Thursday, May 30, 2024

Cold War: Revisiting crash site of Hammarskjöld’s plane


Copperbelt University’s institute honours late UN chief

Then a sleepy town, Ndola was yanked to global prominence overnight on 17 September 1961, when the DC6-B, the Albertina, crashed there with 16 passengers perishing. Shoks Mnisi Mzolo took a trip to the Copperbelt to go through the encrypted page on Cold War.

The truth is so precious and fragile. So, some people would cover it in layers of lies for their protection,quips a middle-aged political animal, now a Cabinet Minister in East Africa.

My mind drifts to that aphorism when I meet Jacob Phiri, a conservation assistant at Zambia’s Heritage Commission and curator at the Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial National Museum in Ndola.

Notwithstanding its tiny size, the museum’s aircraft-shaped library, made of masonry indigenous to this region, also chronicles Congo’s decolonisation. Hanging on its walls are photographs of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, revolutionaries and statesmen (from Kwame Nkrumah to Patrice Lumumba).

Sitting in the copper-rich region, Ndola is a sleepy town in Zambia yanked to global prominence overnight on 17 September 1961, when the DC6-B, the Albertina, crashed here with 16 passengers perishing in turn.

Congo’s then-Prime Minister, Cyrille Adoula, blamed “moneyed powers”. Reasons given for the crash included foul play and pilot error. Curiously, European exiles in New York accused Nikita Khrushchev of Moscow.

Twenty-five years later, pilot error was again given as an excuse in the crash that claimed 25 people,including Samora Machel, then-president of Mozambique.

Amid zigzags, the quest to rescue the truth in the 1961 crash has seen the setting up of the Hammarskjöld Inquiry Trust a whole 50 years after the fact, with Lord David Lea as the chair, and Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Susan Williams and other prominent figures named as trustees.

Patrice Lumumba meets Dag Hammarskjold in July 1960

Journey to Ndola

Ndola sits some 320km from Lusaka. My bus crawls for eight hours. Cars hurtle down the T2/T3 highway. Trucks slog.

Some are heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo, from as far as the region’s bustling Durban port,or Walvis Bay, Namibia. Trucks routinely take weeks to traverse the subcontinent due to stifling bureaucracy.Still, it’s about time the DRC optimised its access to the Atlantic as a trade route within Africa and beyond.

Though 70% of the country’s nearly 100 million population languishes in poverty, the land is endowed with minerals – from diamond to gold and, for mobile phone users, cobalt and lithium – but the mining industry here is gripped by exploitation.

Views of long white charcoal-laden sacks spool past along the T2/T3 highway. Such sights are familiar in Zambia. Savannah and a sprinkle of hills define the landscape. It’s too bland, but the people are warm,as I’ve repeatedly found out.

For me and a few others, the trip ends when the bus hits the drizzling Ndola after 22h30. Passengers’ luggage includes bags, suitcases, bales of clothes, and wooden chairs.

The drizzle does nothing to dampen my Friday mood. I discovered later that dance floors in this tiny city answer to Afrobeats, Amapiano and R&B. The Zambian leg of my heritage sites tour, via Botswana and Zimbabwe, weaves Lusaka and the Albertina crash site – on Unesco’s tentative list for over 25 years.

Home to almost 500,000 people, equivalent to half the population of Ibadan, Ndola is a copper-mining city of low-rise buildings. The nearest DRC border is just 20km to the north. Some 200km, as the crow flies, on the other side of the border, is north-westerly Lubumbashi – once the bastion of Belgian colonial settlers.

I head to the site this Saturday after a morning stroll in the scorching Ndola city centre and a stop at the bustling Chifubu market.

Near the expansive location – home to the museum – are a police station, a school named after the UN chief, and a new airport.

The mood is poignant at the museum, officially opened by Zambia’s founding father Kenneth Kaunda in 1981.The site and its story are as good as an encrypted page on Cold War. The mirage on the road from central Ndola is a tragic metaphor of how the path to the truth has unfolded (or not unfolded): illusive.

“We are still digging, sifting through evidence,” says the museum’s well-versed Jacob Phiri, taking me through the on-off-on search for facts.

Hammarskjöld had travelled to Ndola to meet exiled rebel Moïse Tshombe, Belgium’s puppet. Some
sources say the former’s crime was his stance on decolonisation, angering the West. That is not to affirm the UN’s decision to bring fighters to Congo.

The 78-year-old organisation hasn’t been impartial. Separately, Congo is a victim of its riches, with foreign invaders accused of stoking chaos to enable looting.

From his Lubumbashi base, Tshombe seceded Katanga province into a short-lived republic at the behest of Brussels.

Museum curator Jacob Phiri at work with a Cobberbelt patron

Eyewitness accounts

The crew, soldiers and UN staffers were aboard the plane, including Alice La Lande, William Ranallo and Heinrich Wieschhoff. The victims’ remains were found on 18 September (Monday) afternoon. So was Harold Julien, who died in hospital ten days later.

While on his deathbed, he recalled that Hammarskjöld had moments before the crash shouted to the pilot: “Turn back”.

Alas, explosions followed. Locals from Ndola’s Twapia put the subsequent bang way before midnight.

Edvard Persson’s body (with mysterious bullet wounds) was recovered on Tuesday. The political climate hit new lows when Katanga broke away from the newly independent Congo. A messy near future lay ahead.

