Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo -Anjan Sundaram

On 20200202_203242June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was formed after fifty-two years of Belgian colonization.  Its charismatic leader, Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), served as an inspiration and hope for the people of Congo, who wished to govern themselves and move their country into a new direction.  Less than one year later on January 17, 1961, Lumumba was executed in Katanga as a result of a coup by military colonel Joseph Mobutu (1930-1997).  The assassination and seizure of power by Mobutu, set in motion a cycle of violence that has continued for more than five decades.  Between 1994 and 2003, the conflict known as “Africa’s first world war” ravaged the country and caused the deaths of an estimated five million people.  Rebel groups continue to operate in various regions of the country, continuing the system of violence. In 2005, Anjan Sundaram was finishing his final semester at Yale University, where he graduated with a degree in advanced mathematics. After forming a friendship with a cashier, he made the decision to abandon a career in corporate American and move to the Congo, where he would ply his trade as a foreign correspondent in one of the most tumultuous places on earth.  This book titled “Stringer’ is a memoir of his time in the Congo and the many people that became a part of his life.

As the book opens, Anjam has just had his phone stolen and is trying desperately to get it back with no luck at all.  He eventually finds his host family, who are relatives of the cashier at Yale.  His dwellings are primitive by western standards and his fan soon becomes the desired object in stifling heat.  He soon learns that as the saying goes, he is not in Kansas anymore.  Kinshasa is gritty and daily life is hard without relief.   His housemates, Nana and Jose, do their best to help him along but even they have their moments that nearly push Anjan to the brink.  He soon begins to run low on money and realizes that soon desperation will set in.  At the suggestion of a friend, he offers his services a field reporter for the Associated Press. He is quickly hired and his job as a journalist soon takes him into the belly of the beast far removed from the polished campus at Yale University.

As the story moves forward, the author provides information on the Congo’s history where needed to give the reader an idea of why certain conditions currently exist.  And though he does mention Lumumba, the book is not meant to be a thorough history of the Congo.  For additional reading, I do recommend Leo Zeilig’s “Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader“, which is an excellent biography of the late leader.  The focus here is about what Sundaram sees and hears as he moves throughout the Congo consider by many to be parts unknown.  The scenes he describes are surreal but a reflection of the turmoil that continues to engulf the country.  The threat of death hangs over him throughout the book in the form of rebel patrols, shady cab drivers and even a touch of malaria. As I read the story, I was sure I had the same thought as many others who have read it: he must be crazy to give up a promising career to migrate to the Congo.  The author realizes his choice would be surprising to many but it is clear that his decision was based on a real desire to truly experience a conflict that remains one of the worst in modern history.

The true gift of the book is Sundaram serving as eyes and ears on the ground to show others the truth about life in the Congo.   The descriptions he gives sound like hell on earth with the lack of sanitation, devalued currency, corruption and the near total collapse of a political system.  Mock elections and the continuing cycle of dictatorship do little to inspire the people with the belief that one day their nation will embrace true democracy.  Hanging over the book is the ghost of Mobutu, whom the author discusses at several points in the book.  His grip on the country, many years after his death, is apparent all over.  It is a nightmare that replays itself as conflict rages between government forces battling insurgent rebel patrols.  Massacres, pillage and systemic murder are the tools of the trade, highlighting the prevalence of death in the Congo.  Sundaram is the Associates Press’ eyes on the ground and soon moves over to the New York Times.  As an American of Indian descent, his presence in the Congo is both the source of curiosity and hostility.  Ethnic divisions and fears of the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in Congolese affairs, result in a cloak of suspicion traveling with him everywhere he goes.  On more than one occasion, his admission to being a “reporter” is the source of agitation to those who prefer to operate in secrecy.

Undoubtedly, there is more to the Congo story than what it presented here.  And while I would have liked the book to have gone just a little longer to see how Sundaram eventually leaves the Congo for good, the story stands on its own merits. It is a very profound account of life in the Congo, where nothing is guaranteed.  Life is expendable and democracy is reduced to a catchphrase.  The reality is painstakingly explained here in an account that will open the eyes of many who are only vaguely familiar with the country that had the potential to set a new course for the continent of Africa.  Good read.

ISBN-10: 0385537751
ISBN-13: 978-0385537759

Countdown to Darkness: The Assassination of President Kennedy Volume II – John M. Newman

darknessI recently reviewed Volume I in this exceptional review of the murder of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).  Author John M. Newman returns in Volume II to the incredible story of the events leading up to Kennedy’s time in office and his untimely demise.  Here we change gears and take a deeper look at the alleged defection of Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) to the Soviet Union,  the mob ties of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969), the role of Italian-American mobster Sam Giancana (1908-1975) and the foreign policy decisions in Cuba, the Congo and Southeast Asia.

