Dag Hammarskjöld the late Secretary-General of the United Nations, died in the early hours of September 18, 1961, when his plane went down under still contested circumstances, as it approached for a landing at Ndola airport, then in northern Rhodesia now Zambia.
He was on a peace mission to the mineral-rich Congolese breakaway province of Katanga, where businessman turned politician Moise Tshombe, was leading a secessionist bid.
This week, on February 22, and just five months after the 59th anniversary of his death, Luca Attanasio, Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, succumbed to gunshot wounds near Goma, after he was shot when the convoy he was travelling in came under fire from yet unidentified assailants.
He was on his way to visit a school where the World Food Programme, is running a school feeding programme in the volatile east of the country.
The circumstances surrounding Dag Hammarskjöld’s death are immortalised in Hammarskjöld Cold Case, a 2019 documentary by Danish journalist, filmmaker, and provocateur Mads Brügger.
Jadotville, a film about the harrowing experience of a 155-strong company of Irish peacekeepers, who had been deployed to keep the peace in the mining town that has since been renamed Likasi also mentions the subject. For several days, the Irish company valiantly resisted a siege by a force of nearly 4,000 local militia’s and foreign mercenaries, until they were forced to surrender after running out of ammunition and other essential supplies.
Vividly capturing the toxic mix of a dubious international system, Western governments and mining conglomerates, the two documentaries show how little has changed in the Congo, nearly six decades after Hammarskjold’s killing. They also expose the impotency and dysfunction of the United Nations’ system.
In Jadotville, the Irish troops for inexplicable reasons, could not get reinforcements that were not too far away from their base. In Goma this week, Attanasio was attacked while under the supposed protection of the UN flag.
Both Attanasio and Hammarskjold died while on a mission for the good of the ordinary Congolese. They both fell to the externally driven yet cunningly indiscriminate violence there, the better so that targeted killings can easily get lost in the mayhem. The only difference today is that where foreign mercenaries were directly employed to undermine the effectiveness of the Congolese state, foreign interests now simply sponsor on the cheap, hundreds of militias, who roam the mostly untamed east of the country, killing wantonly and ensuring total breakdown of law and order.
The death of ordinary Congolese has been normalised. While thousands of Congolese have perished in violence, it is only when foreigners get caught in the crossfire that the world is briefly shaken out of its slumber. Why is it impossible to have a UN tribunal on the killings of civilians there? The two ICC convictions of Congo warlords to date are not enough to fight the impunity.
Attanasio’s death once again shows how the Congo can be unforgiving. Many times it has consumed those assigned to save it. Peace will only abide in the DR Congo if interventions are designed to make the country safe for everyone, there, foreign and local.