By: Mary Kate Tankard
When Olivier Bercault woke up in the hospital, he knew before the nurse told him that he had lost his leg. In the days before, Bercault’s friends and family filed somberly in and out of his hospital room as he lay in a coma. There was no guarantee that he would wake up. Nils Henning, a doctor and close friend of Bercault, flew in from New York City as soon as he heard the news. He knew Bercault was tough and in good health, but when he saw the extent of his injuries he believed his chances of surviving were low. “The likelihood was higher that he would not wake up and I was preparing people for this,” Henning said.
As a human rights lawyer, Bercault spent almost half his life in war zones. During his time working for Human Rights Watch and The United Nations he worked closely with victims of state violence and traveled through geographies rife with conflict. On the day I met Bercault, we sat across from each other outside the University of San Francisco’s Library. He wore a fitted all-black outfit, and black high-top Chuck Taylors. His fingers were adorned with large silver rings.
As we spoke a sound boomed overhead and, hidden between a thick fog, a fleet of planes zoomed above the city to commemorate the start of Fleet Week. Bercault shifted back into his seat. He squinted his eyes, and stopped mid-sentence, fiddled a bit with his rings as he waited for the noise to settle before speaking again. “When I hear these planes I’m just bracing, waiting for bombs to drop. It’s very triggering for people who have been in war zones,” Bercault said.
Bercault 62, originally from Paris, is the manifestation of the human rights lawyer many idealistic law students aspire to. His colleagues say that he is a master investigator, extremely organized, and detail-oriented. “Not only did he have all the technical skills, he could connect with empathy, passion, and distance,” Fred Abrahams, an associate director at Human Rights Watch said. At 22, Bercault earned his Master’s in Private Law at the University of Paris and began his career as a refugee lawyer. Young and energetic, he litigated many cases a week to represent asylum seekers. By the age of 28, he had built up a successful practice of his own, making a name for himself as a human rights lawyer in France. When he fell in love with a young diplomat, he sold his practice and moved with her to Moscow to work for the UN High Commissioner of Refugees. This move would mark one of many in Bercault’s career. He loved traveling and had an expansive curiosity for other cultures. During this time, Bercault witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and lived through a short period of optimism before the emergence of a new regime where corruption led to a climate increasingly unfriendly towards refugees. He watched as the banks collapsed and witnessed sports cars bought with cash while visas were sold for profit. In the morning when he arrived at his office, he would find refugees sleeping on the street in imminent danger of being attacked or sent back to their respective countries where they would likely face persecution. “We were trying to offer first protection and then assistance,” Bercault said.
Bercault matched a vibrant New York City with a strong predilection for the social scene and a revolutionary spirit inspired by his love for time periods like San Francisco in the 60’s.
After 3 years in Moscow, his romantic partner was relocated to Geneva and he followed shortly, resettling in Switzerland. When that relationship came to a close, he knew it was time to begin his next chapter personally and professionally. A prominent refugee lawyer suggested to him that he might get an US-American Law degree and act as a cultural interface between lawyers and refugees. After a short stint in California, he was accepted to Columbia’s LLM program, an internationally recognized post-graduate law degree, as a Human Rights Fellow. Although this one-year program is notoriously rigorous, with an acceptance rate of around 12 percent, Bercault recalled its intellectual challenge with enthusiasm. He remembered the course as very demanding, but reminisced on how much he enjoyed learning about the American legal system and its Constitution. Alison Parker, a former Colombia classmate of Bercault’s, and Human Rights Watch colleague said, “He was so curious. He always put the human experience first and the people affected at the center of analysis.” She noticed he was the only LLM student she knew who was interested in taking a course in immigration law. “When I saw him, I thought, “That guy is someone worth getting to know,” Parker said.
Nils Henning was doing his residency when he was introduced to Bercault through his sister, an LLM student at Columbia as well. Henning had worked for Doctors Without Borders. He and Bercault connected by talking about their international work, but when he entered Bercault’s apartment in the West Village for the first time, he noticed something that excited him. Bercault had the Jim Marshall photograph of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Michael McClure, and Robbie Robertson behind San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore framed and hanging on the wall. “Men don’t usually talk about Poetry,” Nils said. With Bercault he felt he had found a confidant to discuss literature and music. Bercault matched a vibrant New York City with a strong predilection for the social scene and a revolutionary spirit inspired by his love for time periods like San Francisco in the 60’s. He had friends from all backgrounds, bonding with bikers in motorcycle bars as easily as peers in his Ivy League courses. “He had the art of finding the sweetness behind those who sometimes seemed the toughest people,” Phillip Coste, a French journalist and close friend said. Bercault’s life force and infectious sense of humor attracted those around him. Coste remembered a Saturday afternoon when he was set to meet Bercault on a corner in Manhattan. When Bercault saw Phillip he launched into a bit from a French film and the two laughed on the street until they caught their breath.
