A Fine Diplomat

It was a busy Wednesday lunchtime in the crumbling European quarter of Istanbul known as Beyoglu. The streets outside the British Consulate-General were filled with the usual crush of passersby, the smell of fresh fish and frying mussels wafting from the nearby Fish Bazaar.

LESS THAN 24 HOURS later, the compound's consular section and gatehouse were a pile of rubble. The scene on the street corner was like something out of a war zone, wreathed in smoke and the acrid smell of burning gasoline from the parked cars in the consulate compound. And Roger Short, the British consul-general and someone I have known for two years, was dead.

Short, 59, was one of the 27 killed in the two suicide bombings at the consulate and the Istanbul offices of a London-based bank on Thursday. The attacks, Turkey's deadliest terrorist bombing, came days after attacks at two Istanbul synagogues claimed 23 lives.

But on that afternoon before the bombing, Victoria Short, Roger Short's charming wife, strode up to the grand cast-iron consulate gates dressed in her gardening clothes to meet my wife, sister and me for lunch. In the wide consulate courtyard, dominated by the great newly cleaned bulk of the main building, Roger stopped to chat on his way to a meeting. He was his usual jovial self, allowing himself to be distracted briefly to inspect the stone cutters chipping away at new balustrades in their shed.

"Cheerio, see you soon," he said, waving us off as we started our tour of the house and garden. Victoria was excited about the restoration of the consulate, which she had lovingly supervised after it was seriously damaged by a fire in 1999. Climbing up scaffolding, she pointed out plasterwork details and pondered the colors. In the splendidly designed ballroom, she recalled how she and her husband had danced there when Queen Elizabeth came to visit in 1971, when Roger was a junior diplomat on the first of three tours in Turkey. Up in the consul-general's apartment, we toured the newly painted bedrooms with their magnificent view of the Golden Horn and the beautiful garden Victoria had helped to restore. "Do you think we'll really move in in February?" she mused. As we left, I noticed that the offices had been moved out to structures on the perimeter of the compound while the consulate building was being prepared. That those buildings were more vulnerable to attack as a result never crossed my mind. On the contrary, I thought what a serene place this must be to work, hidden among its plane trees and rhododendrons among the rumble and bustle of Istanbul.

The following morning, all that tranquility was gone, transformed into a scene of utter devastation. When I called to check on the Shorts, Victoria told me in a quietly composed voice that Roger had been killed, the building he had been in completely destroyed by the blast. She thanked me politely for my concern when she ended the call.

Roger Short was a great friend of Turkey, and a great expert on its many troubles. He ran the Foreign Office's Cyprus desk for several years and was one of the British government's leading authorities on that intractable problem. He spoke wonderful Turkish and traveled extensively around the country. He was always ready to chat to journalists, on the record and off, over tea or dinner, and share his knowledge and expertise on the often Byzantine vagaries of Turkish politics. He loved the often crazy twists of Ankara's political life and was firmly convinced that Turkey was very much on the right track toward joining the European Union and toward reconciling its own Islamic culture with being a full-fledged European country. I cannot claim to have known him well enough to say for sure, but I think he took affectionate pride in the progress his beloved Turkey had made from military dictatorship to functional democracy.

Roger's death was a random piece of bad luck--or kismet, as the Turks say. He had been in the gatehouse on his way into the consulate when the bomb went off. A few minutes earlier or later and he would have survived. Instead, Turkey lost an advocate and the British Foreign Office lost a sharp mind and a talented thinker at a time when knowledge of this volatile part of the world has never been more important.

It is a great irony that the Al Qaeda-linked group claiming responsibility for the bombings is one of the very forces of fundamentalist Islam which Turkey has so successfully kept in check for decades. Roger's death was a warning that Britons abroad can also pay the price of supporting the American war on terror. But Roger never doubted that things would go right in the end, in Turkey as well the wider region, if democracy and openness were encouraged. We should be proud of him for that.