Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dag Hammarskjöld

The UN invasion of Katanga in 1961-2 was not one of the international community’s finest hours. The context of the Cold War and the era of decolonisation meant that every aspect of the crisis was charged with additional meaning. The chaos that had overwhelmed the Congo following independence from Belgium had terrified the remaining white-run territories in Central Africa. Convoys of refugees came down through Northern Rhodesia telling stories of mass rape, of murder and of the total breakdown of law and order.
The secession of Katanga province was genuinely seen by many at the time as little more than an attempt to salvage something from the ruin of the Congo. The industrial centre of the vast country, it was (and is) home to rich copper deposits, and a network of mines, factories and light industry. Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) was a modern, developed city – somewhere that the rather more staid citizens of Northern Rhodesia viewed as a continental experience, with pavement cafés and goodtime girls.
The presence of a large mercenary contingent in the Katangese security forces (including such names as Bob Denard and ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare) contributed to the prevailing international view, however, that Katanga and its President, Moise Tshombe, were little more than imperialist stooges, and that the secession had to be defeated, by force of arms if necessary. The UN Secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld, tried to resolve the situation without the use of force, but failed, and fighting broke out in 1961. Hammarskjöld flew to the spot in person to broker a cease fire, but was killed when his plane crashed just north of Ndola.
That crash led to a rash of conspiracy theories (in the same way that the death of Samora Machel led to a rash of conspiracy theories) that Hammarskjöld was killed by the usual suspects of MI6, the CIA, BOSS, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. These have been given a recent airing in the Guardian where it has been reported that a certain Göran Björkdahl has spent the last three years interviewing local witnesses of the crash and has decided that the crash was, well, a conspiracy between the British, the Americans and the South Africans. Without wishing to be unduly sceptical, when your star witnesses are “mostly charcoal-makers from the forest around Ndola, now in their 70s and 80s” describing events from 50 years ago you are going to be facing a struggle for credibility.
Brian Unwin, who was involved in the British diplomatic effort at the time, has effectively rebutted much of the “eye-witness” evidence in the Guardian, but there is one further point that occurred to me reading the original article. There was one survivor of the crash, who subsequently died in hospital in Ndola of his injuries. This is described by Björkdahl as “a poorly equipped local hospital”. I’m sure that’s true today. In 1961, however, Ndola, as the capital of the Copperbelt, was about the most prosperous and commercially vibrant town in Central Africa. Short of evacuation to the United States, there weren’t many better places to be.

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