Covering the Congo: Danger, Death and Diamonds

Mario Biasetti getting help with film slates from some friendly people while on assignment for CBS News in the Belgian Congo 1961.

PART IV — OFF TO THE CONGO – DANGER, DIAMONDS AND DEATH

In 1960 Mario landed in Rome between assignments.  At that time the bureau was in Rome’s famous Piazza di Spagna (ah, the good old days of network television when they had tons of money– sadly, CBS no longer has a bureau in Rome). That same day Mario received a call at his hotel from his buddy Ralph Paskman, CBS Foreign Editor in New York.  He says it went more or less like this:

Ralph: “Mario, they’re fighting like hell in the Congo — Belgian Congo – I want you to go down there.”

Mario: “Congo?”

Ralph “Yeah, Congo, Belgian Congo. First available.”

So that was that, Mario Biasetti caught the next available flight down to what was then Elizabethville and is now Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after Kinshasa (which back then was Leopoldville).

At that time a Civil War was going on and Moise Tsombe had declared himself the President of the Katanga region, using mercenary forces to fight against Patrice Lumumba in Leopoldville.  The Katanga region is rich in copper, diamonds, gold and uranium.  The UN Security Council authorized a military force to put an end to the civil war.

Mario was sent there to cover one side of the war and his colleague  CBS Correspondent Frank Kearns was sent to Leopoldville to cover the other side.

Mario Biasetti writing story for CBS News while on assignment in Belgian Congo 1961

Elizabethville was not a cushy assignment.  There were nine reporters there and they  lived in a “hotel” that Mario which was really simple wooden shacks.  He says they avoided the cut-throat, lawless mercenaries from Moise Tsombe’s army.  They were from Belgium, France, Germany and England.  He describes them as “”riff-raff” who hated journalists because they were telling the outside world what was going on.  He said if the mercenaries shot and killed them probably no one would have noticed.

Mario says the Congo at that time revealed the worst of colonialism.  There were no paved roads except one that went from the copper mines across the south of the Congo to the port.  The Belgians were there for 99 years and they only build that one road, the rest were dirt.  Mario noted that the Belgians just took and gave nothing.  They had no Universities that Mario knew of in the Belgian Congo. They had only one student that had a University education and that was from Moscow University.

Mario spent his days reporting and would communicate with CBS by telegram and then by sending his film.  At night one could not go out. So he stayed inside with the other 9 journalists.  The hotel restaurant made them pay 36 dollars for a bottle of wine, a fortune in those days, but the nine reporters split one bottle every night.  After dinner they organized cockroach races.

One night he had to go to the post office after dark to send a message to New York.  There was only one lamp between the hotel and where the post office was, a wooden shack.  Mario walked fast, hoping not to meet up with a mercenary.  On his way back  an  enormous Watusi man jumped out of the bushes right in front of Mario.  Mario said he was terrified, his heart was pounding.   The man’s whole face seemed swollen, his mouth was closed and his cheeks puffed out.  Mario began backing away as the man started choking.  Then he suddenly spit out a huge pile of un-cut diamonds into his hands, showing them to Mario who turned and ran.   As Mario got a bit further down the road he  looked back and saw the man with his head up and mouth open.  He was pouring the diamonds back in.  Mario says, “Obviously the man worked in the diamond mines. I would be a multi-millionaire today if I had bought them from him.”

At the time that Mario says he had no idea there were diamond mines or diamonds were being smuggled out of the country to Europe. He never did a story on it. He was focused on the war.

11) When you are in a war zone, or a dangerous place, don’t go anywhere alone, always take a guide, a colleague a translator, someone else with you.

Mario Biasetti doing stand-up from Congo for CBS News. 1961.

In September 1961 Mario and the other journalists got the news that the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold was coming to Elizabethville for “cease-fire: talks. The journalists heard that he would be landing on an airstrip in Ndola, just across the border in what was then Northern Rhodesia, around midnight.  They organized a four car convoy to go cover the arrival, but when they got close to the landing strip they were met by surly soldiers with orders not to let them through. They made it clear that if the journalists tried to go any further, they would shoot.

The journalists waited and eventually they heard Dag Hammarskjold’s plane fly low overhead.  Then they didn’t hear anything more.

They tried repeatedly to get past the soldiers but the soldiers would not relent. One of the agency journalists, wanting to beat his competitor,  quietly took off and headed back to Elizabethville to be first filing the story. Mario says the story went something like this, “Tonight, at around midnight, the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, landed in Ndola to broker peace talks with….”  Mario — who needed to film– waited with the others trying to convince the soldiers to let them through.  It was useless.  Finally the headed back to Elizabethbille empty-handed.  The next day they learned that the plane had missed the runway and crashed in the jungle.  Dag Hammarskjold was dead.

