusty navy-blue baseball hat with golden wings on the front and the name GUILLEN on the back, along with a military name patch. He proudly clicked through photographs of his father as a young pilot in El Salvador; there was the image of Fernando as a child dressed in a Spiderman suit with his nose painted red and cheeks dotted with black, framed by the arms of his father, who wore a checked-blue shirt and sunglasses; and then a photo of his father standing next to the Eiffel Tower.
Among the pictures was a selfie that Guillén took dressed in desert fatigues with a UN peacekeeping-blue beret on his head and scarf wrapped around his neck, his M-16 machine gun hanging on the Corimex wall behind him in the military base in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, where he was serving as a logistics officer. That is where he fell ill with malaria and would later die in Bamako, Mali’s capital, from Covid-19, according to the UN mission, called Minusma (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali).
After clicking through the rest of the photos, Fernando and his followers began playing “Fortnite,” a popular online game.
Fernando’s YouTube video would be circulated around the tightknit community of active and retired pilots from the El Salvadorean air force, some of whom knew Guillén, others who had heard of his death. They traded notes about the latest developments on the repatriation of his body from Bamako and threads about the circumstances surrounding his death.
Guillén’s death would bring distant friends and family members from the United States and El Salvador in contact with one another, and Fernando would research Mali’s health care system, which has been shattered by years of conflict.
“The health system is pretty bad in Mali from what I’ve researched, and people need to be aware of things like this,” Fernando told PassBlue in a phone call on June 17, adding that it helped him think beyond the pandemic surrounding him in the US. He, like others, would continue to wait for news of whether his father’s body would be repatriated to El Salvador. “He was a peacekeeper. It is the least he deserves,” Fernando said.
For weeks after Guillén’s death and the UN announcing the first fatalities of peacekeepers to Covid-19, there would be uncertainty about whether his body would be repatriated. There would continue to be confusion about the circumstances surrounding his death, as his family back in El Salvador was unable to access his complete medical records and original death certificate. All they had was a death certificate from the hospital where he died in Bamako, without a cause of death on it.
Peacekeepers tested for Covid-19 too late
Maj. Gen. Sar Savy, a Cambodian peacekeeper, who was also stationed in Mali and part of a specialized unit sweeping the area for mines, died of Covid-19 a day after Guillén. Both of their bodies were carried in large sealed caskets to Minusma’s headquarters, in Bamako, by uniformed peacekeepers wearing the peacekeeping-blue berets and aquamarine Covid-19 masks for a memorial service held on June 4.
But General Savy’s body would be buried in a Christian cemetery in the city on July 1, because of “COVID-related complications,” including the lack of international flights; and “because of a decision by Cambodian authorities and families to do so,” according to Olivier Salgado, a spokesperson for Minusma, who asked to respond to PassBlue’s questions via email. On July 24, the Ministry of Health in Cambodia also confirmed that four peacekeepers who had served in Mali tested positive to Covid-19 upon their return from the country, according to a news report.
Cambodian officials would be left with questions surrounding General Savy’s death and the exact times he became ill and was tested for the virus, as would Guillén’s family in El Salvador. “The UN report did not indicate when [General Savy] contracted the virus,” said Maj. Gen. Kosal Malinda, a spokesperson for Cambodia’s National Center for Peacekeeping Forces and Explosive Remnants of War Clearance (NPMEC), according to the Khmer Times, a Cambodian English-language daily newspaper. “All we know is that he went to a hospital to get treated for fever and was not tested for COVID-19 at the time. He remained sick for five days, with his condition worsening over the last three days.”
The outline of General Savy’s treatment and the circumstances right before his death echoed that of Guillén’s. Through interviews with Guillén’s wife, Nuria Magaly Choto de Guillén, and his stepdaughter, Alejandra Choto; transcripts of WhatsApp chats between the pilot and his wife; medical records from the hospital in Bamako; and an interview with the doctor who treated Guillén as he fell into critical condition, PassBlue has pieced together a rough chronology of the peacekeeper’s final days.
At the Timbuktu base, he appears to have been diagnosed with malaria and was sick for at least 12 days before he was tested for Covid-19 and evacuated to Bamako. By then, “unfortunately his lungs were really already affected” and he had to be put on a high dose of oxygen, according to the doctor who treated him there.
