Into Africa: Who Killed Hammarskjöld?

In which the author, exclusively for CounterPunch, goes by train but also by ferry, bicycle, plane, and rental car from Nairobi, Kenya, to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Part V. To read part I, click here.

Marker showing the spot near Ndola, Zambia, where Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed in September 1961. His body, however, was—for reasons never explained—found forward of the crash site, propped up by the ant hill that in this picture has the small roof and staircase.

To Ndola, Zambia: The Minivan Daytona Five Hundred

When the train arrived in Kapiri Mposhi, sometimes called New Kapiri, I was reaching a fork in my road. Although I was more than two days late, my original schedule called for me to turn right and head north to Ndola, the capital of the Copperbelt region, where Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed in September, 1961. Or I could give up on Ndola and turn left, catching a three-hour bus south to Lusaka, the Zambian capital.

The reason I went to Africa was to see Ndola and learn more about Hammarskjöld’s death. At the same time I feared the Copperbelt—more Congolese than Zambian—might turn into a trap, from which I would only emerge days’ late for the rest of the trip.

On the train ride across Zambia, I would sometimes come to the decision to skip Ndola—a three-hour bus ride north from Kapiri, toward uncertainty. At other times, I would scold myself for giving up so easily. After all, what were two days in an African schedule? Theroux writes: “It sometimes seems as though Africa is a place you go to wait.”

When the train finally pulled into the dilapidated Chinese-built station in Kapiri Mposhi—“Ive seen the future, and its 1970”—I let myself be steered into the tout current that led to a minivan filling up for Ndola. The decision was made.

The van was the size of those dispatched by airport motels, but in this case, I suspect about 18 passengers were crammed into the back seats. I was placed in front, next to the driver, who was wearing a Waverley Memorial Elementary School (it’s near Halifax, Nova Scotia) t-shirt and listening to a rap soundtrack at full volume.

Once we had crammed the last sack and child into the minivan, the driver shot off at high speed, passing everything on the northbound two-lane road, as if this was a getaway car from a bank job.

A few minutes later, however, he pulled off the road and stopped near some wooden sheds, where he and the “conductor” (the collection agent for the $4 fare) argued about money with members of what I took to be a limited partnership, although perhaps not one with a Delaware LLC behind it.

I followed the negotiations from the front seat. There was gesturing and shouting until money was divided, and then the drive north resumed. We did this about three times until the driver settled into breaking the land speed record between Kapiri and Ndola, a hundred miles to the north. Theroux had written extensively about minivans as African death traps, and now I knew why.

The road between Kapiri and Ndola was a solid line of trucks heading to or from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has relatively few points of entry; this was a main one. But the van driver wasn’t content to settle in behind a lumber truck and amble up to Ndola; he passed buses, other vans, cars, trucks, and tankers as if on the track at Daytona.

Finally God intervened (I had seen some of his billboards along the way). About halfway to Ndola, all the passengers were switched into another minivan that an older man was driving. He drove at normal speeds. His shortcoming was that he was clueless as to where we were headed, and, although there is only one north-south road into Ndola, he stopped three or four times to ask directions (to the disgust of those squeezed into the back, who kept shouting: “Just keep going straight”).

Three hours after leaving the train station parking lot, we pulled into Ndola—well, a rundown market section that serves as a magnet for all the minivans in the region. From there I caught a taxi to my hotel, where I was two days late for my reservation, although no one seemed to notice or care. By local standards, I must have been on time.

Ndola is an industrial outpost of civilization, a city of oil refineries and mining companies. It looks like Wheeling, West Virginia, not rural Africa. I even saw fast-food pizza joints and chicken restaurants with neon lighting, and the city roads were clogged with trucks heading in all directions, as Ndola is the free port of southeastern Congo.

The taxi driver found my hotel, which was guarded by a high gate and some yapping dachshunds. I reconnected with the Internet after five days off-line and opened negotiations for a driver to take me, the next morning, outside the city to the Hammarskjöld memorial.

A man drinking (heavily I suspect) at the bar said he would drive me for $50 (it’s only fifteen minutes from downtown). I passed, and he resumed his drinking.