12) Make sure you get the facts before you report the story.  It is more important to be right than to be first with the news.

Hammarskjold is the only UN Secretary-General to have died in office. There is still a mystery around his death.  Some people said they saw a bright flash in the sky, Mario says he saw no such thing.  He remembers the plane flying in low overhead and then silence.

While he was covering events in Elizabethville, Mario’s Paris-based CBS colleague Frank Kearns was covering events in Leopoldville.  One day Mario got a telegram from CBS telling him Kearns had gone missing and he needed to find him.  Mario could not travel across the Congo, there were no paved roads and there was a war going on. The only flight would take him back up to Brussels and back down to Leopoldville. CBS told him to do it.

Mario arrived in Leopoldville and discovered that Frank Kearns was still checked into his hotel and his belongings were still there.  He asked around and no one seemed to know anything.  Mario said he wasn’t particularly concerned. Back in those days people didn’t have cellphones and emails.  There wasn’t the same constant communication.  He said Kearns could have been off investigating a big story.  Kearns was a tall good-looking guy and also a ladies man and Mario thought perhaps he might have gone off with a woman.  So Mario continued his reporting from Leopoldville.  Three weeks later Franks Kearns showed up and seemed suprised to see Mario there.  Mario describes their conversation like this:

Mario: “For Chrissake, where you been Frank?”

Frank: “Been around”

Mario: “For chrissake Frank, I had to go all the way to Brussels and back just for you, and now I have to go back to Elizabethville.”

At that point, according to Mario, Frank Kearns just laughed and shrugged.  Mario says, ” He was a woman’s man.   He never gave me an explanation.  We are talking about the 1960s. “

So Mario flew back up to Brussels and back to Elizabethville.  After six months in the Congo he sent a film rolle with a stand-up to Ralph Pashkin on the foreign desk.  He looked straight into the camera and said, “Ralph, pleeeeeease can I come home now.”

CBS brought Mario back to Boston where he married his fiance Joan, a beautiful Connecticut Yankee that Mario met in Cuba.

Joan Utman-Biasetti, in Bogota', Colombia during Jack and Jackie Kennedy's visit to Colombia December 1961.

Mario explained to me that in those heady days working for CBS the head office had total faith in the guys in the field.  Whatever they sent to New York was used as it was unless there was some technical error.  There was no double-checking, there was a repore between the desk and the field.  Perhaps that is how Frank Kearns could get away with his disappearing act.

Mario had the opportunity to work with Frank Kearns again in the 1960s in Israel.  Mario had been transferred to Rome from Rio De Janeiro and was frequently sent over to Jerusalem to cover events in Israel.   Again in Israel Frank pulled his disappearing act.  Mario kept busy filming all the possible news stories, but he didn’t file anything.  The Foreign Editor Ralph Pashkin called and asked Mario, “What the hell are you guys doing over there?”  A few weeks later Frank showed up.  Mario urged him to do stand-ups and voice-overs for all the stories he has shot.

 

CBS Correspondent Frank Kearns

But Mario says back in those days CBS was like the Boston Red Sox, they never fired anyone.  “They would put you on the bench, but never fire you.:

I would say “Frank, you know these women.”and he would just laugh.  Mario says Frank Kearns left CBS in 1971 and later he learned that Frank had been working for the CIA.  And Frank Kearns was not the only spy on the CBS payroll.

Mario worked closely for years with one of Edward R. Murrow’s famed “Murrow Boys”, Rome Bureau Chief Winston Burdett.  Mario told me, “I worked with Winston Burdett for 19 years and I never knew he worked for the KGB and the CIA. He would tell me, ‘I can’t go to Norway, can’t go to Sweden, can’t go to Finland, Turkey and Tajikistan.’ but he never explained why he couldn’t go to these places.”

Mario said Burdett rarely went out on a shoot.  Mario would come back from a story and describe it in detail to Burdett.  Mario says, “Winston was the best writer I ever met, his writing was pure poetry.”

Tomorrow: Part V: High-Tailing His Holiness and Humoring Hizbollah

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Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

14 Comments

  1. Elspeth Slayter
    2012/03/20

    This series is the journalism-focused version of the critically acclaimed tv show “Mad Men” re: advertising agency culture in NY in the 1950s and 1960s. Fascinating!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/03/20

      Hmmm, that’s interesting. I have heard a lot about “Mad Men” but I have never seen it. You must be right though. When Mario was telling me about his work in the 50s and 60s I was conscious of how few women there were in his stories. Back then Network News was a man’s world.