The funeral held by the UN mission in Mali for Lieutenant Guillén and Maj. Gen. Savy Sar of Cambodia, peacekeepers who died in Mali on May 28 and May 29, respectively, from Covid-19, according to the UN. HARANDANE DICKO/MINUSMA
Two months after his death, Guillén’s mother, Vilma Nery Guevara Alfaro, and his widow, Nuria, continue to demand his medical records, including those that document his initial treatment for malaria in Timbuktu and until his death in Bamako, along with the original death certificate noting the cause of death. “There are certain things that are not connecting,” Nuria told PassBlue in a phone call from El Salvador.
The family has also asked Minusma to conduct an investigation into Guillén’s death and have accused the leadership of the El Salvadorean peacekeeping camp in Timbuktu of failing to implement social-distancing measures to protect troops and ensure that Guillén received the treatment he needed.
“In another galaxy”
Without complete medical records and a death certificate stating cause of death, Nuria, Guillén’s wife of seven years, and her daughter, Alejandra, have nevertheless tried to construct the last two weeks of Guillén’s life, before he died on May 28.
There are two days of medical reports from the Golden Life American Hospital in Bamako and 12 days of WhatsApp chats in Spanish between Nuria and her husband, replete with kisses, flowers and hands in prayer position, punctuated by the words “Primero Dios,” or “God First,” and Nuria’s pleas to God that Guillén gets well. There are the messages between Gordo, or “chubby,” Nuria’s nickname for Guillén, who had been a chubby child, and Gordita, the feminized version of chubby that he gave to her by virtue of her being his wife. Both of them called each other “osito” and “osita,” or “little bear.”
They often messaged on WhatsApp and rarely talked on the phone because of the poor network, often worsened by sandstorms in Timbuktu. (Nuria allowed PassBlue to read and cite the text messages.)
As early as May 12, Guillén complained of stomach pain and diarrhea and a temperature and pain in his shoulders. Early on, Nuria was concerned he could have Covid-19. Here are some of the text messages exchanged between the two on WhatsApp (our italics):
Does your throat hurt? Nuria asks
No it doesn’t, Guillén responds
God first it’s nothing serious, she says
Send me all the symptoms of that thing
And what should be done to prevent it, writes Guillén, referring to Covid-19.
On May 13, he told Nuria in a WhatsApp chat that he was being treated for malaria and would be isolated for three days in the Timbuktu base. Nuria said he had contracted malaria the year before and been similarly isolated. He expressed annoyance at being isolated and referred to someone in the senior command of Camp Torogoz, one of two El Salvadorean camps in the Timbuktu base:
And he said to the doctor we must abide by the protocols, he tells Nuria, referring to the Covid-19 protocols
In the name of Jesus you will be fine, writes Nuria
And I said to him there are no protocols here
I was so enraged bear, he writes
Thanks to God it’s not Covid-19, she writes back.
He told her he would stay in the room with three other men while he took his malaria treatment. He complained and said he felt as though he was “in the air.”
The couple traded I love yous and advised each other on managing the pandemic in the countries in which they were each living — El Salvador and Mali. Whenever Guillén wrote to Nuria that he had a fever, she told him to put a cold towel on his face and to take the medicine the doctor prescribed. When he complained of aching bones and feeling cold, Nuria told him to put a hot towel on his face and said that she was praying to God for him.
Guillén offered advice to Nuria as well. As she waded through the supermarkets of San Salvador, the capital, during the nation’s strict lockdown, with a walking cane she uses after breaking her heel when she fell from an avocado tree, he told her not to touch anything she didn’t need on the shelf. She complained of the lines and the banked-up cashiers, the lack of spices and the rationing of the eggs and people’s lack of respect for social-distancing rules. And they didn’t let you pass even though you have a cane bear, Guillén wrote, following up with comments on the rising cases of the coronavirus in Russia and Brazil.
The fever is ugly, Guillén noted, complaining of the aches in his bones and the sleepless nights. On May 16, he did his washing and expressed annoyance about the washing machines on the base. By May 17, after a course of malaria treatment, he said he was given penicillin but still had a high fever. Nuria asked him if he had been tested for Covid-19:
But you don’t have a cough
And did they test you bear, she asks
Yes I have a little cough
But I don’t have respiratory problems, he writes
He confirms again he was tested for malaria.
