Escape to Cairo

In October 1960, the walls were closing in for Patrice Lumumba. Months earlier, he had been celebrated as the Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister after decades of brutal colonial rule. But now, he had been overthrown in a coup and was being kept under house arrest by his political opponent.

With Lumumba’s life at risk, the Egyptian government under Gamal Abdel Nasser proposed a dangerous and unusual plan to have three of Lumumba’s young children smuggled out of the country and away to the safety of Cairo.

This week on Kerning Cultures; Patrice Lumumba’s children, and their escape to Cairo.

This episode was produced by Nadeen Shaker and edited by Dana Ballout and Alex Atack, with additional support from Zeina Dowidar, Shraddha Joshi and Percia Verlin. Fact checking by Tamara Juburi, and sound design and mixing by Alex Atack and Mohamad Khreizat. Bella Ibrahim is our marketing manager.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $1 a month.

Transcript

Click to Expand

DANA BALLOUT: Before we start, this episode contains graphic descriptions of violence. If you’re listening around kids or just don’t feel like hearing that, consider skipping this one.

By the start of the 1960s, Belgium had been ruling huge swathes of the Congo for nearly eight decades, first as private property and then as a colony under the infamous King Leopold II, in one of the most notoriously horrific colonial regimes of the era. Professor Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja grew up in the Congo towards the end of this racist regime. Today he’s  a professor at the university of North Carolina Chapel Hill, but he still has vivid memories from the time.

GEORGES NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Even at my age – 16 – I had seen the colonial officials whipping prisoners as a matter of fact, it was done at 6 AM in the morning and at 12 noon, they would raise a Belgian flag and the prisoners will be taken close to the flag pole and whipped with this hippopotamus hide that was used to whip people, which was very very dangerous.

DANA BALLOUT: Even though he was only 16 at the time, Georges remembers one particular day very clearly – June 30th 1960.

ARCHIVE: [King Baudouin speaking French]

DANA BALLOUT: He remembers it, because it’s the day his country gained independence, and because of two speeches given at the handover ceremony – one by the newly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and one by the outgoing Belgian King – King Baudouin.

ARCHIVE: [King Baudouin speaking French]

DANA BALLOUT: The Belgian King spoke first, and he used his time on the podium to deliver this fawning, gross mischaracterisation of Belgium’s rule in the Congo. He basically gave himself, the Belgian King, the coloniser, credit for the Congo’s independence – not the Congolese people, who fought and died for liberation. 

ARCHIVE: [Patrice Lumumba speaking French]

Then, the newly appointed Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba took to the stage and gave an impromptu speech. In the speech, Lumumba says –

ARCHIVE: [Patrice Lumumba speaking French]

DANA BALLOUT: “We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.” The European and American journalists watching in the crowd that day were shocked. At the time, The Guardian reported it under the headline “Mr. Lumumba’s offensive speech in King’s presence, and the king nearly walked out on the ceremony entirely. But many of the Congolese people in the crowd, and watching on TV across the world… they loved it.

BRUCE KUKLICK: There are tapes, you know, video of the speech – he’s electrifying. 

DANA BALLOUT: This is Bruce Kuklick, an American historian who wrote a book about Patrice Lumumba. 

BRUCE KUKLICK: Lumumba gets done with this oration –

ARCHIVE: [Patrice Lumumba speaking French]

BRUCE KUKLICK: And you see the audience just stand up and cheer and clap because he had it, he had this… it’s a cliche now to talk about the charisma of politicians, but whatever it was, this guy had it.

GEORGES NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Lumumba’s speech really gave us a lot of courage and we were very overjoyed by that speech because it told it as it is, it told realities we have lived, we know very very well. Mostly the fact that the independence of the Congo was not a gift from Belgium as King Baudouin had intimated. It was a result of the struggle of Congolese people who had fought and died to get their freedom.

DANA BALLOUT: But other world leaders didn’t see it the same way. To them, his fierce independence was scary. A genuinely independent Congo, in full control of their rich uranium resources… that made Belgians and their American allies very uneasy. They used that uranium for this like the atomic bombs. They worried that Lumumba would ally with the Soviets and therefore saw him as a very big problem.

BRUCE KUKLICK: Everyone – the UN, Belgium, the United States, other African leaders – saw that this guy was a loose cannon. They all began pulling back from him in various ways. I wouldn’t say that they all conspired against him, but what they did is you started finding various alliances between various groups that were all designed to block Lumumba.

DANA BALLOUT: Just a few months after that famous speech, and after he was sworn in as prime minister of the new country… Patrice Lumumba was overthrown in a coup led by a guy called Joseph Mobutu, who was backed by the US, and Lumumba was put under house arrest. And since then, Lumumba sensed that every day he stayed in the Congo, his own life – and his family’s lives – were at risk. 

