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An Investigation into the Death of Dag Hammarskjöld Goes Gonzo

13 August 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Mads Brügger’s decision to revisit the 1961 death of the United Nations secretary-general through a gonzo lens might seem like a peculiar choice.

But that gamble appears to have paid off. The Danish documentarian’s “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” opens in the U.S. on Friday with momentum, having won the 47-year-old Mr. Brügger an award for best director in world cinema documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The film investigates the case of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat who died 58 years ago when the airplane he was traveling in crashed in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane went down as he was flying to the mineral-rich region of Katanga in an attempt to prevent it seceding from what was then known as the Republic of Congo.

The circumstances of the crash are still unclear: A Swedish inquiry in 1962 cited pilot error. But others, including former President Harry S. Truman, questioned whether foul play was involved. Mr. Brügger first became interested in the case in 2011 when he read an article about a Swedish private investigator, Göran Björkdahl, who had interviewed the surviving witnesses of the crash.

“Cold Case” examines Mr. Björkdahl’s claim that their testimony was ignored in the original investigation because they were black Africans.

. . . .

His habit of smoking with a cigarette-holder and making documentaries in which he plays the part of truth-seeker have led to comparisons with the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.

“I like the energy in the gonzo approach,” Mr. Brügger says.

He says that “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” started out as an inquiry into Mr. Hammarskjöld’s death but grew to encompass secret mercenary organizations, apartheid in South Africa and the spread of HIV.

The documentary took nearly seven years to make. “There were moments of despair and desperation because the financing for the film was falling apart,” he says. “Every year I had to meet consultants of the Danish Film Institute and explain why I wasn’t being able to finish off the film.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG notes that, as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld’s death was a big deal in 1961, covered in front-page news stories around the world. Then-President John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld “the greatest statesman of our century.”

In the years since, despite three separate investigations, no satisfactory evidence has been located that conclusively resolves the cause of the crash.

A quick search of Google archives discloses that news organizations are still interested in the case.

From the Associated Press via CTV in 2013:

America’s National Security Agency may hold crucial evidence about one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Cold War — the cause of the 1961 plane crash which killed United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, a commission of prominent jurists says.

Widely considered the U.N.’s most effective chief, Hammarskjold died as he was attempting to bring peace to the newly independent Congo. It’s long been rumored that his DC-6 plane was shot down, and an independent commission set up to evaluate new evidence surrounding his death on Monday recommended a fresh investigation — citing radio intercepts held by the NSA as the possible key to solving the case.

“The only dependable extant record of the radio traffic, if there is one, will so far as we know be the NSA’s,” Commission Chairman Stephen Sedley said in his introduction to the report. “If it exists, it will either confirm or rebut the claim that the DC-6 was fired on or threatened with attack immediately before its descent.”

Hammerskjold’s aircraft went down on the night of Sept. 17, 1961, smashing into a forested area just short of Ndola Airport in modern-day Zambia. A host of hard-to-answer questions about the crash have led to a glut of conspiracy theories.

Among them: Why did it take 15 hours to find the wreckage, just a few miles from the airport? Why did Hammarskjold’s bodyguard, who survived the crash for a few days, say that the plane “blew up”? Why did witnesses report seeing sparks, flashes, or even another plane?

Hammarskjold was flying into a war zone infested with mercenaries and riven by Cold War tension. Congo won its freedom from Belgium in 1960, but foreign multinationals coveted its vast mineral wealth and the country was challenged by a Western-backed insurgency in Katanga, which hosted mining interests belonging to United States, Britain, and Belgium. They were also jockeying for influence with the Soviet Union, which was trying to spread communism to the newly independent nations of Africa.

All four powers had a stake in the outcome of Congo’s struggle, and all four have been fingered as potential suspects in Hammarskjold’s death.

. . . .

Zambian eyewitnesses told Williams of a bright flash or a second smaller aircraft pursuing Hammerskjold’s plane. But one of her most powerful witnesses was thousands of kilometers away on the night of the crash. In his testimony to the commission, Cmdr. Charles Southall — stationed at an NSA eavesdropping post in Cyprus — said he heard an intercepted radio conversation apparently from the pursuing plane.

“I’ve hit it,” Southall said he heard the mystery pilot say. “There are flames. It’s going down. It’s crashing.”

Link to the rest at CTV