Two days later, on May 19, Guillén said he was sent back to work by the commander of the camp but could not complete his shift, according to Nuria. Back in a UN treatment center in Timbuktu, he told Nuria that he was on an intravenous drip, the medication wasn’t working, that he could hardly write and that the doctor would do a blood count the next day.
By May 20, Guillén said he was diagnosed with another strain of malaria. On May 22, he told Nuria that his mother was having heart problems, and he didn’t want her to know about his own health problems. Bear don’t mention to my mom I am sick okay.
On May 23, he complained of having to source malaria medication from outside the camp. He complained of having difficulty sleeping.
When you come home you will be pampered a lot, Nuria tells him.
On May 24, he fell out of contact.
On May 25, Nuria sent Guillén a message wishing him a happy wedding anniversary:
Thank you little bear it’s not the best but cheers
I was evacuated yesterday I am in BMKO [Bamako]
And they are treating me for Covid-19 bear
The fatigue I can’t take it
Yesterday I was the first one they swabbed and thank God it came out negative, he writes
Is it hard for you to breathe, Nuria asks
Yes bear, he writes back
God heal you little bear, she responds
And later, I will be here and I hope to recover from this, he writes
Little bear of my life make a deal with God and he will make a miracle I love you, Nuria writes.
They exchanged their last messages on May 26, when Guillén said he had been given a blood transfusion and that the second Covid-19 test came back negative. He told her he had been intubated and diagnosed with bronchitis:
Yesterday I was in another galaxy, Guillén writes
And if praying you don’t know what I have been through
They trade their last I love yous.
May god protect you, Nuria writes.
Nuria told PassBlue that she fell out of contact with her husband the next day, May 27. “I would send messages — yeah they landed but I never got a response,” she said. She said that she didn’t know which hospital he was in or who to call to find out how he was doing.
What did Guillén die of?
For Guillén’s wife and family in El Salvador, many questions remain unanswered as to the cause of his death and the testing and treatment he received beforehand, and whether he in fact died of Covid-19. The death certificate, translated into Spanish, given to the family by the Salvadorean Air Force and shared with PassBlue, states no cause of death, and the medical records from the Golden Life American Hospital in Bamako, where he was treated, appear to span only two days, up until May 26, two days before Guillén died.
The medical records from Golden Life indicate he had been diagnosed with malaria and had tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies before arriving at the hospital on the evening of May 24. He was then tested twice for Covid-19 at the hospital and received negative results both times. A Covid-19 test was scheduled for his fifth day of treatment, according to undated medical records from Golden Life. By this time Guillén was dead.
Moussa Seydou Konaté, the external-relations director at Golden Life, said in a phone call with PassBlue that the hospital had shared all the records with Minusma through a hospital coordinator who liaises with the mission and was surprised that there was a death certificate in Spanish with no cause of death on it. I asked him whether the death certificate was forged.
“I’m not claiming anything and I’m affirming anything but I know that Golden Life does not deliver a death report in Spanish that’s one million percent sure,” he said in a recorded WhatsApp message. With the family’s permission, PassBlue later shared the death certificate with Konaté, who said via a WhatsApp text message, “[a]ll I can tell you it has not been delivered by Golden Life,” and told PassBlue to contact Minusma for further questions.
La @FUERZARMADASV lamenta el sensible fallecimiento de nuestro compañero de profesión, Tcnel. Piloto Aviador Carlos Moisés Guillén Alfaro, integrante del contingente Torogoz V que apoya a la Misión Multidimensional Integrada de Estabilización de las Naciones Unidas de Malí.— René Francis Merino Monroy (@merino_monroy) May 29, 2020
An official chain of tweets from the Minister of Defense of El Salvador, René Francis Merino Monroy, above, on May 29, echoed the chronology of Guillén’s illness as documented by the family and the medical records. Merino wrote that Guillén tested positive to Covid-19 once; “underwent two more tests leaving negative”; and never confirmed Covid-19 as the cause of Guillén’s death or referred to any posthumous positive test. Instead, he said he died of “cardiac arrest.” PassBlue requested information on June 17 from Minusma about Guillén’s treatment.
