Michela Wrong

Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by Susan Williams

When I was a Reuters trainee, long hours were spent in Fleet Street pubs absorbing the folklore of journalism from seasoned veterans. One popular story concerned the hapless correspondent sent to verify that Dag Hammarskjöld, head of the United Nations, had safely landed at Ndola airport in Northern Rhodesia on his way to talks with separatist Congolese leader Moise Tshombe. A plane landed, the police confirmed it was the UN secretary general, the hack duly filed his story.

Trouble was, the disembarking white man was someone else. Hammarskjöld was dead, killed as his DC-6 crashed on night-time approach to Ndola. Rival reporters, drinking at a nearby hotel, heard the news and rushed to correct their stories. Our man, who had soberly retired to bed, was left looking like an idiot. Moral of the tale: never accept anything on hearsay. Alternatively: never be the first journalist to leave the bar.

Hammarskjöld died 50 years ago, his aircraft bursting into flames after scything through a stretch of forest and careering into an anthill. The sole survivor expired five days later in hospital, his strange testimony dismissed as delirious raving. Despite its tease of a title — you rather expect a definitive answer with a title like that — academic Susan Williams acknowledges that exactly what happened that night remains murky, but rejects the conclusion, reached by a Rhodesian inquiry in 1961, of pilot error. ‘His death,’ she says, ‘was almost certainly the result of a sinister intervention.’

Why would anyone have wanted this aloof, rather spiritual Swedish technocrat dead? The UN leader had allowed himself to become sucked into the Congolese imbroglio. When Tshombe, with Belgium’s support, declared the independence of Katanga, Hammarskjöld sent UN forces to prop up Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, disapproving of what he saw as a neo-colonial lunge by Congo’s former master, bent on retaining access to the country’s minerals.

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