The next morning I found a driver who said he would do it for $15. His name was Kissinger Daya, which presumably will allow me—when dining out with friends and into my own second glass of wine—to say: “Kissinger was my driver in Ndola.”

With Kissinger to the Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial

Kissinger was waiting by the gate (as were the animated dachshunds) at 7:30. After a search for an ATM machine, we made it to the memorial by 8:15.

The director of the small museum approached the car as we parked, and almost immediately he began telling me the story of the plane crash that killed the then Secretary General of the United Nations, the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld—although in my mind what died in the bush 14 kilometers from the Ndola Airport was a large part of collective security and the UN system.

I was seven years old when Hammarskjöld died, but I remember well the newspaper headlines about the plane crash and the grieving that followed his death. In those days my mother would drive my father to the morning commuter train, and I would ride along and go inside the station with my father. He would buy copies of the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune and give me the latter to take home in the car.

While riding back to the house, I would study the baseball scores and scan the headlines, which is how I learned of the Hammarskjöld disaster. Even to a second grader, the secretary general of the United Nations was a big deal in 1961, as many of our early school field trips into New York City were to see the General Assembly. I remember that the adults in my life were in shock over his death.

When I next thought seriously about Hammarskjöld, I was in graduate school at Columbia University where I read Brian Urquhart’s biography, Hammarskjold, of the secretary general. He later said of Hammarskjold:

He was extremely aloof. I worked with him a great deal, but I never claim that I knew him at all. If you were on trips or something you would have a marvelous evening with him and he’d be simply enchanting, but the next day he would be that same old, slightly Garboesque Swede.

While Urquhart concluded that the cause of the plane crash was probably either pilot error or a mechanical failure, I do recall him expressing some skepticism about the thoroughness of the crash investigation, suggesting that not all evidence had been considered.

There the matter rested at least until I was invited in spring 2017 to visit my friend Edward Mortimer, now a Fellow at Oxford’s All Soul’s College, and someone who spent many years working closely with Kofi Annan, the recent UN secretary general.

In my search for a house gift, I went to Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, and purchased a copy of a new book by Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War, and White Supremacy in Africa. I suspect I gave the book to Edward because the subject interested me, and a few weeks later, I bought my own copy, read it, and then—a few months later—booked myself passage to Ndola, the scene of the possible crime.

Not often, I suppose, do house gifts lead the giver to Africa.

The Hammarskjöld Plane Crash Site

Susan Williams, who is a professor in London but with roots in Zambia, does not say conclusively that Hammarskjöld was assassinated. But she does lay out evidence—some considered publicly for the first time in her book—in support of the various theories that might explain the crash.

Where I find her book most convincing is on the geopolitics of the Congo Crisis, and the firestorm into which Hammarskjöld was flying when he undertook a mission in September 1961 to resolve the secession crisis in Katanga (the copper region of southeastern Congo and contiguous to the Copperbelt).

At the time of its independence from Belgium in 1960, Congo, and especially its left-wing prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, flirted with Russian orthodoxy, which touched off Cold War alarm bells in Washington, London, and Paris—all of which turned a blind eye when Moise Tshombe declared Katanga independent.

The secessionists had the support of Alan Dulles and the CIA, plus numerous large French, American, Belgian, and British corporations that were operating in Katanga and the Copperbelt.

They loved the idea of peeling away Congo’s mining wealth into what might have turned out to be the ideal corporate state (Katanga). In support of the secessionists, the colonial powers dispatched mercenaries to back up the independence claim. (Of these soldiers of fortune, Urquhart said: “They had been in Dien Bien Phu, Algeria, and God knows where else, were very, very good officers and were fanatical, all-white, anti-black, right-wing officers.”)

The second secretary general of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld believed that the idea of collective security ought to stand behind the movements of African independence, and against any kind of colonial revanchism, which put him and the UN secretariat directly at odds with the well-armed mercenaries who were deployed to back up Katanga’s secession.

When Hammarskjöld died in 1961, he was trying to broker a peace settlement between the Congolese government and the breakaway region. He had flown from New York to Kinshasa, and then, on the night of September 17-18, he flew a circuitous route in his chartered DC-6 from there toward Ndola near to which Tsombe was staying in a house. The idea was to talk him out of secession.

Instead Hammarskjöld flew into a hornet’s nest that has yet to be understood in the West.

Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The Many Theories

It is, of course, possible that Hammarskjöld’s DC-6, named Albertina, crashed for reasons of pilot or mechanical error as it approached Ndola Airport just after midnight on September 18. Personally, however, after reading the Williams book, talking to some of the officials in the museum, and walking around the crash site in Ndola, I don’t believe it. Let me explain why.

—On the night in question, the Ndola Airport had prepared to receive the flight of the secretary general and had even spoken with the plane as it approached the airfield. Inexplicably, however, the airport manager closed the airport and went home, saying, later, that he assumed Hammarskjöld’s flight had diverted to another airfield.

—Numerous villagers later said on the clear, moonlit night that Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed, they heard and saw one or two small planes flying not far from the crash site. At that time foreign mercenaries had three Fouga Magister fighter jets at their disposal.

—These eyewitness statements corroborate other testimony from mercenaries who said later they had been instructed the intercept Hammarskjöld’s flight to keep it from landing (and presumably to keep the secretary general from reconciling Katanga and Congo).

—Many eyewitnesses have described a flash of light just before the bigger, DC-6 plane crashed into the bush. The supposition behind these explosions of light is that mercenaries, flying Fouga spotter planes, dropped small flash bombs on or near the Hammarskjöld plane, which caused it to crash. (Williams summarizes one witness’s observation this way: “He saw a ‘fire’ coming from the small plane to the roof of the big plane, when he heard the sound of an explosion. Then the big plane fell down and crashed.”)

—The use of flash explosives against the Hammarskjold plane could have been for a number of reasons: to divert its landing in Ndola or to force it to land elsewhere, so that the mercenaries could kidnap the secretary general.

—The one man to survive the crash, Hammarskjold’s bodyguard—he lived for about eight days and should have been moved to a better hospital, if you ask me—spoke of a “flash of light” just before the crash. But his testimony was discounted, as it was thought the ravings of a dying man.

—My guide at the Ndola museum told me that Hammarskjöld’s plane might have made as many as three attempts to land at Ndola Airport (about nine miles southeast from the crash site). At least the DC-6 circled the field three times, which to me indicates that the pilots were comfortable with the landscape, the location of the runway, and the glide slope of the approach (although we know now that the airport had been closed).

—Nor do I believe that the experienced crew, which was Swedish and knew the plane well, would have mis-programmed the plane’s altimeter, which is one possible explanation for the DC-6 flying into the ground.

—One of the mysteries about the crash is that various CIA listening posts, including one in Cyprus, were tracking the Hammarskjöld flight and its voice communication. Those transcripts have never been released, despite numerous requests.

—The reason for this secrecy could well be that other CIA files might expose the role Allen Dulles and the CIA could have played in bringing down Hammarskjöld (as they did Lumumba in January 1961).

Williams quotes some who are following the case closely. One said: “‘If the CIA didn’t order Hammarskjold’s death, at least they paid for the bullet.’”

She ends her book by writing: “Most importantly, Patrice Lumumba and Dag Hammarskjöld were both killed because they sought to protect the integrity of the Congo and the self-determination of their people—free from the greed and interference of foreign powers.”

The Fall of the UN System: Collateral Damage at the Ndola Crash Site

I spent longer than I had anticipated at the Hammarskjold site, talking with members of the museum about the crash and learning details about the fateful night.

One of the researchers at the memorial site, Jacob Phiri, who helped Williams with her book, told me that he had spent a long time interviewing villagers who were witnesses to some aspect of the crash (they either saw the flights of the small planes or the crash of the big plane).

He added that, while the crash was only discovered the next day at 15:30 (the site is off the main road to the Congo and in a remote area), some native villagers reported seeing army troops arriving at the site that day as early as 7:00, and that these forces were seen carrying off one of the crash victims on a stretcher.

These reports are the basis for speculation about the so-called “seventeenth man” (sixteen victims died in the plane crash), who, if he existed, has never been identified. They raise the possibility that someone on the plane might have tried to hijack the flight, with the goal of taking Hammarskjöld hostage.

Whatever happened that night outside Ndola, the explanation that makes the least sense is the official one—that Hammarskjöld’s experienced Swedish crew flew the plane into the ground.

