THE BLOG

Part Two: Was My Old Friend Really a Political Assassin?

03/19/2014 09:34 EDT | Updated 05/19/2014 05:59 EDT

The first part of this story by veteran journalist Tim Knight introduces an old friend of his who, according to a story in the Globe and Mail, may have assassinated Swedish prime minister Olof Palme 28 years ago.

The old friend/alleged assassin is Bertil Wedin, a Swede who served with the United Nations some 50 years ago while it fought to prevent the Congolese province of Katanga from declaring independence.

It is Wedin who invites Tim (foreign correspondent with United Press International at the time) to join a small U.N. team searching for rebels threatening to attack the capital of Katanga, Élisabethville (now Lubumhashi).

Tim, his fixer/photographer and a small U.N. reconnaissance team. fly to a small town called Kasenga, near where the rebels are believed to be massing. There they meet with the local Territorial Commissioner.

The senior U.N. officer in the group, Major Hugo Munthe-Kaas, the U.N.'s Chief of Military Intelligence in Katanga, asks the Commissioner if there are any reports of rebels in the area.

Which is the precise moment the rebels attack.

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Bertil Wedin tells me later "my idea was to shoot the ones who came close to the building and take their automatic weapons so we could arm ourselves and fight back. We could have succeeded if we'd managed to get some of their guns ..."

But Wedin is a soldier. And soldiers follow orders. Strangely calm, as if it's all just a training exercise, he calls to his superior officer, Major Munthe-Kaas:

"Sir, permission to return fire?"

"No. Wait for my order."

The rebels storm the Commissioner's office. One runs at Wedin, tries to grab his 9mm Husqvarna pistol, our only weapon. Wedin hits him, knocks him down. Another rebel tries to pull Wedin's pistol out of its holster. The major punches him. Hard. The rebel falls.

I write afterwards: "This isn't real life. It's as if everything in all the world has stopped. There is no time. No past. No future. Nothing except the screaming and the white men and the black men hitting each other with fists. And the staccato rat-a-tat-tat explosions of the machine guns outside."

Now Wedin has pulled his pistol from its holster. It points straight at the nearest rebel.

He tells me later, strangely formal: "It was now my duty to find out whether or not the major could communicate with me. Only the major had the authority to decide that I give myself up and let go of my weapon. Without knowing whether he would be able to reply, I shouted 'major ... I request your orders'."

The Major orders Wedin to surrender.

And hand over his pistol.

Wedin obeys.

We're rounded up, beaten with fists and rifle butts, kicked, until the rebel commandant intervenes. Then, at bayonet-point, we're forced into the back of a pick-up truck and driven to a hut in the nearby rebel camp.

For long, long hours we're interrogated by the commandant.

Why are we in Kasenga? Are we the U.N. advance party? When will the U.N. troops and planes start attacking? Why have U.N. soldiers come all the way across the sea to kill Katangese people?

One of the rebels mentions that it's local custom for chief's to cut off the penises of captured enemies. All the rebels laugh.

Twice we're lined up against a wall to be shot as spies. Twice the commandant changes his mind. Instead, he finally says, we're to be fed to the crocodiles in the nearby Luapula River.

Back into the truck and a drive down to the river. Then into an old wooden boat pushed by an outboard motor.

assassin

Left to right: Warrant Officer Bertil Wedin, Tim Knight, Major Hugo Munthe-Kaas, boat owner, U.N. pilot Lennart Edvinsson, two rebels, U.N. pilot Olle Andersson, rebel officer, rebel Commandant (wearing the major's beret).

And so we cruise there on the smooth, black Luapula River with the rebel commandant wearing Wedin's Husqvarna pistol and the major's U.N. beret, while the crocodiles lurk down there underneath us in the blackness. Waiting, waiting.

And all the while, the major and the commandant talk.

Finally, the commandant makes a decision, orders the boat to return to the river bank.

We drive back to the landing strip and the beautiful de Havilland Otter crouched there on the grass waiting for us.

We're going to live.

Then, without warning, argument breaks out. An angry group among the rebels still want to kill these foreign spies. They swagger and strut and shout and threaten us with their rifles.

But it turns out the commandant is more scared of the U.N. gunships than of his own soldiers. So he orders that if there's no U.N. attack on Kasenga by sundown, we're free to fly away.

We wait. And watch the sun. And no-one in all of time has ever seen the sun sink so slow.

We wait.

Finally, in a magnificent climax of red, gold and deep purple -- the most beautiful I've ever seen in all my life -- the sun slips below the horizon and it's dusk.

The white men from far away shake hands with the black men who will stay to live and fight and maybe die here in the Katanga bush.

And U.N. Major Munthe-Kaas and Warrant Officer Bertil Wedin and the pilots and the journalists climb into the Otter.

And the plane taxis, bumps and sways, takes off, climbs fast over the Luapula River where crocodiles lurk in the smooth, black water, and heads due south to Élisabethville.

A few days later, the U.N. sends troops to attack and seize Kasenga.

Many rebels are killed.

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Some years later, Wedin writes from Kyrenia in Turkish Cyprus where he lives now (it has no extradition treaties with the rest of the world) to tell me the final battle at Kasenga prevented the rebels "entering a virtually unguarded Elizabethville."

"Your role was important," he goes on. "If you had not helped us find the Kasenga-based units, the UN troops in the Elizabethville area would have left much earlier and made it possible for the rebels to move into the town and carry out a massacre. I intend to publicize facts according to which you may have saved many civilian lives."

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There are reliable reports that after Kasenga Wedin worked as a mercenary in Africa. And that he was a spy for BOSS, the apartheid South African government's brutal Bureau for State Security.

There's little doubt that he was and is a man of extreme right-wing views.

But Wedin has denied that he murdered Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.

He told the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet recently "I disliked Olof Palme quite a lot, but I did not hate him."

As for the allegations that he bombed ANC offices and tried to kill ANC president Oliver Tambo:

"I am aware of my reputation: right-wing man and conservative, not liking Palme and more, but I have done nothing of all this. Not a single thing."

So, was the Bertil Wedin I knew so long ago in the Congo capable of assassinating a prime minister? Could he have bombed ANC offices?

All I know is that he proved he was a good soldier there in the Territorial Commissioner's office in Kasenga.

But how far would he go to support some cause he truly believed in?

I have no idea.

I do know he had powerfully strong convictions and iron discipline.

That's because, once upon a time, far away in the middle of a cruel African war, Bertil Wedin obeyed the warrior's harsh code.

He obeyed his superior officer's orders even though it likely meant his own death.

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Tim Knight is a Toronto communications consultant and coach. Parts of this column are adapted from his book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition.

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