Patrice Lumumba: did not die on January 17, 1961 | Sunday Observer

Patrice Lumumba: did not die on January 17, 1961

Fifty six years ago almost to the day a man was killed. Now that’s not news. Every single day thousands of people are killed. Thousands perish in war. Thousands die of curable diseases. It was like that back in 1961 as well.

But, this murder was different. It has been referred to as the most important assassination of the 20th century. Patrice Lumumba was killed on January 17, 1961. This was seven months after he was elected as the first Prime Minister of independent Congo. He was 34 at the time.

In September he was deposed through a coup d’état by Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who proceeded to arrest him in December with logistical support from Belgium and the United States of America.

Lumumba was first brutally beaten and tortured by Katangan and Belgian officers while President Moïse Tshombe (President of the State of Katanga that had newly declared independence) and his cabinet decided what to do with him. On the 17th of January, sometime after 10 pm, Lumumba, along with two political associates, was lined up against a tree and shot.

It is claimed that the Belgians and their counterparts later wished to get rid of the bodies, and did so by digging up and dismembering the corpses, then dissolving them in sulfuric acid while the bones were ground and scattered.

Efforts to get the UN to intervene and prevent all this failed. The UN Security Council of the time voted 8-2 against the pro-Lumumba resolution. Several countries withdrew military contingents serving the UN in protest, including Ceylon. Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld was party to the crime that took place thereafter.

There’s a long and brutal history behind all this and a long and brutal history that followed the assassination. It’s not just Lumumba and it is not the Congo. But that’s a different essay altogether. Well, a whole library of theses, rather.

The assassination horrified the world. There were demonstrations in many cities on all Continents. In Yugoslavia, protesters sacked the Belgian embassy and confronted the police.

In London, a crowd marched from Trafalgar Square to the Belgian embassy, where a letter of protest was delivered and where protesters clashed with police. In New York City, a demonstration at the United Nations Security Council turned violent and spilled over into the streets.

There was also a demonstration in Kandy, organized by the left-wing students of the University of Peradeniya. They marched to Kandy and attempted unsuccessfully to pull down the statue of Governor Henry Ward. They made speeches.

It was 16 years later that I first heard of Lumumba. The Daily News carried a picture. I can’t remember what exactly it was. Perhaps, it was one of the statues being removed or else that of Madduma Bandara being put up in its place. Seeing this, my father related a story.

He told me about the protest. And, he told me how ‘legends’ are born. He had been one of the students who took part in that march.

He said that they tried to pull down the statue but the rope had snapped. However, he was known for awhile as the man who pulled down (not tried to pull down) the Ward Statue.

He went on to tell me about Patrice Lumumba and sketched for me the history. Then he shared with me a slogan they had shouted: meruve namuth lumumbaava, marune naha aprikaava, (‘although Lumumba was murdered, Africa did not die’).

That line, apparently, he had included in a poem which was later taken as an example of the direction in which Sinhala poetry ought to go by someone who wrote an article on the subject.

That’s what interests me right now. Taking down a statue is a symbolic act. Easy. Perhaps, even necessary in the process of what some might call necessary exorcism.

Makes sense only if other more pernicious processes are taken on and defeated though.

People are not statues. They are not taken down. They are silenced, enslaved and even murdered. Lumumba is still iconic.

He still inspires. His murder was not the original sin in the Congo as some claim, but it is still as heinous as any committed in that country or elsewhere.

He still inspires people in that country and in that Continent and in fact in other parts of the world as well.

Africa did not die on account of that vile act that the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in this world sanctioned and participated in.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz in a poem ‘We who were executed,’ dedicated to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (legally murdered in the so-called ‘Land of the Free and Home of the Brave’) had something to say about these kinds of murders. Agha Shahid Ali’s translation has the following lines:

Holding up our sorrows as banners

new lovers will emerge

from the lanes where we were killed

and embark, in caravans, on those highways of desire.

It’s because of them that we shortened the distances of sorrow,

It’s because of them that we went out to make the world our own,

We who were murdered in the darkest lanes.

Or shot at night in an isolated spot just as Lumbumba was.

Africa is not dead, but then one could also say ‘Perhaps, Africa will die’ and if that’s a tragedy it will only be stopped because people like Patrice Lumumba stand up and because their assassinations inspire others to remember brutality, dream of better times and resist.

And resist. And resist.

This, then, is a salute to a warrior who saw beyond both warrior and war, thereby differentiated himself from brutes who quickly forget what they are fighting for, and most importantly provided an example, a template and a dream worth pursuing.

Malinda Seneviratne is afreelance writer.