Horst Faas joined the A.P. in 1955 at the age of 22 and began his illustrious photojournalism career by covering the Congo crisis in 1960. There, he bribed Congolese soldiers with Polaroid snapshots to gain access to important events. The practice enabled him to be in the right place to take the last picture of Patrice Lumumba (above).
Patrice Lumumba who helped win Congo’s independence from Belgium in June 1960 was a passionate nationalist who failed to tame this volatile ‘state without a nation’ containing many different ethnic groups. His fiery and controversial independence day speech culminated with Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques! (We are no longer your monkeys!),* but Belgium continued to interfere. It backed a rebellion in the southern province of Katanga, and Lumumba sought Soviet aid to quell the rebellion. Within ten weeks, he was toppled by a military coup backed by the CIA.
He was put under house arrest, while a CIA officer was dispatched with a tube of poison toothpaste. Before his assassin arrived, Lumumba escaped from his house arrest, but rearrested from a plane in Elizabethville. He was beaten and humiliated in front of diplomats and journalists, and was on the truck that would inevitably carry him to his execution when the above picture was taken. It was Lumumba’s last photo. A month later, he was executed — put up against a tree and shot by a firing squad directed, so it seems, by Belgian army officers. His body was buried on the spot, later dug up, and dissolved in acid. The bones were ground up and scattered to the winds to make sure there was nothing left of him. The colonel who deposed Lumumba, Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) would rule the country despotically until 1997 and proved to be an utter embarrassment for the West, with his Mao suits, cult of personality and nepotism.
[* Congo’s independence ceremony was one of the most awkward episodes in modern diplomatic history. Belgian King Baudouin praised developments under colonialism, Belgium philanthropism in the Congo and the “genius” of Leopold II and glossed over atrocities committed during the Congo Free State. Patrice Lumumba’s rebuttal was vicious: “Slavery was imposed on us by force! We have known ironies and insults. We remember the blows that we had to submit to morning, noon and night because we were Negroes!” The King just sat there, deeply shocked and offended. Although Baudouin wanted to return to Brussels immediately, his ministers persuaded him to stay–a negotiation that delayed the official programme for an hour.]