The time when Bercault enrolled at Columbia was significant as just a year prior the human rights community celebrated its first grand legal victory, the arrest and prosecution of former Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet. This was the first permanent criminal court case to ignore the immunity often granted to heads of state. One afternoon at a lunch for Columbia’s Human Rights Fellows, Bercault sat next to another fellow, Reed Brody, who had just started working on the case against the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré. Habré, a US-backed dictator, had committed extensive war crimes and crimes against humanity. This included the torture and killing of many Chadian civilians. Brody was looking for someone who could help him conduct fieldwork, who spoke French, and who could work with the victims in Chad. Bercault’s track record working with refugees in France made him a great fit. “It turns out he is fearless – I didn’t know that necessarily at the time,” Brody said.
Bercault and Brody worked for years to build a case against Habré. The turning point in their investigation came when they discovered the archives of a former police headquarters containing extensive documents to corroborate their case. Bercault would work for 4 to 5 months at a time in Chad. Brody writes in his book How To Catch a Dictator that he felt more at ease returning to Chad with Bercault.
“He was the first lawyer that stayed a long time with the victims. He is not a friend but a brother,”
He referred to him as the “Mayor of N’Djamena” telling me that when they would walk through the town together, everyone would wave. Bercault would stop, and ask about their families, work, and health, something many other lawyers would have no time for. “It was genuine, really genuine,” Brody adds. Bercault would stay with locals and priests in religious convents, rather than at hotels with other human rights workers. He had an ability to connect personally with each victim, often skipping meals and staying late to hear the stories of all of those who had been personally victimized by Habrè and his regime. Many Chadians were still fearful of speaking against Habrè. Journalists might pass through the town and obtain a few stories, but Bercault was intent on making sure every voice came to light. “You can process trauma through care or justice,” Bercault said. While Bercault was determined to bring about justice, he offered care as well. This care and empathy for those he spoke to did not go unnoticed. “He knew their stories and he could relate to them on a personal level. He would often remind me of their names and stories,” Brody said.
Souleymane Guengueng, a Chadian human rights advocate, and victim of the Habrè regime grew close to Bercault, recounting his sensitivity to the suffering of others. When quarrels broke out in the victims association in Chad, Bercault acted as the mediator. “He was the first lawyer that stayed a long time with the victims. He is not a friend but a brother,” Guengueng said.
It would be those stories of others, and the strength endured by the victims Bercault had worked with that would end up saving his life when he became the victim of a near fatal accident. Bercault had just left his position at the UN in Baghdad and moved to San Francisco. On a night like many others, he rode his motorcycle home. This time, as he rode through an intersection on Lombard Street, a tanker truck violated his right of way and struck him as it took a left. Bercault was rushed to the hospital and arrived in critical condition. He had severe internal bleeding, a fractured skull, and his left leg had to be amputated above the knee. He spent four days in a coma and another four in a medically induced coma to try and stop his brain from swelling. Doctors were unsure if he would wake up; if he did, it was unknown to what extent he would regain cognitive and motor functions.
Bercault recalled seeing himself in a dark cave surrounded by flickering candles. Overcome by a deep peace, each candle slowly extinguished, until one remained. As the last blew out, he came back to consciousness. Bercault had survived, but he would have a long road of recovery ahead of him. Friends from all over the world flew in and mobilized to support him. Although his rehabilitation was trying, his friends and colleagues all remarked on the positivity he maintained. Reed Brody said his attitude towards rehabilitation and the tedious process of repetitive exercises to re-learn mobility was: “Today I’ll do 15 minutes, tomorrow I’ll do 20.”
While Bercault could no longer work in the field, he flew to Senegal on the one-year anniversary of his accident to act as an expert witness in the final prosecution of Habré. Bercault remembered entering the courtroom with his walking cane. “At this time, I felt like a shell of myself,” Bercault said. The symbolic act of returning to his life pre-accident was a turning point of recovery. He sat again with those who had undergone political persecution in Chad, had lost friends and family members, and bravely testified against Habré. It was a moving demonstration of resilience.
