Death of top UN official still shrouded in mystery
Secretary-general killed in suspicious plane crash en route to broker a ceasefire in the Congo, writes Desmond Fisher
On this weekend 49 years ago, the world was shaken by news of a mysterious air crash in Africa. The bodies of 16 people were recovered from the wreck. Some had multiple bullet wounds in their heads and bodies. The airport's handling of the pre-crash warnings was sub-standard. Other aircraft were seen in the area. Strange lights were reported over the airport. And a famous man, on a mission to prevent what might degenerate into a world war, was among the dead. It was September 18, 1961. And the dead man was Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary-general of the United Nations. His death shocked the world.
The previous afternoon, Hammarskjöld's DC-6B plane had left Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo en route to Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He had arranged a meeting with Moise Tshombe, president of the rebel State of Katanga, which was now engaged in a war to become independent from the Congo.
Katangese soldiers were fighting UN peacekeeping forces sent in to prevent civil war. With the UK, the US and Belgium clandestinely helping the rebels, Russia making bellicose noises and a world war threatening, Hammarskjöld was trying to arrange a ceasefire.
In the early morning, the news came that his plane had crashed. At the time, I was in a crowded pressroom at UN HQ in Leopoldville. Senior UN officials and hardened war correspondents sobbed uncontrollably. Every one of them was of one mind. Hammarskjöld had been assassinated.
Ireland was deeply involved in the Congo crisis. Lt Gen Sean McKeown was in command of all UN peacekeeper troops there to support the government in its efforts to prevent Katanga from seceding. Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien was Hammarskjöld's special representative in Katanga. A battalion of Irish soldiers was engaged in heavy fighting. Only three days earlier, Trooper Pat Mullins from Kilbehenny, Co Cork, was killed in an ambush. And 150 Irish soldiers were prisoners of the Katangese.
What happened to Hammarskjöld and 15 others is still disputed. Former US president Harry Truman said bluntly that he was killed. Allegations that his plane had been shot down, deliberately given wrong instructions, or sabotaged, were never proven.
Thirty-seven years after the crash, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission quoted recently discovered letters linking MI5, the CIA and the South African secret services with the crash, including the suggestion that a bomb was placed in the plane's wheel bay to explode when the plane touched down. And as recently as 2005, a Norwegian soldier who was the first UN official to see Hammarskjöld's dead body said it had a hole in the head that was air-brushed out of the post-mortem photos.
Hammarskjöld's death was regarded as a major blow to the UN. But the moral force that is the organisation's greatest weapon was greatly reinforced by what was seen as the assassination of a spiritual man who was regarded by some as the 'secular Pope'.
Only 47 when he died, Hammarskjöld came from a family with many generations of public service, his father having been prime minister of Sweden. Among his earliest decisions as secretary-general was to appoint only non-partisan and fair-minded officials to his 4,000 staff. His ultimate aim was to establish an independent UN force.
Hammarskjöld was a highly introspective man. He did not give interviews and I had to rely on the influence of Freddie Boland, that year's president of the General Council, to arrange for me to see him. He did not invite me to sit and reacted animatedly only when I asked him how he rated Ireland's contribution to the UN. He spoke highly of the way Ireland, as a non-aligned country, was able to act as an "honest broker" and help to solve many of the UN's problems. And he praised genuinely and enthusiastically Ireland's contribution to the UN's mission to the Congo.
Hammarskjöld kept what he called his 'journal' -- a combination of diary entries and spiritual thoughts cloaked in haiku-style poetry -- published after his death as Markings. In it, he wrote: "Everything will be all right when people stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves."
He regarded his own writings as "negotiations with myself and with God". One such aphorism gives an idea of his tortuous mind:
Tomorrow we shall meet
Death and I --
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.