Olivier Salgado of Minusma responded via email, saying, “We will not be in a position to follow up further on your medical question.” Guillén’s medical records from the hospital in Bamako were stamped and signed by a Minusma medical coordinator who liaises for Golden Life American Hospital and is responsible for liaising between the hospital and the mission.
Salgado said that Guillén had tested negative twice for Covid-19, and that the final test, taken after his death on May 28, came back positive. The hospital confirmed he had tested positive posthumously, but PassBlue has not seen any official records of any of the tests. The two Covid-19 tests referred to in the medical records that the family received were not contained in the documents it got from the Air Force in El Salvador.
The medical records for the final two days of Guillén’s life are missing, according to his family, and there are no records detailing the malaria tests and treatment taken in the medical facilities on the base in Timbuktu, referred to in Guillén’s WhatsApp chats with his wife. The family also has no records of the Covid-19 tests that may have been administered in Timbuktu and the posthumous test that Minusma claims was positive and taken in Bamako.
“I had a pain in my heart”
While the family has now struggled for nearly two months to get Guillén’s medical records and has emailed the hospital in Bamako multiple times, when I called the external-relations officer for the hospital, Moussa Seydou Konaté, he quickly connected me with Dr. Korkmaz Yalcin, the doctor who treated Guillén. Konaté also sent me a video of Guillén’s digital thoracic scan, via WhatsApp, and translated from Turkish into English as Dr. Yalcin outlined Guillén’s medical history, giving me details such as his oxygen-saturation levels. Guillén was admitted on May 24 in a conscious state and could speak, according to Dr. Yalcin, but he had to be put on a high dosage of oxygen because “his lungs weren’t working, he couldn’t breathe by himself.”
The air force pilot who had once taken selfies of himself with an oxygen mask on as he soared in a fighter jet through the skies of El Salvador had lain in a hospital bed on life support. He was tested for Covid-19 twice on that same day and both tests came back negative despite him “showing most of the signs of Covid,” according to Dr. Yalcin.
On May 26, he showed signs of bacterial and viral infections and was intubated to keep his airways open. On May 28, Guillén fell into a critical state around noon and Dr. Yalcin said he spent 62 minutes trying to resuscitate Guillén before he was pronounced dead at 14:55 P.M. Dr.Yalcin said Guillén’s speed at which his condition deteriorated was “most probably due to a pulmonary emboly,” or a blockage of an artery in the lungs.
After Dr. Yalcin detailed Guillén’s treatment to me, Konaté said he would try and send the medical records to me and then asked what my relationship was to the patient. For the third time, I told him that I am a journalist who is writing about Guillén’s death for PassBlue. He later told me he thought I was a doctor.
Nuria’s last message on May 28 was sent at 8:20 A.M., local time in El Salvador, and 2:20 P.M. in Bamako, while attempts were being made to resuscitate him and just 35 minutes before he died. “I had a pain in my heart; I thought something bad had happened,” Nuria told PassBlue.
Nuria was informed of his death five hours later, around 2 P.M. in El Salvador, via a phone call on Facebook by the El Salvador Air Force, who came to the family home two times that day because the force had not fully confirmed the circumstances surrounding Guillén’s death, Alejandra, the stepdaughter, said. They told the family Guillén had died of a “heart attack,” and the reports would be forthcoming.
“When they told me he was already dead, I tried to call many times but no one picked up,” Nuria said. She called her husband and continued to send messages and music videos and recordings of Latin love songs to his WhatsApp account for at least three weeks after his death. “The worst news was that he had died alone, so far from his family with no one close to help him.”
I mentioned to Konaté that the family has emailed the hospital twice, asking for the medical records. “And could they give you the name of the Minusma employee who gave them the report so we can check out why they did not give the report we gave them,” he wrote via WhatsApp. I said that they have asked to have them sent directly from the hospital. “Our medical team will treat that request and do it or if they can’t they will tell why they can’t,” he said in a WhatsApp message. The family has continued to write emails to the hospital requesting the records, but no one has responded.