      Reply
  2. Elspeth Slayter
    2012/03/20

    …can you interview his wife about her views on all of this?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/03/20

      There will be more about Mario’s wife in tomorrow’s post on “Mario’s Women”. Joan Utman-Biasetti–a Connecticut Yankee, as Mario calls her– is pretty impressive in her own right. While he was off running around the world covering the biggest news stories of our time, she made it possible for him by staying and home and raising their two children. But she also maintained her career as a fashion model and actress.

      Reply
  3. Francesca Muir
    2012/03/21

    Trisha this is fascinating. I was a small child in Western Tanganyika ( now Tanzania) when this all occurred and we were the first port of call for the one and only train line from the Congo to the coast – Dar-es-Salaam. I recall many early mornings ( as that’s when the train came through our little township) piling food and clothing and blankets into the car to meet the train (some 40 miles away from our farm) and hand them out to refugees on board. They all fled with just the clothing on their backs and desperately needed food etc. Extraordinary times.This is such an interesting story – thank you! Francesca

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/03/21

      Francesca, thank you for your comment. What a fascinating experience you had. You must have some amazing stories to tell on your time in Western Tanganika. Did you see my posts on my experiences in Kenya? What was your family doing their at that time? I would love to hear more.

      Reply
      • Francesca Muir
        2012/03/21

        Trisha I have read your wonderfully evocative Kenya posts No 2 and 3 – but some reason I cannot find No 1 so would love a pointer please. You writing is so reminiscent of one of my favourite authors (and photographers) Mirella Ricciardi (African Saga is a must read!). My Grandfather worked for the Governor of Tanganyika – based in Dar in Tanganyika where my mother was born and brought up. I was born in Uganda and my parents had an experimental farm in Urambo – outside of Tabora in Western Tanganyika. ( cattle, groundnuts, tobacco, maize etc. ) We emigrated to Australia in 1962 just before independence. My mother lived through the Mau Mau and vowed she would never live with such unrest again – hence the move. Mirella Riccardi is right when she says ” When you have been born in Africa you are marked by Africa and wherever you go, you are a displaced person, for you have two identities” Love you blog.

        Reply
        • Trisha Thomas
          Trisha Thomas
          2012/03/22

          Francesca, your personal story is so fascinating. I would love to hear even more about it. I will find and read Mirella Riccardi’s books since I have not read them. Have you read Alexandra Fuller’s books? I think you would like them. Actually I made a mistake, there wasn’t a third post on Kenya– the first of the series was on my mother and was titled “You’re Just Fine.”
          Thanks so much for following my blog, I am so pleased to hear you are enjoying it. Best, Trisha

          Reply
  4. Barbara Landi
    2012/03/22

    Fascinating! I want to meet Mario!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/03/22

      And I want to meet you, so if you are ever in Rome, let me know and I will organize for the three of us to have a lunch together.

      Reply
  5. Gerald Davis
    2012/07/06

    Frank Kearns introduced me to Mr. Biasetti at the CBS News office in Rome in 1975. While it is true that Kearns was known to have an eye for the ladies wherever he traveled as the network’s Africa Bureau Chief, he also was nearly killed 114 times while on assignments throughout the Middle East, Africa and Europe, nearly one dangerous, life-threatening moment every other month spanning a 17-year, award-winning career. Some of those times, Mr. Biasetti served as cameraman for Mr. Kearns.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/06

      Gerald — thank you for your comment. I would love to hear about all those 114 times Frank Kearns nearly lost his life for the sake of news. I find it all so fascinating. Frank Kearns certainly had an amazing career.

      Reply
      • Gerald Davis
        2015/05/07

        In March 2016, the West Virginia University Press will publish my book, ALGERIAN DIARY: Frank Kearns and the Impossible Assignment for CBS News. It is part biography (to the extent that much information is available about Kearns) and a detailed report about Kearns and cameraman Yousef (Joe) Masraff’s six weeks with the FLN covering the Algerian nationalists’ fight to retake their country from the French in 1957. It was this multiple award-winning story that earned both men full-time positions with the network. Also, it is the companion book to a documentary film that I wrote and produced in 2012, “Frank Kearns: American Correspondent,” which is airing on PBS stations throughout the U.S. A motion picture about Kearns is in development. Regards to Mario.

        Reply
        • Trisha Thomas
          Trisha Thomas
          2015/05/10

          Thank you. I would love to read the book. If you can, send me a copy when it comes out.

          Reply

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