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Saturday, 21 October, 2000, 22:26 GMT 23:26 UK
Who Killed Lumumba?
In this week's Correspondent, David Akerman investigates the brutal murder of Congo's charismatic first prime minister 40 years ago.
On 17th January 1961 Patrice Lumumba, first and only elected Prime Minister of Congo, was murdered. The circumstances of his death remained a mystery, the identity of his killers unknown.
Now, forty years later, fresh scrutiny of documents held in government vaults and the testimony of those who were there at the time reveal a story of international intrigue and betrayal.
Perhaps it was prison that radicalized him. By 1958 he had co-founded a political party, the National Congolese Movement, the MNC.
"Lumumba was the only Congolese leader who rose above ethnic difficulties and tribal preoccupations that killed all the other parties."
It was as leader of the MNC that Lumumba emerged as Congo's first prime minister after elections in June 1960.
At the Independence Day celebrations of June 30th Belgium's hostility to Lumumba deepened. Excluded from the official programme, Lumumba was advised by Van Lierde to get up and make an impromptu speech. He did, passionately denouncing the harsh brutalities and indignities suffered by the Congolese under Belgian colonial rule. Diplomacy it was not.
The road to independence was rocky. Within days the army mutinied. Worse followed.
The mineral-rich Katanga province in the south declared independence. Its leader, Moise Tchombe, a longtime enemy of Lumumba, was known close to the Belgian industrial companies which mined the copper, gold and uranium whose wealth had flowed back to Brussels for decades. Without Katanga Congo's was an impoverished economy.
The researcher and historian, Ludo de Witte, who has scrutinized documents held in the Brussels' archives for forty years, says the Belgian government was secretly protecting its interests and directing Katanga's secession from behind the scenes.
"The documents are very clear. All those officers and functionaries were following orders from the Belgian government, and following Belgian policy,"
Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw - they didn't. He expelled Belgian diplomats and called on the United Nations to defend the newly-independent state. He hinted that it might be necessary to ask the Soviet Union to assist unilaterally. That set alarm bells ringing in the West.
A mutinational UN peacekeeping force was deployed.
Lumumba was frustrated. Finally he accepted a consignment of Soviet transport planes, military trucks and, it was suspected, guns. The American ambassador in Leopoldville began referring to the prime minister as "Lumumbavitch".
Sixty-seven days after he came to power, Patrice Lumumba was sacked by state president Joseph Kasavubu. Lumumba, in turn, tried to sack Kasavubu. It was stalemate.
Lumumba was placed under informal house arrest at the prime minister's residence.
On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs, Count d'Aspremont Lynden, sent a cable to Katanga's capital, Elizabethville, stating clearly that policy was now directed at the "definitive elimination" of Patrice Lumumba.
Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in Leopoldville received orders from Washington to await the arrival of "Joe from Paris".
"I recognised him as he walked towards my car, but when he told me what they wanted done I was totally, totally taken aback", says Devlin now. "Joe from Paris" was better known as the CIA's chief technical officer, Dr Sidney Gottlieb. He had brought with him a special tube of poisoned toothpaste. Devlin's job was to get the toothpaste into Lumumba's bathroom.
"It would put the man away", recalls Devlin, who was aghast at the plan. "I had never suggested assassination, nor did I believe that it was advisable," he says now. The toothpaste never made it into Lumumba's bathroom. "I threw it in the Congo River when its usefulness had expired."
Devlin says he suspected, but didn't know for sure, that the order to assassinate Lumumba must have come from President Eisenhower himself. In August this year, however, Devlin's suspicion was confirmed officially by Washington - the order had come from the President.
Lumumba now made perhaps the worst decision of his life. He decided to escape. Smuggled out of his residence at night in a visiting diplomat's car he began a long journey towards Stanleyville. Mobutu's troops were in hot pursuit. Finally trapped on the banks of the impassable Sankuru River, he was captured by soldiers loyal to Colonel Mobutu.
He appealed to local UN troops to save him. The UN refused on direct orders from headquarters in New York. He was flown first to Leopoldville, where he appeared beaten and humiliated before journalists and diplomats.
Further humiliation followed at Mobutu's villa, where delighted young soldiers whooped with joy as they beat the elected prime minister in full view of television cameras. Lumumba was despatched first to Thysville military barracks, one hundred miles from Leopoldville.