The Guilléns request an investigation
On June 15, Nuria and Guillén’s mother, Vilma Nery Guevara Alfaro, wrote a detailed letter to the force commander of Minusma, a Swede named Dennis Gyllensporre, and to Mahamat Saleh Annadif, a former diplomat from Chad who heads the peacekeeping mission. In the letter, Nuria and Guillén’s mother accuse the El Salvadorean leadership of the camp of negligence and ignoring Covid-19 and social-distancing protocols as well as “conspiring” to give Guillén “a hard time during his illness.” They requested an investigation into his death and asked for all the documentation related to his treatment from the base in Timbuktu up to his death on May 28.
PassBlue saw the photos the family sent to Minusma as evidence that Covid-19 regulations, including social distancing, were not being enforced on the Torogoz camp. The photos show peacekeepers packed around tables without wearing masks in a mess hall, said to be taken on Soldiers’ Day, which is celebrated in El Salvador on May 7; and on Mother’s Day, is celebrated on May 10. There are images of troops playing outdoor volleyball at the camp. The images are screengrabs and photos that appear to have been taken by different people on phones or cameras. In one image of soldiers gathered in the mess hall, a mask dangles from a soldier’s pocket. There are also images of soldiers wearing masks in formation.
Guillén’s selfie, at Camp Torogroz, a base for the El Salvador troop contingent, in Timbuktu. His widow, Nuria, was in close contact with him up until his last days, communicating through WhatsApp.
PassBlue could not independently verify the source or the dates of these images and twice requested an interview with Colonel Gyllensporre through the Minusma press office and his Twitter account, receiving no response.
The complaint emailed by Guillén’s family to Minusma outlines the damages caused to the family:
“Incalculable, not measurable, pain, frustration, sadness, helplessness.
We were robbed of a wonderful, intelligent, big-hearted being who had a bright future, who didn’t hurt anyone.”
Thierry Kaiser, a senior legal adviser for Minusma, sent a follow-up response to Nuria, stating “all type of communication or claim(s) from family members of a person service as contingent member in a UN Operation, should be first channeled to the Government of the country where this contingent originates — and in your case, the Government of El Salvador (Ministry of Defense) — for review and follow up with the UN Headquarters as appropriate.”
A week after Nuria received the email from Kaiser, the family presented the same complaint to the Ministry of Defense in El Salvador with a transcript of text messages between Nuria and Guillén, said Alejandra, who added they have not received a response.
PassBlue emailed Atul Khare, the under secretary-general of the UN Department of Operational Support (DOS), based in New York City, requesting comment on the claims of Guillén’s family that social-distancing measures weren’t taking place on the Torogoz base; that the family had not received complete medical records; and that the UN should be more mindful about the well-being of people serving on their mission.
A member of the press office from the Department of Peace Operations in New York City sent back a series of comments that were “attributable to a senior official from the Department of Operational Support.” The press office refused to confirm whether Khare was the senior UN official who responded, nor would it give the name of anyone to whom the comment could be attributed.
“Following clear command and control structures, we rely on contributing countries and their commanders to ensure appropriate awareness and training within these contingents,” said the emailed comment from the “senior UN official.”
“This isn’t to suggest that the UN is removed from responsibility. We continue to work to provide the safest possible living and operating environment, along with an appropriate medical response capability, and to support preparedness of troops and police as the pandemic spreads.”
The senior official said that “wearing of face coverings is mandatory for all personnel in all Mission facilities across Mali,” adding, “Per protocol, the responsibility of providing records to the next of kin lies with troop contributing countries” and that troop-contributing countries had the role of “maintaining social communications between troops deployed on the field and their families.”
“We will continue working with the authorities of in El Salvador to ensure any shortcomings are addressed,” the unnamed official said. The official also said that an insurance claim related to Guillén’s death had been received by the office recently. Nuria Guillén told PassBlue she had not been informed about the insurance claim.
“They aren’t interested,” she told PassBlue. “[I]t is their responsibility to attend directly to the families, not the government, because the governments of those countries do not care.”
The Ministry of Defense in El Salvador acknowledged receipt of a series of questions from PassBlue, including questions about the medical records, but did not respond in the five days before the publication of this article.
He always wanted to fly
As a pilot, Guillén had served with the El Salvadorean military contingent in Minusma for one year before his death, based at a large camp at the Timbuktu airport, housing multiple contingents from different nations, known as the “supercamp.” He served as a logistics officer with the Torogoz helicopter unit, named after a small bird with a turquoise brow that is the national bird for El Salvador.
