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The UN inquiry into Hammarskjöld’s death: last chance to reach the truth?

[By Rt. Revd. Musonda Trevor Selwyn Mwamba]

60th Anniversary of The unexplained deaths of Dag Hammarskjöld and colleagues.

“Morality of the pursuit of the truth; an African viewpoint.”

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

Two years ago I was part of a panel of speakers in the House of Lords, chaired by Baroness Garden of Frognal, who urged the British and South African governments to cooperate with the United Nations search for the truth in the unexplained deaths of Dag Hammarskjold and colleagues on 18 September 1961.
Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of their death. As a Bishop of the Church, I shall offer prayers for the souls of the dead. Suffice to say now:

“The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall touch them” (Ecclesiasticus 3:1).

May their souls rest in eternal peace and rise in glory.

What I said then remains unchanged. I spoke about the: Morality of the pursuit of the truth; from an African viewpoint.

From a personal perspective, what I have come to realise very strongly is that we live in a moral universe and the truth shall always triumph. No matter how long it is buried, no matter how long it’s ignored. The truth ultimately emerges and triumphs.

We are inching closer to the truth. I say so because Dag Hammarskjold was a peacemaker.

One of the beatitudes in the New Statement states: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” Matthew 5:9.

This succinctly defined Dag Hammarskjold. I seek to elaborate on this but first allow me to share this anecdote a friend told me once upon a time.

My friend was a student at a University in Canada. One day in his political science class the professor was giving a lecture on some aspects of the United Nations. And he mentioned in his lecture that Dag Hammarskjold who was the Secretary General of the UN perished in a plane crash. And this happened in a remote part of Africa.

My friend interrupted the professor and said to him that he was not putting the picture correctly. And the professor asked him what he meant.

My friend answered saying, “Yes, Dag Hammarskjold’s plane did crash in Africa, and it was in my country this happened.”

The professor asked my friend if he knew more about it and he responded that it was certainly not the way he was putting it.

So the professor requested him to come up front and explain to the class what he knew. This he did, going up front, he drew a rough map of Zambia. And he said that contrary to what the professor was saying that the plane crashed in some remote part of Africa, it was actually very near one of the cities in Zambia which was called Northern Rhodesia at the time.

My friend pointed out where Ndola was on the map and said the crash was a few miles away from the airport and so his plane was actually seen and people knew where it crashed. So it was not as reported “in some remote place”.

Having finished explaining, my friend was applauded by his class and smiling surmised that students like to see professors put in their place!

My friend’s acute observation that the crash was a few miles away from the airport and Dag Hammarskjold’s plane was actually seen and people knew where it crashed; formed an important factor in reopening the inquiry in the crash.

And Dr Susan Williams magisterial book, Who Killed Hammarskjold? The UN, The Cold War And White Supremacy in Africa brilliantly presents us with compelling evidence of the truth that the Rhodesian inquiry which laid the basis for subsequent investigations buried.

The truth unearthed shows considerable new evidence as well as clear proof that the Rhodesian inquiry was seriously flawed by a pre-disposition to view the world in racist terms and by the suppression of information. The Panel Report (2015) noted in paras 46-70 of the judge’s report the importance of the witness statements by the charcoal burners. In 1961, these were considered unreliable; a colonial era attitude.

It is apparent too as Dr Williams unearthed that some information was tampered with as in the case of the Rhodesian ballistics reports and the air – brushing of the photographs of Dag Hammarskjold’s body.

All this unearthing is because we live in a moral universe in which the truth cannot be suppressed indefinitely. Vaclav Havel, in his essays Living in Truth wrote that: ‘The desire to be in touch with what is true, and to live by it in all its consequences, is deeply embedded in human beings. We cannot live falsely for long; truth has a radiant power that cannot be quenched…we cannot live for long ‘within the lie’.

When Dag Hammarskjold died on Zambian soil, his soul became a part of Zambia and Zambia a part of him. As Zambians, we are therefore desirous to know the truth of why Dag Hammarskjold was killed. It’s important for Zambia’s identity to know its past in order to embrace its authentic self in the future.

It was in the course of living out his role as peacemaker by resolving the crisis in the Congo that the greatest Secretary General of the United Nations died in my country Zambia – Northern Rhodesia as it then was – in 1961.

I returned recently to Zambia to contest the presidency of my party UNIP – the oldest political party in Zambia, which I won. I toured all the 10 provinces of Zambia.

When I arrived on the Copperbelt Province where Ndola is located, the first thing I did was to go to the Dag Hammarskjold Memorial Crash Site. It was declared a national monument in 1970 and UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 1997.

I went there to offer my prayers for the repose of the souls of Dag and all who died in the plane crash.

A great man died on Zambian soil. And President Kennedy, a great man himself, and the most powerful man in the world at the time said of Dag Hammarskjold: “I realise now that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.”

He was the greatest statesman because he was a peacemaker. At the crash site, I felt that peace. And I too dedicated myself to the pursuit of peace.

At the crash site I reflected on Hammarskjold’s life as a peacemaker and ethical leaders which is an inspiration to us all and good place to conclude.

In 1953, Dag Hammarskjold became the second Secretary General of the United Nations. In my opinion, the greatest Secretary General ever.

He said in his inaugural speech to the General Assembly, “Ours is the work of reconciliation…” and ended with these words from a Swedish poem, “The greatest prayer of man is not for victory but for peace.”

The pursuit of peace inspired Dag Hammarskjold’s life and work. He eloquently said:

“Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each one of us. To build for humankind a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just….”

For him, the pursuit of peace with its trials and errors, its successes and setbacks could never be relaxed and abandoned. He did not relax or abandon his pursuit of peace in the Congo when his plane was shot down in then Northern Rhodesia – now Zambia in 1961.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Dag Hammarskjold was a child of God. A peacemaker.

What he stood for was to create a just world, a peaceful world, a decent world, so the UN inquiry is very important for Africa and for the wider world for the sake of peace – and I define peace as in the Hebrew sense as shalom.

Shalom gives us a richer and multifaceted meaning which is lacking in English. The word suggests peace is complete well-being, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual; peace amongst nations, peace amongst people, and it flows from all of one’s relationships being right with God, with oneself, and with others. This is peace complete wholesomeness.

This is what defined Dag Hammarskjold. By his death the world lost one of its greatest servants – a brilliant mind, a brave and compassionate spirit, a peacemaker, a mystic. He pointed us to strive diligently for a world in which people solve their problems by peaceful means and not by force.

And of this, I am certain his death and that of his colleagues was not in vain for the truth shall prevail in spite of obstacles because we live in a moral universe where the truth cannot be buried wrong.


Bishop Mwamba is former Bishop of Botswana.

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