APRIL 15, 2018

By Samir Sanbar

An initiative to hold a Security Council meeting at the summerhouse of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in the south of Sweden prompted me to recall how the outstanding Swedish Secretary-General inspired a non-Swede to dedicate a career to international civil service.

When still a student reporter, I was told that becoming a journalist did not depend much on acquiring academic degrees, but on getting headlines. Looking in a daily paper, I noted that U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was in Beirut on a mediation mission. I went to the Saint George Hotel and explained to the concierge my purpose. He looked at the bar terrace where most of the international correspondents were waiting around, then turned his back to what was more important. The only reason he allowed me to linger was that I had a photographer with me. I stayed overnight on a lobby sofa. The next morning, Mr. Hammarskjöld came down on his way to the airport. He had only one bodyguard - unarmed. He smiled amusingly when he heard what I wanted and looked at my face very kindly. Confused, I asked him about his name. He realized I was at the very beginning of my career and helped out by saying "Maybe you're asking about my first name. In my country 'Dag' means Day." I regained some of my journalistic composure and listened attentively as he gave me a few pointers before proceeding to his car, a gray Pontiac. I told him that since he had taught me a word in Swedish, I would like to teach him one in Arabic: "Shukran, it means thank you," I said. He rolled down the car window, and popped his head out, replying with a smile: "In Swedish, it is täk".

By the time I joined the U.N. years later, Mr. Hammarskjöld had been killed. His airplane fell near Ndola airport while on a mediation mission in the Congo. Even today, nobody knows for sure how the U.N. Secretary-General died. Was it a technical failure, a pilot error or a crime? Hanging a political crime on an unknown culprit has become an intercontinental habit. Still, many governments find it more convenient not to know.

When taking over the network of U.N. Information Centers, I made a point of visiting the office in Zambia, and spent an evening in the town of Ndola, where Secretary-General Hammarskjöld's plane crashed in its forest, which was part of what was known as Northern Rhodesia, an Apartheid colony. Listening to older villagers and active civil groups did not yield specific secrets, yet it deepened my impression of a premeditated murder, whose "known unknowns" were obviously so predominant that even the local culprits were untouched - indeed promoted. Even Sweden, our hero's native country, trod very carefully, mainly focusing on establishing foundations and granting fellowships.

The Dag Hammarskjöld tower, across from U.N. Headquarters in New York with a penthouse lounge, displays unique photos of the former Secretary-General relaxing in his Swedish summer home, inspecting refugee camps, and welcoming visitors. In front of its entrance his bust, produced for an artistic contest, is placed and commands the corner of First Avenue and 47th Street, with an indication that his example would inspire residents and passerby.

Decades later on July 31, 2005, I found myself walking under lightning and rain in fields of southern Sweden to participate in the anniversary of the 100th birthday of the man. Here in Backåkra was his summerhouse: a few small rooms, some books and a writing desk. I know well he once wrote: "I am being driven forward into an unknown land. The pass grows steeper, the air colder and sharper. A wind from my unknown goal stirs the string of expectation. Still the question: Shall I ever get there? There where life resounds, a clear pure note in the silence." He wrote as if knowing his final destiny. "Smiling sincere, incorruptible - his body disciplined and limber. A man who had become what he could, and was what he was - ready at any moment to gather everything into one simple sacrifice." At 4 p.m., people parked their cars off the country roads and followed the green arrows towards the place. No cheering, no chanting, no long live or down with demonstrations. Only thousands of people who joined together without any word, not even a whisper. Inspired perhaps by Hammarskjöld's writings in that moment, I felt every great work is crowned by silence. Every deep relationship is converged by quiet. The King arrived with his Queen. Next to me was an opposition member of parliament. She stood up, like everyone did, with great respect until he sat. The heavy rain continued, but everyone was still, listening to the most beautiful music and the shortest statements.

One of the most talented Swedish actresses stood to read parts of Hammarskjöld's "Meditations" as if they were messages sent to more than one target. "Don't be afraid, try to be what you are. Destiny asks that you just start with the power that you have. Advance and try. Accept failure without embarrassment and success without bragging. Don't let appearances deceive you, it is just appearances. Initiate accomplishments that make us wiser than what we are. Advance with your faith. Do not hesitate, do not be afraid of being free, of standing up and ignoring everything else around you. Do not turn back when you say yes."

Speakers recounted his life in brief. The son of a former Prime Minister of Sweden, he became the second Secretary-General in the most difficult time of the Cold War. He was launched on the international scene with his quiet diplomacy, which gained the release by Mao Zedong - symbolically on the S-G's birthday - of American pilots held by China, not yet a U.N. member. Hammarskjöld stood up against aggression, whether in Suez or the Soviet army's entry into Hungary; he threatened to resign until troops withdrew. He earned the respect of all member states and viewed the U.N. Charter as a framework through which creative solutions could be found. He defended human dignity and fought for freedom of the people to choose their destiny. He started the first military peacekeeping operation, placed between Egypt and Israel after the 1967 War. He faced the most ruthless powers in the world at the time. Not only were these a combination of big powers but multinational interests which were reflected in the Congo. He knew he would pay the price. After the ceremony, the King left, people dispersed, and I walked into the summerhouse. They allowed me, a wet stranger, to enter. I read one of the last points he wrote: "O God, my forgiveness is with You. My faith is in You. And my peace be to You." Among the last pages, he wrote: "Have mercy upon our efforts, that we before Thee, in love and in faith, righteousness and humility, may follow Thee, with self-denial, steadfastness, and courage, and meet Thee in silence. Give us a pure heart that we may serve Thee, a heart of faith that we may live Thee. Thou, whom I do not known but Whose I am. Though, whom I do not comprehend but who hast dedicated me to my faith. Thou."

The clouds dispersed suddenly and the rain stopped.

The setting sun shone.

Somehow, I recalled this Secretary-General's confident stride in Beirut and his smiling face. On a piece of paper I wrote only one word: Täk.