Hammarskjold’s Restless Ghost
by Bhaskar Menon on 10 May 2013 1 Comment

I just came across an interview of former United Nations Under-Secretary-General Brian Urquhart on the UN News Centre web site. It was supposedly conducted in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of Dag Hammarskjold’s death in September 1961. How I missed seeing it for over a year is a mystery, but it’s never too late to comment on what Urquhart said. But before I do, here’s a bit of necessary background:

Hammarskjold was a little known Swedish diplomat who was appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations primarily because of expectations that he would not rock the boat at a time of high Cold War tensions. His predecessor, Trygve Lie, had thrown the organization into a crisis by alienating the Soviet Union with his too fervent support of UN intervention in Korea.

In an understated Swedish way, Hammarskjold turned out to be a spectacular surprise. Among his historically important achievements were the negotiations in China for the release of 17 imprisoned American airmen; the fielding of a UN peacekeeping force that helped resolve the messy crisis created by the British-French-Israeli attempt to take back control of the Suez Canal; and beginning the UN Secretariat’s involvement in opposing apartheid in South Africa.

His last, fateful achievement was to defend the newly independent Republic of the Congo after that enormously mineral rich country was thrown into chaos by Belgium, its former ruler. As a UN peacekeeping force battled Belgian mercenaries in the breakaway province of Katanga, Hammarskjold went on a peace mission to the region and was killed when his aircraft crashed near Ndola in what was then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

A British-Rhodesian commission of inquiry ruled that pilot error had caused the crash. A UN investigation could neither confirm nor deny that finding and left on the table the suspicion that Hammarskjold’s plane had been shot down.

In 2011, a Swedish aid worker in Africa stirred up those suspicions when he published a report recounting eyewitness accounts of people in Ndola who remembered the crash.

The Urquhart interview is clearly meant as a rebuttal but it has the effect of heightening and broadening suspicions. This is the relevant part of the interview:

UN News Centre: Over the years, you’ve been very firm in your belief that the plane crash that killed Hammarskjöld was an accident. What do you make of claims that his aircraft was deliberately shot down due to foreign mineral interests in Katanga?

Brian Urquhart: You know, the older I get the more absolutely convinced I am that the conspiracy theories don’t hold out at all. There are about 50 of them and if one’s right, all the others are wrong for a start. That puts out 49 of 50.

The present so-called revelations, which come from interviewing 86-year-old charcoal burners in Zambia, are not new at all. These same people, when they were much, much younger 50 years ago, were interviewed by the Commission of Inquiry for five days on the ground where they’d been when the crash took place.

This new theory is based on the charcoal burners believing they saw a small plane following steadily behind the big plane when it crashed. Well, the Commission of Inquiry were not stupid. They came to the conclusion that what the charcoal burners had seen was the navigation beacon on the high tail-fin of the DC-6, which was a great feature of that aircraft. And of course it was following steadily – it was part of the aeroplane!

People seem to assume that you just jump into an aeroplane in the middle of Africa in the dark and say “‘bye chaps, I’m going to shoot down Dag Hammarskjöld, see you in the morning!” It’s nonsense. There were no aircraft in that part of the world with night-flying control, no aircraft with proper ground control, and finding an aeroplane in the middle of Africa at midnight is not something you just do.

At the point the plane crashed, it was in the landing mode. It had its wheels down, it had its air-brakes on, and it was exactly ten feet too low to clear the trees on the top of a little mound which was on the run-in path and it hit them. Frankly, I don’t really think that the conspiracy theories help very much.

UN News Centre: Why do you think there is this fascination about his death?

Brian Urquhart: Well, there is about everybody who dies a violent death, particularly if they’re famous. Look at JFK or anybody you can think of. And people who like to see their names in the paper can do it easily now, particularly on anniversaries, by saying they’ve got new evidence.

I would be the first to wish to discover someone who had murdered Dag Hammarskjöld. I think the world lost an incredibly valuable citizen in that disaster. But I’ve been thinking about it for 50 years and I’ve never been able to see the smallest evidence of this at all, or indeed that it was possible.

Incidentally, he wasn’t flying in his own aircraft. He changed aircraft two hours before he took off so that Lord Lansdowne, who was the undersecretary for the colonies, I think, for the British Government, could go to Ndola, which was then in northern Rhodesia [now Zambia], to prepare a reception for Hammarskjöld. So if they were going to shoot the plane down, they would have shot down the one with Lord Lansdowne in it.”

There are a number of significant omissions and distortions in what Urquhart said.