The first year of the DRC’s liberation was tragic: the central government had fallen, the country balkanised, millions displaced, and atrocities synonymous with Belgium’s bloody years returned. Soldiers ran the show. Congo was on its third Prime Minister before its first anniversary as an independent state.

Lumumba had been ousted, jailed, and assassinated “by a firing squad under the command of a Belgian officer” in January 1961 outside Lubumbashi, observed Martin Meredith in The State of Africa. Scores of patriots were killed.

Some among the droves who fled their mineral-rich homeland, like Laurent Kabila, joined forces with Víctor Dreke-led Cuban guerrillas, including Che Guevara (known as Tatu or “Three” in Kiswahili, a lingua franca in south-eastern Africa).

Now for a step back.

The nation earned its independence in June 1960 under the baton of Lumumba. The liberation project soon foundered thanks to Belgium, which, after an eight-decade rule of mutilations, displacements, and killings, had left its cash cow, Congo, grudgingly.

By 1961, Hammarskjöld’s attempts to talk peace had gone nowhere. That opened the door to blue helmets – soldiers drawn from Ethiopia, India, Ireland and Sweden.

Nigeria’s contingency was led by Brigadier-General JTU Aguiyi Ironsi, the first African to command a UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC. He became renowned for his bravery.

While Belgium propped Katanga’s rebels and apartheid-era South Africa supplied mercenaries, fighters from Harold Macmillan’s Britain and the John F. Kennedy-led United States of America – countries, like South Africa, accused of foul play – were officially absent.

Back to the Albertina – seven secretaries-general and six decades later – all there is are promises of a new probe when fresh evidence arises. No single soul has been held to account to date.

Digging and siftings have been zigzagging, meanwhile. UN boss António Guterres has recommended that countries “appoint an independent and high-ranking official to conduct a dedicated and internal review of their archives.” Disparities remain seven years into Guterres’ shift.

UN’s zigzag, inconsistencies and false promises

The UN’s former chief Ban Ki-moon had inspired new hope too, ten years ago, when he remarked: “It is my assessment that the documentation presented by the Hammarskjöld Commission includes new evidence.” Where to now? The half-hearted UN’s zigzag continues.

None of that has deterred the families of the Albertina victims and people like Phiri from digging. He describes his discovery of village eyewitnesses as fortuitous as we walk about the sprawling garden towards the anthill where Hammarskjöld’s body was found (100 metres from the wreckage).

That spot is marked by a plaque signed by Kofi Annan in 2001. Today, the wreckage, items and documents from the crash, or official records on it – meant for public viewing – have not arrived in Ndola—cue reluctance.

Just days after the crash, nephew Knut Hammarskjöld, who’d flown in from Sweden, was struck by the British authorities’ unwillingness to hand his uncle’s personal effects over. His uncle’s briefcase “showed no signs of charring despite the inferno that had engulfed the Albertina when it crashed”.

There’s more by way of inconsistencies. “In 2000, still new at the interpretative centre, showing farmers and businesspeople around and telling them about the memorial site and how the Albertina crash had happened,” remarks Phiri.

“I was startled when one of the guests, Mr Ngongo, said: ‘No, that’s not how it happened. I saw the crash”. I’d always thought that the Albertina was by itself, but for the first time now, I heard that there were two planes nearby. I also heard that the Albertina circled three times before crashing. None of that evidence is in the UN report.”

Phiri then made it his task to test John Ngongo’stake through further witness interviews: Margaret Ngulube, Dickson Mbewe and Custon Chipoya, a charcoal burner in the forest preparing his kiln.

“Chipoya saw it all: he was within 500m of where the Albertina hit the ground and saw the second plane.”

Eyewitness accounts align with what the Ndola airport room observed and colonial officer Adrian Begg recollected. He cited a cover-up in his blog in 2011. Airport controls had observed Hammarskjold’s plane flying overhead at 22h10 on Sunday to align with the runway.

Then away it flew. However, a search party was called on Monday morning and stumbled on the scene as late as 15h30 on 18 September. That’s the official line.

Perplexed to be sent home late at night on 17 September, officers asked their senior in charge about the much-anticipated aircraft. Referring to “Supt. Bob Read if memory serves me correctly”, Begg added:

“he just shrugged and said that ‘apparently Hammarskjöld had changed his mind and gone elsewhere’.”

Cuthbert Alport, the British High Commissioner, had set that official line. Begg also questioned the state of the body of a UN soldier. “[It] had what appeared to be bullet wounds, and my recollection is there was a 9mm sub-machinegun in the wreckage nearby.”

For their part, Ndola eyewitnesses had held back out of fear, explains Phiri. Some villagers recalled being driven as far as Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe) and endured “bitter whipping” by the Brits.

“People were still fearful even after so many years,” he adds, then singles Moses Chimema’s account.

“He’d first said that he saw what happened that night but took too long to talk,” Phiri says. In propping
their misrule, colonialists clamped down on outspokenness.

That was then.

Yet, the truth about the 1961 crash remains in shackles. Why would the UN stand that fog? The Cold War is long over but the mist lives on.

© Shoks Mnisi Mzolo


  1. What a horribly written article. All the sentences are disjoined, and some them start “That”; how that can be I do not know. Either way, I know the city of Ndola, it is across the way from DRC. Between Kalindula and Congo music, there is no way it can be the land of such nonsense Amapiano or Nigerian nonsense.


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