Since 2015, El Salvador has contributed troops and three helicopters to Minusma and has partnered with Swedish peacekeepers to gather intelligence in and around Timbuktu, the ancient cultural crossroads city in northern Mali, monitoring the jihadist and other deadly threats now plaguing the region and ensuring safe passage of humanitarian aid people and UN staff. This stint was Guillén’s second UN mission. His first was in neighboring Ivory Coast in 2011 and 2012, where a peacekeeping mission was set up after the country went through a civil war. The UN stayed in the Ivory Coast from 2004 until 2017.
Guillén’s friend Erick Huezo, a former pilot who lives in Dallas, Tex., who attended high school and the air force with him in El Salvador, was shocked to hear of his friend’s death. As pilots stationed in Comalapa, with the 2nd Air Brigade, Huezo and Guillén had shared a near death experience, when they were taking a low-flying run in a Cessna 0-2 Skymaster military plane, and one of their engines started to falter as they headed into a valley with mountains to the left and to the right and they couldn’t pull the plane up, but they made it through.
Huezo remembered Guillén as a dedicated flyer who loved the military life and was sometimes teased by his colleagues for it.
“He was a good pilot and was so passionate about flying,” he said in a phone call. Huezo told PassBlue that both men came of age during El Salvador’s devastating civil war in the 1990s, where bodies littered the streets of San Salvador. They joined the air force out of a sense of adventure and desire to see the world, he said, and UN peacekeeping missions were opportunities for both traveling and making money. (Each soldier in the unit earns an approximate monthly paycheck of about $1,300.)
“It’s always fun when you go to those missions and you interact with a lot of people from different countries,” Huezo said.
Johanna Vielman, a former pilot who lives in San Salvador, was one of a handful of women who trained with the air force. She met Guillén on a base in Ilopango, the center of the country, and recalled him as someone who supported the few female pilots there. “There are men that don’t look at women like they are their equals,” she said. “Carlos looked at us like, Yes she can do this, put her on this flight because she can. He was always treating us the same or equal to men.”
Huezo and Vielman were among the people who closely monitored the progress on the return of Guillén’s body back home. In El Salvador, Guillén’s wife, Nuria, and his family lobbied the Ministry of Defense in El Salvador to have her husband’s remains repatriated.
Covid-19 hits fragile Mali
As cases of the novel coronavirus throughout the world continue to soar, institutions like the UN and its peacekeeping missions that bring together thousands of people from across the world are being confronted with questions as to how they can protect their own staff and the vulnerable populations in the fractured countries in which they work.
Dr. Charles Dara, an infectious disease specialist who is managing Covid-19 testing and treatment for the Mali government in Timbuktu, confirmed the first registered case in the city was that of a Nigerian peacekeeper at the end of April. Of the 500 confirmed cases in Timbuktu so far, 106 have been Minusma peacekeepers. “It’s not at all surprising that the first case was among the United Nations peacekeepers,” he told PassBlue in a phone interview. “They travel a lot; they are very mobile and they access international flights.”
Minusma, one of the largest UN missions, currently has by far the highest number of Covid-19 infections of any UN peacekeeping mission, with 263 confirmed cases, 236 recoveries and 2 deaths, according to figures published on July 23. PassBlue asked Minusma what it is doing to address Covid-19 infections on its bases throughout the vast country.
“We are doing everything we can to protect our personnel, so they can continue to protect others,” Salgado, the Minusma spokesperson, wrote via email. “MINUSMA has established mitigation measures to help contain the virus and ensure we are not a contagion vector.” Salgado said all troop rotations had been suspended, with exceptions; that all incoming staff would be quarantined for 14 days; and that the mission was working on creating its own “testing capacity” to not strain the national health care system.
Minusma remains the deadliest mission of all peacekeeping missions, with bases regularly attacked by armed and jihadist groups and restrictions on travel, raising challenges also for repatriating the bodies of peacekeepers who die in combat.