Perhaps the most important omission is Urquhart’s failure to mention that he was in the Congo at the time and that he had been a British Intelligence operative. If I remember rightly the research done many years ago, the notes of which are not with me, he was also involved in arranging the logistics of Hammarskjold’s travel.

The most serious of his distortions is the assertion that the UN Commission of Inquiry interviewed the men whose testimony Göran Björkdahl recorded in his 2011 report. As The Guardian reported in August of that year, it did not.

Urquhart’s attempt to palm off their testimony as ignorant is contemptible. There is no way that what they thought was an attacking aircraft could have been the rear beacon of Hammarskjold’s own aircraft. This is what the reporters from The Guardian wrote about the eyewitnesses they interviewed in verifying Björkdahl’s report:


“Dickson Mbewe, now aged 84, was sitting outside his house in Chifubu compound west of Ndola with a group of friends on the night of the crash. ‘We saw a plane fly over Chifubu but did not pay any attention to it the first time,’ Mbewe told the Guardian. ‘When we saw it a second and third time, we thought that this plane was denied landing permission at the airport. Suddenly, we saw another aircraft approach the bigger aircraft at greater speed and release fire which appeared as a bright light.’

‘The plane on the top turned and went in another direction. We sensed the change in sound of the bigger plane. It went down and disappeared.’

“In the morning at about 5am, Mbewe went to his charcoal kiln close to the crash site, where he found soldiers and policemen already dispersing people from the area. According to the official report the wreckage was only discovered at 3pm that afternoon.

“‘There was a group of white soldiers carrying a body, two in front and two behind,’ he said. ‘I heard people saying there was a man who was found alive and should be taken to hospital. Nobody was allowed to stay there.’

“Mbewe never came forward with that information earlier because he was never asked to, he said. ‘The atmosphere was not peaceful, we were chased away. I was afraid to go to the police because they might put me in prison.’

“Another witness, Custon Chipoya, a 75-year-old charcoal maker, also claims to have seen a second plane in the sky that night. ‘I saw a plane turning, it had clear lights and I could hear the roaring sound of the engine,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t very high. In my opinion, it was at the height that planes are when they are going to land.

“‘It came back a second time which made us look and the third time, when it was turning towards the airport, I saw a smaller plane approaching behind the bigger one. The lighter aircraft, a smaller jet type of plane, was trailing behind and had a flash light. Then it released some fire onto the bigger plane below and went in the opposite direction.

“‘The bigger aircraft caught fire and started exploding, crashing towards us. We thought it was following us as it chopped off branches and tree trunks. We thought it was war so we ran away.’

“Chipoya said he returned to the site the next morning at about 6am and found the area cordoned off by police and army officers. He didn’t mention what he had seen because: ‘It was impossible to talk to a police officer then. We just understood that we had to go away,’ he said.

“Safeli Mulenga, 83, also in Chifubu on the night of the crash, did not see a second plane but witnessed an explosion.


“‘I saw the plane circle twice,’ he said. ‘The third time fire came from somewhere above the plane, it glowed so bright. It couldn’t have been the plane exploding because the fire was coming onto it,’ he said.

“There was no announcement for people to come forward with information following the crash, and the federal government didn’t want people to talk about it, he said. ‘There were some who witnessed the crash and they were taken away and imprisoned.’

“John Ngongo, now 75, out in the bush with a friend to learn how to make charcoal on the night of the crash, did not see another plane but he definitely heard one, he said.

“‘Suddenly, we saw a plane with fire on one side coming towards us. It was on fire before it hit the trees. The plane was not alone. I heard another plane at high speed disappearing into the distance but I didn’t see it,’ he said.”

The Guardian story also mentioned an important element completely missing from the UN News Centre interview: “At the time of his death Hammarskjöld suspected British diplomats secretly supported the Katanga rebellion and had obstructed a bid to arrange a truce.”

That element casts a new light on Urquhart’s role in managing the memory of Hammarskjold, for after the assassination he was given the job, as the UN News Centre puts it, of helping “organize his private papers.” Urquhart subsequently wrote what has become standard biography of the Secretary-General.

Asked about the experience, Urquhart told the UN News Centre: “In the first place, his papers were quite exiguous. It wasn’t just 285 boxes or anything like that. He had kept everything like his library. It was sort of pruned every year and everything essential was kept and all the froth and everything had gone – at least I think that must be the case – so that it was a very intensive business to go into his papers. But you weren’t overwhelmed at the sheer bulk, and I think that was deliberate on his part.”

We are left to wonder if the papers contained any “froth” about Hammarskjold’s suspicions about the British role in Katanga. Were they organized into oblivion?

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