Exactly 50 years ago, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold died in a plane crash on a mission to prevent civil war in newly independent Congo. Suspicions that the plane was shot down, never fully laid to rest, are now again on the rise.
After his death, Mr Hammarskjold was described by US President John F Kennedy as the “greatest statesman of our century”. He was a man with a vision of the UN as a “dynamic instrument” organising the world community, a protector of small nations, independent of the major powers, acting only in the interests of peace.
Just after midnight on 18 September 1961, he was heading to negotiate a ceasefire in a mineral-rich breakaway region of Congo, where another of his peacekeeping missions was getting bogged down in the complex politics of decolonisation and Cold War rivalry.
“He was a very spiritual, intellectual, cultured man, and that was all part of his mystical approach to life,” says Dame Margaret Anstee, the first female under-secretary at the UN, who was starting out on a 40-year career at the organisation. “He had a certain reserve, and a certain unique kind of dignity.”
“He had the skills of mediation and persuasion, combined with this almost iron single-minded will of where he wanted to go,” says Margaret Anstee.
“But of course by that very token it brought him into conflict with people who wanted to use the UN for their own ends.”
Over the past four years, Swedish aid worker Goran Bjorkdahl has carried out extensive research and British academic Susan Williams published a book on Thursday – Who Killed Hammarskjold? Both conclude that it is likely the plane was brought down.
Mr Bjorkdahl began his study after inheriting from his father, who had worked in Zambia in the 1970s, a piece of the plane fuselage containing unexplained small holes. He tracked down 12 witnesses, in whose accounts of the night three points appeared repeatedly:
The DC6 circled in the air two or three times before it crashed
A smaller plane flew above it
A bright light flashed in the sky above the large plane before it went down
Six witnesses also recall seeing uniformed personnel near the crash site that morning, even though official reports claim it was not located until after 15:00 that day.
The official inquiries held at the time also contain witness testimony referring to a second plane in the sky.
One of the key questions Ms Williams asks in her book is why this and other inconvenient observations were discounted, or in some cases doctored during the official Rhodesian investigations. She says it is clear to her that there was a cover-up.
She places particular emphasis on three of her discoveries:
The photographs of Hammarskjold after his death are either taken in such a way as to conceal the area around his right eye, or, where the eye is visible, they show evidence of having been touched up, possibly to hide a wound
The sole survivor of the crash, Harold Julien, said there was an explosion before the plane fell from the sky – his evidence was discounted in the original inquiry on the grounds that he was ill and sedated, but Ms Williams has found a doctor’s statement insisting that he was lucid at the time (he died of his injuries within days)
A US intelligence officer at a listening station in Cyprus says he heard a cockpit recording from Ndola, in which a pilot talks of closing in on the DC6 – guns are heard firing, and then the words “I’ve hit it”
“There is no smoking gun, but there is a mass of evidence that points in the direction that the plane was shot down by a second plane,” she told the BBC. “That is a far more convincing and supported explanation than any other.”
There were a range of people, including white Rhodesians and the Belgian and British mining companies in Katanga, “with a sense of being at war with the UN and with African nationalism”, she says – and with a motive for preventing Mr Hammarskjold and Mr Tshombe reaching a negotiated settlement.
Mr Hammarskjold’s main adviser at the time, Brian Urquhart, says it is “so wrong” to think that “at night without ground control you could shoot down a plane or even locate it”. But Ms Williams says experts have told her that the DC6, on its way in to land at Ndola airport on a moonlit night, was a “sitting duck”.
Ms Williams argues that the time has come for a new inquiry, and Mr Hammarskjold’s nephew Knut is reported to have called for one himself, after hearing of Ms Williams’ new evidence.
Fifty years later, his uncle is still a model for people working at the UN, says Knut Hammarskjold.
“Many, I’ve been told, still have his photo on their desks, and [former Secretary General] Kofi Annan says he always asks when there is a problem: ‘What will Dag have done in this situation?'”
Dame Margaret Anstee says he had the courage to stand up for his principles and to the strong member states, which his successors have lacked.
“There was a tacit agreement never to have such a single-minded secretary general again,” she says. “I think we can say they haven’t.”
N1JXQ for Sat. night’s topic