Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hammarskjold's Ghost

Newly discovered eyewitnesses to the plane crash that killed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961 say it was not an accident. They remember the aircraft being shot down.

The eyewitnesses, men in their 80s who still live in and around Ndola in Zambia where the crash occurred, spoke to Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish aid worker based in Africa. Björkdahl became interested in Hammarskjold's death because his father had a piece of metal from the wreck; when his work took him to Africa a few years ago he began probing the rumours surrounding the end of the most effective of UN leaders. A British investigation had declared the crash of Hammarskjold's chartered DC-6 an accident due to pilot error.

Björkdahl says the witnesses also remember the authorities (of what was then the British colony of Rhodesia) sealing off the site of the wreckage hours before they announced its discovery. Some charcoal-makers who came upon the wreckage before the official announcement were told to go away; British investigators did not interview those witnesses, and Björkdahl's findings implicate them, at the very least, in a cover-up of a political assassination.

Hammarskjold was on a mission to negotiate an end to the secession of Katanga province from the Congo, a former Belgian colony enormously rich in natural resources. The Congo had become independent in June 1960 and, with considerable help from Belgium, plunged immediately into political crisis, armed conflict and chaos. The secession of Katanga was engineered by white mercenaries in the pay of Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, a politically well connected Belgian company with major investments in the province; fronting the operation was Moise Tshombe, with whom Hammarskjold was scheduled to meet in Ndola.

Local UN officials had informed Hammarskjold that the British Consul in Katanga was sympathetic to the secessionists and might even be sheltering Tshombe from UN peacekeeping forces. However, that did not stop the Secretary-General from asking the man to arrange the meeting with the secessionist leader. It was set for 18 September, in Ndola, in Rhodesia, a country then in the control of a rabidly anti-UN white-supremacist leader, Roy Welensky.

There was much speculation after Hammarskjold’s death about a conspiracy involving Tshombe, the British and Rhodesian authorities, but nothing could be proved. The official United Nations inquiry found “no evidence to support any of the particular theories that have been advanced,” but was also unable to exclude any of the possible causes it had considered, including “sabotage and attack from the ground or air.”

The Commission raised a number of unanswered questions which Björkdahl’s new evidence clarifies. One of the unanswered questions about the crash was why it took Rhodesian authorities 15 hours to find the wreckage; the DC-6 had passed over Ndola airport with its landing lights on, and local police reported hearing it crash in the jungle nine miles away.

The new evidence makes clear the delay in reporting the crash site was deliberate. Hammarskjold had survived the impact but with massive injuries, including a broken spine; the delay prevented any medical help to the stricken man. It also reduced the chances of survival of the only other victim to be found alive, a badly burned UN Security Guard; he could have been saved with proper medical care, but he was left in a poorly equipped local hospital and died five days later.

Björkdahl also found telegrams sent in the days before Hammarskjöld's death that reflect British anger at UN efforts to end the secession of Katanga.To understand that anger it is necessary to recall that the imperial Powers of Europe were engaged in a broad and violent effort to subvert decolonization. The United Nations, with strong support from the United States, stood in the way, most openly during the 1956 British-French effort to take the Suez Canal from Egypt.

In Africa, the British were under mounting stress. After the March 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, the Security Council, for the first time, asked the Secretary-General to get involved in the campaign against apartheid. Hammarskjold had visited Pretoria in January 1961, and hopes were high that he would emerge as a strong voice against the country's criminally racist system. (Posthumously, he shared the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize with Albert Luthuli of South Africa.)

Hammarskjold knew that he was in a no-win situation in the Congo; he told a colleague in New York before leaving on his last trip that if he failed in that effort to resolve the Katanga problem, he would resign. That probably added to the urgency to kill him, for a resignation would have been hugely embarrassing for Britain.

The British government has not responded to Björkdahl's findings, which have been reported in some English newspapers. Even if it acknowledges the story it is unlikely to make any admissions. It seems to me the only way to get at the truth is to have an International Commission look into its works. Among the topics that need investigation are the British roles in:

1. The WW-I era genocide of Armenians in Turkey.
2. The communal riots preceding the Partition of India and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
3. The creation of the civil war in Cyprus.
4. The Sri Lankan civil war and support of the Tamil Tigers.
5. The sponsorship of a number of terrorist movements in Asia and Africa.
6. International drug trafficking and management of the global black market.

Ideally, the primary support for such an examination should come from the people of Britain who have also been victims of a ruling elite as vile in its greed and lust for power as it has been brutal in the pursuit of its "interests."

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