Hammarskjöld revisited

2013-09-12 00:00

IT is nearly 52 years since the plane carrying United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld crashed en route from Léopoldville in the Congo to Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, with the loss of all on board.

Hammarskjöld was due to meet Moïse Tshombe, leader of resource-rich Katanga, which had broken away from Congo at the height of the Cold War and African decolonisation. Hammarskjöld, committed to Congolese sovereignty, was regarded with intense suspicion by powerful political and economic interests in the West backing Tshombe. Several UN personnel were assassination targets and on September 18, 1961, the day Hammarskjöld died, the UN headquarters in Elisabethville was strafed.

The crash occurred at night on the eastward approach to Ndola Airport: the Swedish-crewed Douglas DC-6B plane named Albertina, still under power, hit the ground and broke up. The 1962 UN inquiry arrived at an open verdict, as had an immediate accident investigation, while a flawed Rhodesian inquiry blamed pilot error. The remains of the plane were buried, the full autopsy records are nowhere to be found, and the official site photographs picturing the bodies have disappeared. It might all be ascribed to official muddle, except that this incident has, over the years, raised questions that have no plausible answers.

The pilot, on a westerly course, reported sighting the airport lights at Ndola, but then the plane disappeared. Inexplicably, the airport was closed on the assumption that Hammarskjöld’s plane had diverted elsewhere. There was no electronic recording from air-traffic control, only retrospective notes that are definitely incomplete. The wreck was found in the afternoon, just 15 kilometres and two minutes flying time away from Ndola Airport. Two policemen had reported a flash in the night sky near the crash site, yet the search at daylight had set off in other directions. Charcoal burners at Twapia under the flight path had seen strange aerial lights and noticed another aircraft in the sky. Nearly 50 years later, author Susan Williams interviewed a former employee of the American National Security Agency based in Cyprus, who clearly recalls that night monitoring wireless traffic from a pilot apparently engaged in an aerial attack.

Then there was the crash site itself. Hammarskjöld’s body, resting against an ant hill, was the only one unburnt and may have had a bullet wound to the head. Locals believed the site had been visited before the authorities and press belatedly reached it. This was confirmed by a motorcyclist from Bancroft Mine who heard the crash, investigated and was ordered away from the site by men in paramilitary uniform. He remembers fist-sized holes in the aircraft, which was not burning at this stage, although it was later subjected to intense heat that reduced the fuselage to 20% of its mass.

Theories abound, from a remotely triggered bomb planted before take-off to a failed hijack. Katanga, described by the UN’s man in Elisabethville, Conor Cruise O’Brien, as a “sinister farce”, had a wide range of mercenary support, including a small air force. Ndola was within easy reach of the Katanga border, which was highly porous. Albertina could have been shot down by a Fouga fighter or bombed by a modified Dove aircraft. Another explanation, reinforced by the probability of a French speaker in the cockpit, is that an attempt to divert Albertina misfired. Prior knowledge of this plan could explain Ndola airport’s closure.

If there was a conspiracy, for whatever purpose, who orchestrated it? Intriguingly, there is a South African connection, possibly forged, that emerged from the Truth Commission. Strangely, the apparent evidence of sabotage appeared in a file on the assassination of Chris Hani. Perhaps more predictably, the Department of Justice cannot now produce the originals. Archives in other countries have been weeded or have yet to deliver crucial documents.

The questionable death of the world’s most important diplomat was very quickly relegated to the status of cold case and historical footnote.

All this has now changed, with presentation at The Hague on Monday of the findings of the four jurists (one of them Richard Goldstone) of the Hammarskjöld Commission.

In spite of the complexity of this case, they believe there is a “golden thread”: persuasive evidence that Hammarskjöld’s plane was subject to hostile action; with further questions raised about what exactly happened on the ground before the wreck was officially located.

It’s time for UN General Assembly resolution 1759 of October 26, 1962, to be invoked and the inquiry to be reopened. The outcome might require radical revision of African history of half a century ago.

• letters@witness.co.za

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