The Belgians demanded a more decisive ending - they wanted Lumumba delivered into the hands of his most sworn enemy, President Tschombe of Katanga. On January 15th 1961, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs wrote to his apparachiks in Elizabthville instructing them to inform Tschombe that he must accept Lumumba without delay. It was in effect a death warrant. After a moment's hesitation Tschombe agreed.
That same night it is said Lumumba was bundled into another convoy that headed into the bush. It drew up beside a large tree. Three firing squads had been assembled, commanded by a Belgian. Another Belgian had overall command of the execution site. Lumumba and two other comrades from the government were lined up against a large tree. President Tschombe and two other ministers were present for the executions, which took place one at a time.
The following day Katang'as interior minister called a senior Belgian policeman to his office with orders to conceal the killings. "He said 'You destroy them, you make them disappear. How you do it doesn't interest me," says Gerard Soerte. Soete and a companion exhumed the bodies from shallow graves, hacked them into pieces and dissolved them in acid from the Belgian-run mines nearby.
"We were there for two days," says Soete. "We did things an animal wouldn't do. That's why we were drunk. Stone drunk." When they ran out of acid, they made a fire for the last remains. When they had finished, there was no trace of human remains.
Nothing was said for three weeks - though rumour spread quickly. When Lumumba's death was formally announced on Katangese radio, it was accompanied by an elaborately implausible cover involving an escape and murder by enraged villagers. No-one believed it.
The research by Ludo de Witte and the recent testimony from witnesses and accessories have caused soul-searching in Brussels. The Belgian Parliament has opened a Commission of Inquiry into the events of forty years ago.
"It is time to address our history," says Geert Versnick, the MP who chairs the commission which has already begun taking evidence. "If there was wrong-doing in some of our former colonies, especially in the case of Mr Lumumba, then we should address our history."
The Commission's report is expected early next year.
Caroline Pare's Story
During the making of this film, producer Caroline Pare had her passport taken by soldiers and was held prisoner for three days before being thrown out of the country. Below is her own account of what happened.
Working in Kinshasa, capital of the Congo, is not your traditional journalistic experience. In the first place I was not being granted a visa. Despite my pleading urgency, I never did get one from the recently closed down Knightsbridge embassy. In the end I traveled via Kenya where I picked one up in a morning.
Luckily I had arranged for my driver-cum-fixer, Roger, to meet me and as soon as he arrived the whole nightmarish experience changed. He whisked me off to his broken down car and returned to the fray. He emerged fifteen minutes later having dropped US$50. I thought it was a bargain! I won't dwell on the drive into town which ended in a smashed windscreen, my briefcase strap tying down the bonnet and a push start. But we eventually arrived at the hotel.
My first assignment was to get the precious foreign journalist accreditation. I was told the office I needed was on the 8th floor but I was to get out at the 10th as the lift could not stop at 8. The doors opened to pitch black. I stumbled around feeling my way along manky walls to the stairwell and eventually spotted light as I emerged on the 8th floor.
The place seemed deserted and reminded me of the film Barton Fink but when I knocked on door 825 I was called in. The window was shattered and the ministry official sat behind an empty desk in front of which, placed on the floor, were two car seats for visitors to sit in.
The driver pulled up outside and took my business card to the gateman. At that very moment the car doors were flung opened and soldiers pushed in beside me, AK47s and all. We were force to drive into the compound and the large gates slammed behind us.
He was being economical with the truth. We were kept at Mukamba's house for the next three days. We were never told why we were there or if or when we were going to be released.
I scratched the number of the British Consul on a piece of paper and whispered to Pierre that if he could he should pass it to the hotel staff. He turned out to be a hero and despite having two soldiers guarding him managed to pass the note.
The days dragged by. There was nothing to do. I spent my time talking to Camille, my Congolese fixer, about today's war, independent Congo's short and turbulent history and the failings of the international community.
Our story ends happily. We were released in the middle of the night in a bizarre ceremony involving a lot of besuited men in a gloomy foreign Ministry room.
It was only after my release that I discovered that Jonas Mukamba had been arrested the day before our arrival on suspicion of plotting a coup d'etat. Plotting with the rebels supported by Uganda.
I was very sorry to leave Kinshasa. It may be a mad kind of place but it is also the most interesting. It's the American Wild West in the twenty first century.
Reporter: David Akerman
Producer: Caroline Pare
Series Producer: Farah Durrani
Editor: Fiona Murch
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