I can believe that the crew were tired from a long, complicated flight from Kinshasa (instead of taking a direct line, they flew the contours of the Congolese borders, and approached Ndola from the northeast).

But it was a clear night, with little wind, and the plane had circled the airfield several times, enabling the pilots to confirm their altitude from the lights around the city, as well as from the many charcoal fires burning in the surround woods.

One reason the investigation never progressed beyond the usual-suspect, pilot-error stage is that the official investigations in the past discounted the testimony of native villagers, and because the fuselage of the crashed plane was buried on the grounds of the current Ndola airfield (although no one is quite sure where).

As I walked around the memorial site, the director explained yet another anomaly of the crash: when rescuers appeared on the scene, they found the body of the secretary general propped up against an ant hill, some twenty meters in front of the wreckage. Unlike all the other victims of the crash, his body had not been burned.

The only other victim not entangled in the wreck was Hammarskjöld’s bodyguard, who was found, still alive, in the woods, fifteen to twenty meters away from the Secretary General.

Had he pulled Hammarskjöld away from the wreckage and propped him against the ant hill? He could not recall. Had others interfered with the crash site before it was officially “discovered” the following afternoon? He did not remember.

I could have stayed longer at the crash memorial, speaking to the museum officials who, in their own way, are as passionate about the subject of the Hammarskjöld crash as researchers in Dallas are about the John F. Kennedy assassination. Indeed the two deaths might share elements in common, especially if both men found themselves in the crosshairs of a CIA operation.

In the early 1960s, Hammarskjöld and Kennedy were both associated with faith in the United Nations and the principles of collective security. Kennedy had appointed former presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson II to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And, in 1962, to confront the Russians over the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba, Kennedy chose Stevenson and the forum of the U.N. Security Council to state the American grievance.

On other occasions, notably at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam, it could be argued that Kennedy had little time for multilateral diplomacy. At the same time, in Africa especially, Kennedy was less of a cold warrior that he was in Europe and Asia, and he was inclined to support the diplomacy of Secretary General Hammarskjöld when it came to the changing of the colonial guard around the continent.

Was each man killed for these convictions? Was someone such as Allen Dulles present at the creation of both conspiracies?

To the credit of secretaries general Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-moon, and António Guterres, in recent years the UN has reopened the investigation of the crash and has appointed Mohamed Chande Othman, a former chief justice of Tanzania, to coordinate the probe.

Whether it will have the resources, and the cooperation of the major powers (who were aligned with the same mercenaries that might have killed Hammarskjöld), is difficult to say.

Reporting on the new Othman investigations, the New York Times wrote:

His inquiries also include questions about two American military intelligence officials at different listening posts on the night of the crash, one of whom has since died. Both claimed years later to have overheard radio intercepts that suggested the DC-6 had been shot down. Mr. Othman has also inquired about whether an official American DC-3 aircraft had been parked at the Ndola airfield that night.

After my travels, I reached out to Susan Williams, requesting an interview about her book and the crash investigation, but she was away the day I was in London. Nevertheless, her personal assistant sent to me the full Othman report and a link to another Times newspaper article, which reads, in part:

Susan Williams, a British academic whose 2011 book “Who Killed Hammarskjold?” inspired the latest phase of high-level interest in the crash, said the [Othman] report “reinforces my strong suspicion of foul play.”

The onus is now on the U.K., the U.S., Belgium, France and South Africa, to release all relevant documents, including the secret records of their security and intelligence agencies and all intercepts” of radio traffic relating to the case, she said in an interview. She also urged multinational companies operating in the area to “release relevant records.”

On the ground in Ndola, I felt that I was looking at the high water mark of the UN’s activist diplomacy—that in deploying UN troops to the Congo and in trying to broker a peace, Hammarskjöld was playing the role that he was assigned when the UN was created in 1945.

In the fifty years since he was, literally, shot down in flames, the UN has not been able to confront either the major powers or invisible corporate states, which had so much at stake on the ground in Ndola.

Up next: From Ndola, Zambia to Mugabe’s Harare. To read Part IV, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books including Letters of Transit, Whistle-Stopping America and, most recently, Reading the Rails. His next book is Appalachia Spring. He lives in Switzerland.


Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.