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White Mercenaries in Africa and Iraq – The Media Pendulum Swings

Meera Selva writes: Tony Mockler headed to the Congo over forty years ago in a youthful, impetuous rush looking for stories of the wicked and wild white mercenaries wreaking havoc with a newly independent African country. He found them at his hotel, wearing berets and genially offering beer and conversation to visiting journalists.

He hitched a ride with them into the Eastern Congo and rattled around deserted Belgian villas as they prowled the streets in mysterious mercenary style. Mr Mockler has spent years studying mercenaries, finding out what makes them want to live on the edge of society, risking their loves for a series of disloyal masters. The old style ones seem driven by a desire for adventure. The new ones are after money. In post-Saddam Iraq, fortunes are being made by entrepreneurs who can gather a group of armed men to act as armed escorts and bodyguards for the civil servants and charity workers trying to construct peace.

He never spoke of the civilians in the countries where the mercenaries operated. I would have liked to have known whether the Congolese villagers and Iraqi citizens fear or understand these men who arrive in their midst at times of war. Their voices, I think, are the next that should be heard in Mr Mockler's stories.

Trevor Mostyn writes: Tony Mockler (White Mercenaries in Africa and Iraq – The Media Pendulum Swings) spoke about the development of white mercenaries, concentrating on their role in Africa, and the way the media had swung both ways when covering their activities; often critical, sometimes supportive. Although often impressed by men usually denigrated by the media, Mockler, a veteran correspondent, had legal problems when he wanted to publish his book on mercenaries (Hired Guns and Coups d’Etat, 2007) which had recently been updated and republished by himself.

His talk focused on Africa, starting with the Belgium Congo where the energetic Patrice Lumumba had became founding president. This, the biggest country in Africa, soon saw utter chaos. The army rebelled. There were secessions. Katanga declared itself independent. Mercenaries appeared. The UN intervened. A great character of this period, Connor Cruise O'Brien, brought in UN troops who ended the Katanga secession. In Africa boundaries are sacrosanct which Mockler finds odd given their colonial roots.

Mercenaries now reappeared in support of Malongo and Tshombe who led the Katanga secession and fought against UN troops. They were fighting, effectively, against the world. The world condemned them. Many mercenaries were French, from the paratroop regiment dissolved by de Gaulle. Six hundred of these paras were out of work. They emigrated towards trouble spots for about three years. Everyone thought the mercenaries were finished at this time. Ironically, in 1964 the Congo was reunited by the very Tshombe who had led the secessionist rebellion. A revolt broke out in the east on the Rwanda border, the most troubled area of Congo. At the time Mockler was working in Manchester for the Manchester Guardian. He asked to go to the Congo. The Editor agreed as long as he had no family commitments. Mockler knew that Tshombe had re-employed merceries against the Simbas ('lion') rebels. Fetishism was rife among the Simba. They believed they had magic to stop machine-gun bullets. Worldwide, mercenaries were considered brutal killers. There were separate French and English groups of mercenaries. One of the Englishmen was 'Mad Mike Hoare'. East German Radio called him 'That mad bloodhound Hoare'.

When Mockler arrived, the ambience was that of the Simbas to the background of stories of white missionaries 'being raped or not being raped'. Things were in turmoil. Mockler arrived in Leopoldville (now Kisangani). He took a taxi from the airport to the Hotel Leopold Deux but there were no rooms free. Eventually, he managed to share a room with an American medic and a German engineer. He went to Reuters to telex. In those days journalists spent hours telexing, waiting in queues. The Reuters man was always the man any journalist went to get information from on arrival. Mockler said he wanted to see mercenaries and was told, to his astonishment, simply to go to a hotel room where he would find Mike Hoare.

Hoare was a dapper man, not, as Mockler had expected a bloody man 'with a dagger in his teeth'. He wore a beret. He said he liked to help the press, 'even the left-wing press' like the Manchester Guardian. He invited Mockler for a drink. Hoare was in charge of Five Commando. It was a bit like a British army battalion although discipline was a problem. Five Commando had its own ways, and army regulations did not apply. However, there were sports activities and, on Sundays, 'even a church parade'. Many of the mercenaries were young, white, South Africans. They were there for curious reasons. Mockler's negative opinions about mercenaries were sent 'topsy-turvy' although he had enough journalistic training to ignore Hoare's argument that he was merely fighting to prevent the spread of Communism.

The mercenaries arranged fly Mockler and other journalists out to the East with Hoare. Hoare's men were mostly in Stanleyville at the heart of the Simba's so-called democratic republic. Mockler was taken on a tour. On the shores of the river were grand, deserted, partly looted villas. Mockler was told he could choose his own villa. When the other journalists left, he decided not to re-embark. He stayed on with English mercenaries who advised him to lie low until the plane had left. For 24 hours he went out on patrol with them. It was fairly safe as the Simbas had been cleared from the area. There were occasional bodies in the street. They were swollen and hardly looked human. They looked like large sacks on the ground.

Unlike ordinary soldiers the mercenaries would drive around in three jeeps and zoom straight through the Simba, firing away as if they were in a Clint Eastwood film. Mockler was then arrested by a furious Major Ian Gordon who ordered him onto the next plane home. 'I was not going to be shot out of hand'. However, he was guarded and given no water for 12 hours as a punishment.

Mockler met extraordinary characters such as a German who wore an Iron Cross on his pyjamas. Mercenaries were often not paid and this occasionally led to trouble. Their goal was to loot Belgium houses and banks. 'They loved looting Belgium banks', said Mockler. One filled an aircraft with his loot and shipped it back to Leopoldville where he sold it. This behaviour reversed Mockler's negative opinions. He sent reports back to the Manchester Guardian whose Editor accepted them and did not censor them [the prevailing view in Britain of white mercenaries was extremely negative].

On Mockler's return to England he was sent by his newspaper to the airport to meet British missionaries who had been rescued by mercenaries. With him was a Daily Express journalist whom Mockler once remembered typing on a plane, 'As I type this report, I can hear the ding-dong-dang of bullets playing on my helmet'.

The missionaries liked the mercenaries. When Mockler asked if they had been harmed, they said yes, their school children had jumped up and down on their toes when the Simba captured them (the missionaries). When asked whether they had been raped they said, 'Yes, several times'. But they said they would return. 'They were amazing people' said Mockler. He contrasted them with diplomats, and even doctors, who remained safely in Leopoldville. He discovered that the missionaries and the mercenaries were the best people there.

Among his anecdotes he spoke of driving through Rwanda to the shore of Lake Bukavu. The city was besieged by Mobutu's men. Mercenaries and their allies were inside. One journalist had swum across the lake with his passport in his teeth. Mockler regretted not having dared do the same.

Much of his talk reflected on classical history (Mockler has a double-first from The University of Cambridge). He noted that most mercenary revolts end in failure just as the one had at Carthage. However much people may hate their rulers they usually hate foreign mercenaries more. There have been exceptions, however, such as the 15th Century Condotiere, who seized Milan and founded the Sforza dynasty, which became the true ruling dynasty of Milan.