On 30 June 1960, the Congo declared independence from Belgium under Patrice Lumumba. Autonomy was not easily won and UN forces were deployed in the country to oversee the transition. However, internal and external factions meant that for the first five years of its existence the new republic was rocked by fighting. In 1963, in a Brussels bar, David Dimbleby met one of the players jostling for the Congo’s future, a young mercenary fighting for an independent state of Katanga. He was in Belgum to recruit soldiers for the rebel army led by Moise Tshombe. This unlikely encounter is a vivid bit of reportage showing the multi-faceted nature of the Cold War era.
“Our aim is to build up our army, to stage a revolt in December when the United Nations leave, and to re-establish an independent state of Katanga.” It was just before dawn in a backstreet club in the centre of Brussels. A line of men at the bar. In a corner two girls dancing. A Dutch commercial traveller was finishing a long explanation of the difficulties of selling doors to the Belgians. When I asked the young man on my left what his job was, he replied in a soft precise voice, choosing the English words carefully.
He was a mercenary, 24 years old. He had been born in Belgium, but his family moved to Katanga when he was eight, and he had lived there ever since. At 18 he joined the Belgian army in the Congo, but by independence had left, and was studying mathematics at Elisabethville University. This February an old student friend had persuaded him to join the Katangese army. It was not idealism, he said, that made him agree. “It is a big question. But I think it was because I have lived 16 years in Katanga and I can see that the Congolese troops will take all the money from Katanga. We can’t accept that.”
Within a few days he had joined the outlawed army. “At present,” he said, “there are 5,000 mercenaries still in Katanga, but we are underground. Our army exists, but nobody knows where it is.” He explained that many of the mercenaries are working in ordinary civilian jobs in Elisabethville, waiting until the UN goes. Others are in uniform in the jungle, training secretly. Two years ago the United Nations troops captured them regularly and expelled them from the Congo, but now they had virtually given up. “Katanga is too big for them.” When they did catch a mercenary, he said, they tried to persuade him to join the Congolese army, but the pay was not so good. Mercenaries who had been caught worked for a few months for the Congolese government and then escaped to rejoin Katanga’s army. But he himself was not worried. “The UN knows I exist,” he said, “but they do not know where I am. Sometimes I am in Northern Rhodesia and sometimes I am in Katanga – but always in a different place.”
His previous army training meant that he was soon made an officer: a second lieutenant. He joined a company of 250 men, one of four that make up a battalion. They have been undergoing intensive training in guerrilla warfare, living rough in the jungle, and being taught their professional skill – how to kill quickly, and silently. When he joined he was already a good shot. Now, he said, he could kill a man with a knife or with his bare hands.
The discipline is strict and the physical training exacting. “Every three weeks we must do an endurance march of 150 kilometres through difficult country. It can be very hard.” But the pay is some compensation – £180 a month, payable in sterling. That was not the reason he joined, he said, but many of his fellow officers were attracted by the prospect of earning £2,000 a year, tax-free. They had come from various countries. Apart from the Belgians there were Frenchmen, Germans, Rhodesians and South Africans. He had met several from England, too. None of them knew each other’s full names. They used Christian names only. And they never discussed what they had done before they joined up. It was an unwritten rule, he explained, with the relish of a schoolboy describing his secret society.
The mercenaries most admired were the pilots, particularly the British. “They are very good. Before an attack they drink a bottle of whisky. Then when they are drunk they fly 50 metres off the ground with bombs of 1,000 kilogrammes. They are excited, but not wild. They know what they must do, you see, and they do it very very good.” The Katangese army as a whole was rather less efficient. Above all it badly needed more officers. It was this that had brought him to Europe, acting as an assistant to his battalion commander, a fellow Belgian.
They had broken the journey home to go to Marseilles. There a meeting had been arranged with ex-president Tshombe. It took place in a small hotel on the outskirts of the town. He and his commanding officer were there, and three or four Congolese from Katanga. He could not remember their names. Tshombe, who is supposed to be a sick man, was looking well. He explained his plans and told them what he wanted done.
His aim was to wait until the UN withdrew, when he would return to Katanga and proclaim an independent state. He expected strong local support. The Katangese army would come out into the open and challenge the central government, but if they were to succeed it was essential that they should be stronger. In particular he needed pilots and parachutists. They must be recruited soon, but none of them was to go to Katanga until December, when the last UN troops would have left. He stressed again that it was pilots that he needed, and that if he could not find them in Europe he would look in South Africa. Tshombe talked to the mercenary about money as well, saying that he was still being backed from private interested sources in Belgium, South Africa, Britain and Katanga itself.
The mercenary would talk about the plan only in the most general terms. His impression was that Tshombe, as before, was acting entirely as a front man; that the real power was in the hands of European soldiers, lawyers and diplomats. He would mention no names.
After this meeting with Tshombe, he and his commanding officer split up. His commanding officer went to Antwerp. He had come to Brussels. In the three days that he had been in the city, he had already recruited 20 men, mainly from the ranks of the Belgian army. But the campaign was not restricted to Belgium. Other officers were already working in France, Germany, Italy and Britain. He was quite confident that by December they would be up to strength. We had been talking for more than an hour, by now it was light. We came out of the bar into a cold drizzle of rain. I walked back through the deserted streets to my hotel and went to bed.
I suppose a late-night conversation in a bar, with a stranger you may never see again, is almost by definition “a usually unreliable source”. But if that same conversation is repeated almost word for word at five o’clock in the afternoon, in the dark brown sobriety of a Brussels hotel bedroom, it becomes immediately more credible.
We had arranged to meet later in the day so that I could check the facts with him. At first I thought he would not keep the appointment. He arrived an hour late, still wearing the grubby shirt and creased suit that he had had on the night before. I took him back in detail over everything he had told me then. I checked names, dates and figures with our previous conversation. What he said was identical.
My scepticism was still further dispelled when I learned a few days later, from completely trustworthy and direct information, that Tshombe knew the man. He had also admitted, under pressure, that there had recently been a meeting between them, although he firmly refused to disclose what had been discussed. Tshombe’s reticence contrasted sharply with the eager revelations of his mercenary; but discretion is not a young man’s virtue.