Bercault elucidated for the court the 714-page report he had authored for Human Rights Watch in a case that had been 15 years in the making. “This was a rare and much deserved moment of recognition for Olivier after years of work in my shadow, and he was a convincing and compelling witness,” Brody writes. As a witness, Brody explains, Olivier was calm and methodical. This is not surprising. When speaking to Bercault, one finds he listens with a deep intensity, and responds in a cool measured cadence. Here too he displayed his sense of humor when he joked with the judge about the French word hallucinant and its connotation in California.
Bercault’s colleagues said he was the type of lawyer made for field work. “He’s not the kind of lawyer who sits in an office and writes, ” Brody said. He was adventurous but he had an ability as well to prioritize the greater research mission over what was, in some instances, his immediate safety. At Human Rights Watch, Bercault conducted research missions in Chad, Darfur, Central African Republic, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka. In Baghdad, he worked as a Senior Human officer for the UN where he directed the reporting effort to investigate abuses committed during the US-Iraq war. In refugee camps at the Chad-Sudan border Bercault championed the usage of children’s drawings for ethical testimony in international proceedings. He lost friends on assignment such as British photojournalist Tim Hetherington who was covering the Libyan civil war. Losses of colleagues and friends devastated him, but over the years Bercault remained steadfast in his commitment to human rights investigations. Even after his own capture and rescue in the Central African Republic, Bercault told me forthrightly, “I didn’t have to manage my fear, so to speak. I think I was made for that.” Like that of a surgeon, Bercault had an ability to move swiftly and think clearly in high-intensity situations.
Here too he displayed his sense of humor when he joked with the judge about the French word hallucinant and its connotation in California.
When fieldwork was off the table, Bercault began a new chapter of his life. He settled into a home in Marin County, began to write a book and focused on physical therapy. A friend approached him about an opening for a position teaching at the University of San Francisco. His extensive legal and geo-political knowledge made him a great candidate for the liberal arts school’s internationally focused curriculum. He accepted the position and in that same year took a trip home where he met a woman in Paris with whom he soon began to lovingly exchange emails. His career had made romantic relationships difficult in the past. Now he could maintain a long distance relationship with the possibility of marriage. Nadia remembered the first time she met Olivier, moved by his story and his spirit. “I thought there was a lot of depth, a lot of wisdom and spirituality in a wide sense.” After 6 years of distance between France and California, Nadia and Bercault married in 2020.
When I sat with Bercault for the second time at USF, our conversation bloomed from his love for abstract art to the role of alcohol in diplomacy to theories of power and the state. Bercault’s career accomplishments make him an impressive individual, but there is a well-roundedness, coolness, and gentleness that makes it easy to be in his presence. He wore tortoise shell glasses and again his converse matched his blazer. This time they were all khaki. When I inquired about his sense of style and the stories behind his rings, he did what I noticed him do often when asked personal questions. He told me the stories of others. His mother had worked in high fashion, and his ring was given to him by a man in Senegal for spiritual protection. To describe his friends and colleagues, the adjectives he often used were: accomplished, brilliant, and very impressive. To describe his own career and his successes, he doesn’t tell me he had a higher calling, or talk about what made him a good lawyer. He tells me simply, “I was told I had good ears and was a loud speaker.”
At USF, Bercault’s name floats around with student reverence for his expertise and engaging coursework. He is known to ask students to try and suspend emotion when examining the politics of peace and conflict hoping to encourage creative and structural remedies to human rights abuses rather than idealistic visions of justice. Yet, there is an emotionality and empathy to Bercault that all of those close to him commented on. “When you’ve seen so much suffering, I think you appreciate the things that make life beautiful,” his wife Nadia said.
At USF, Bercault’s name floats around with student reverence for his expertise and engaging coursework.
His friends say he knows on which side of the hill to see the best sunset, that he loves films, repetition jokes, and coffee. They tell me he has encyclopedic knowledge of history and music and that he is empathetic, forgiving, and honest. “I can’t imagine many pleasures in life greater than talking about Olivier.” Fred Abrahams wrote to me over an email. Phillip Coste spoke nostalgically when recounting his days growing close to Bercault while they lived in New York City. He laughed when he realized that he had described Bercault as a saint-like figure. On the day Bercault woke up in the hospital, it could have been a testimony that it was not yet his time to leave this world. Or it could have been sheer medical luck. Yet through recovery – he was as he had been as a lawyer and is as a professor and friend – more than an interface. He is a conduit to possibility and positivity. To those around him he seems to inspire a sense of something more worthwhile, more beautiful, more just.