According to the three pages of medical records shared with the family and seen by PassBlue, Guillén had been unsuccessfully treated for malaria at a UN medical facility in Timbuktu and was later admitted to the facility with respiratory problems and put on oxygen. The medical records indicate a rapid antibody test for Covid-19 administered in Timbuktu that came back positive and that he had anemia. It appears as though he was no longer being treated for malaria while in hospital in Bamako.
PassBlue asked the Minusma press office in an email whether the mission currently had testing capacity in any of the Minusma medical facilities, including Timbuktu, and did not receive a response. Dr. Dara said that government authorities in Timbuktu were not doing antibody tests, raising the question as to whether Minusma had Covid-19 testing capacity at the onset of Guillén’s illness.
Guillén’s body sent home
More than a month after his death and after four days of negotiations for clearances to fly out of Mali, whose international borders remain closed during the pandemic, and travel through the airspace of Latin American countries, where regulations remain strict, Guillén’s body finally departed Bamako on a small private plane chartered by the UN mission. Four masked pilots would rotate on shifts during the 24-hour journey, touching down in Cape Verde and Barbados before landing on June 30 at the international airport on the outskirts of San Salvador, where an air force base is located.
A request had been made for two Salvadorean peacekeepers to accompany the body on the flight, as is custom in the tradition of peacekeeping missions and militaries throughout the world, but Minusma wouldn’t allow it.
Nuria stood on the tarmac, her blonde hair shaking in the wind and her mouth covered with a black N-90 mask, as military planes flew overhead and a carefully distanced marching band played El Salvador’s anthem. Soldiers dressed in surgical masks marched slowly on the tarmac, too, escorting Guillén’s coffin, draped with the country’s blue-and-white flag and its creed — “God, Unity and Liberty” written in Spanish. Guillén’s body was actually not in the coffin but inside a large rectangular white box lined with zinc and sealed shut, but one of his brothers, who runs a funeral home, had brought a polished wooden casket, the kind the family would have liked to have seen Guillén laid to rest in, but it didn’t happen.
Inside the hangar, a photograph of Guillén was placed next to his flight helmet and oxygen mask, a pair of sunglasses and the polished black boots of soldiers, all never worn by him but put there to symbolize his life as military pilot. His own belongings were sent home later. A military official presented Nuria the El Salvador flag folded neatly into a triangular box, and his navy-blue pilot’s hat, which the defense ministry had asked the family take with them for the event, was handed back to his mother.
Guillén’s body was placed into a minivan that drove to a tree-lined cemetery in the center of San Salvador. The white box where Guillen’s body lay that had been nailed and sealed shut was lowered into the grave by a yellow machine, with the help of men in muddy white-and-yellow hazmat suits. Ten people were permitted to go to the burial, among them Guillén’s parents, his two brothers, his wife and stepdaughter, Alejandra. His two sons by two previous partners remained in the US.
Between her black-gloved fingers, Nuria held the stems of two white roses edged in blue — Guillen’s favorite colored rose — and dropped them on top of the coffin. Other family members dropped in the remaining roses that lay scattered on the scratched white box. They had around 15 minutes to say goodbye, and like many widows around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic, Nuria never saw her husband’s face before he was buried.
At first, Nuria said she was relieved her husband was back home. Weeks later, however, she would question whether it was even Guillén’s body buried in the cemetery that day. Nuria still wonders whether he died of Covid-19 and told PassBlue she would like the body to be exhumed and an autopsy performed.
For Guillén’s family and many of his pilot friends, there remain so many other unanswered questions. “Why didn’t they take the measures they needed to for him to get treatment?” Nuria said in a phone call. “What was the reason, or who decided, to keep him in the campsite until the moment he was almost dying?”
Alejandra, who watched her mother struggle as her husband and her own stepfather died, thinks peacekeeping missions ought to do more to make sure families can stay in contact with their relatives and be updated on the conditions of their loved ones who are sick and dying.
“I would like for the UN to be more careful and take responsibility for the well-being of the people that work for them,” she told PassBlue.
This article was updated on Aug. 11, 2020, to reflect that the medical records of Guillén that were shared by the Golden Life American Hospital with Minusma was done so through a hospital coordinator who liaises with the mission and does not work for the mission.
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Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa from her base in the western Sahel region, where she is currently reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, the International Center for Journalists awarded MacDougall for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published jointly by PassBlue and The Daily Beast.