The story of Lee Harvey Oswald is an open and shut case if you believe the government’s official story.   What we do know is that he did in fact travel to the Soviet Union and attempted to renounce his U.S. Citizenship.  But what is often left out of the discussion is did he actually renounce it?   To some the question might seem strange but if we take a closer look along with the author, we see that many of Oswald’s actions in Russia did not make sense. In fact, things were so confusing that his mother Marguerite Oswald (1907-1981) wrote to the State Department to verify if her son had given up his U.S. Citizenship.  If you eyebrows are now raised, you are on the right track and what follows in this book will change your perception of Oswald’s possible intentions in the Soviet Union.   Admittedly, Oswald is still a mysterious figure.  The amount of information known about him still pales slightly to the unknown information surrounding his career in the military and his actions in Dallas leading up to Kennedy’s murder.   The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has generally been quite vague about what it knew about Oswald’s attempted defection and his return to the United States.  The opening of the infmamous 201 file on Oswald has always been a topic of discussion in assassination researcher circles and for good reason. Newman explores the issue in detail and clears up some of the mysteries that have lingered for years.  But what may really rattle readers is his hypothesis as to why Oswald traveled to the Soviet Union in the first place.  Newman does not declare that his belief is what happened but his suggestion has plenty of traction and if it is ever proven to be correct, it would completely change what we knew about Lee Harvey Oswald.

As John F. Kennedy settled into office in January, 1961, his administration faced its first crisis as news of the murder of Patrice Lumuba (1925-1961) spread across the globe.  Kennedy publicly had believed in a free Africa policy and Lumumba’s murder dealt a heavy blow for his vision of Africa’s future.  Today we have the benefit of hindsight to look back on Lumumba’s death.  And what we can see is a story that is much darker than most could have ever imagined.  I should point out that there is no direct relationship between Lumumba’s death and Kennedy’s murder.  But what is revealed is the role of the CIA which was also discussed in Volume I.  The agency as it is known informally, became a foreign policy division of its own and by the time Kennedy took office, no one in Washington dared to challenge it.  In fact, the agency was so powerful, that several presidents were unaware of what the agency’s true mission actually was.  Author David Talbot discusses the agency in detail in his phenomenal book “The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government”, which is a thoroughly researched account of the rise of the CIA under its controversial director Allen Dulles (1893-1969).  Newman puts Dulles and the agency back in the spotlight, revealing a sinister web of deceit determined to engineer Lumumba’s downfall.  The story is critical to understanding what would follow from the agency in Cuba and eventually Southeast Asia.

Cuba once again comes into focus as Fidel Castro breaks ties with Washington and officials are left seeting with disdain towards the beared revolutionary.  This part of the book is perhaps the most chilling as it provides an inside look into the battle being waged behind the scenes to coach Kennedy into an all out war with Cuba.  Truths, half-truths and outright lies served to cause confusion and errant decisions that resulted in the distrastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in April, 1961.  The mission was a total failure and publicly, Kennedy excepted blame.  But behind the scenes, a war was looming between the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s intelligence community.   The stakes had been raised and Kennedy came to realize that the CIA was now an obstacle that had to be removed.  But what he did not know at the time was that the agency plays for keeps and waits patiently for the right moment to execute.

To say that these books are mesmerizing would be an understatement.  This is the history we are never taught in school.   The information revealed in these books should serve as the basis for history lessons given about the events during the Cold War and the CIA’s rise to power.  The author concludes the book with a snippet from the story of former CIA agent David Atlee Phillips (1922-1988), whose words  are an indication of what is come in Volume III of the series titled Into the Storm: The Assassination of President Kennedy.  A storm was definitely brewing and by the time it ended, America was never be the same again.

ASIN: B01N16W6E4

Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader – Leo Zeilig

20190409_214533On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier.  The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock.   The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.

To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960.  Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination.  Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed.  And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star.   In less than one year,  he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair.  There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder.  To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.

The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others.  He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber.  Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation.  It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe.  From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.

Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”.   Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.

The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence.  Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity.  Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969).   Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock.  Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus.  Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal.  It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers.   But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.

Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him.  One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow.  His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response.  We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting.  The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.

The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches.  I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination.  The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker.  However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville.  Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.

I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book.   Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story.   They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography.  This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.

ISBN-10: 190579102X
ISBN-13: 978-1905791026