You see we are telling this story of Lumumba because at this moment while he and his family are in grave danger, an Egyptian diplomat by the name of Mohammad AbdelAziz Ishak makes a critical suggestion to him. One that would change the course of his family’s lives. He suggests a scary, but worthwhile, plan to smuggle Lumumba’s children out of the Congo and to Cairo. And that’s where our story begins today. 

I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures. Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between.

[INTRO STING]

DANA BALLOUT: In the months before the Congo gained its independence, the director of the African Association of Egypt, Mohamed Abdulaziz Ishak, was travelling a lot between Cairo and Leopodville – now known as Kinshasa – basically helping to establish relationships between the two countries’ governments – setting up embassies, networking, that kind of thing. He’d been appointed by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was fully supportive of Patrice Lumumba.

And during this process, Abdulaziz Ishak became became close with Patrice Lumumba, and was deeply troubled by the coup and Lumumba’s house arrest. So as any good friend, Abdelaziz Ishak presented an idea to him: for the sake of his family, perhaps Lumumba should consider smuggling three of his  children out of the country, and to safety in Egypt. In fact, not just to Egypt, but to Abdulaziz Ishak’s own home in Cairo, where he and his family would care for the children themselves. And probably, as any parent in fear of your children’s life, Lumumba agreed. This is producer Nadeen Shaker, who reported this story.

NADEEN SHAKER: The idea as planned by Abdulaziz and Lumumba together was to make the whole thing look like a kidnapping to Mubuto’s troops, who were surrounding Lumumba’s residence at the time.

DANA BALLOUT: So on a Friday evening, of October 28th 1960, as the sun went down, the smuggling operation began.  

TAHIA ABDEL-NASSER: And Lumumba knew that if they arrested him while the children were in Congo, they would have massacred them one by one. 

DANA BALLOUT: This is Tahia Abdel Nasser, associate professor and chair of English at the American University in Cairo, and great-granddaughter of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was involved in this plot.

TAHIA ABDEL-NASSER: They didn’t know what was happening, and when they last saw their their father, he held them, kissed them and said, take care of one another. And you’re going to your father. He said, you know, they were going to Gamal Abdel Nasser. He would be their father and he would take care of them, but just study, you have to complete your education. And he embraced them and went with them to the Jeep. And after they got in, repeated more than once: take care of one another, take care of one another. And he kept repeating that farewell until the car drove away.

BAHGAT ISHAK: It was dark, and my father had cases of whiskey in the back of the jeep. And he distributed that on the checkpoints, on Mobutu’s insurgent soldiers’ checkpoints, so that they would let him in. 

DANA BALLOUT: This is Bahgat – Mohamed Abdulaziz Ishak’s son.

BAHGAT ISHAK: And, in agreement with Lumumba, the children were packed and everything was ready. And he put them in the back of the Jeep with their luggage and let them sleep because it was time to sleep too.  

SHAMS ISHAK: So it just happened, that they wrapped them in rags and put them in the back of the van.

DANA BALLOUT: This is Shams-Nour Abdulaziz Ishak, Bahgat’s sister.

SHAMS ISHAK: There were many obstacles on the way to the airport. 

NADEEN SHAKER: Obstacles like militia checkpoints where they’d stop and search the van. Luckily, the children were hidden well under all those blankets, and nobody noticed anything unusual.  

SHAMS ISHAK: And it was luck that the children didn’t cry, didn’t snore, didn’t make any voices of any kind until they reached the airport.

NADEEN SHAKER: The plan could’ve unravelled at any point, even when they arrived at the airport, close to midnight.

DANA BALLOUT: When they did eventually make it to the airport, Bahgat told us that a group of Danish officials were waiting for them, ready to stop Lumumba’s children from getting on the plane.

BAHGAT ISHAK: So my father spoke to the head of the Danish contingent and told him ‘my children are sleeping in the back and we are leaving, here is my tickets and my passports and so on’.

SHAMS ISHAK: And my father, he had them added to his passport as his own children with their pictures in his passport. 

NADEEN SHAKER: The photos were intentionally blurry to throw off any suspicion that the children were Lumumba’s – their pictures were all over the newspapers. Also, the children were given made-up Egyptian names. But there was one glaring problem.

SHAMS ISHAK: At the airport he was asked how come this picture is the picture of your children? They don’t look like you at all. My father was white skinned and his eyes were blue. He had fair hair and the Lumumbas, they were of course Congolese.

NADEEN SHAKER: Ishak told the Danish officer that he was married to an African woman, but the Danish officer was still suspicious. 

TAHIA ABDEL-NASSER: He wanted to see the children before they boarded the plane. He was insistent. And Mohamed Abdel Aziz Ishak said, you know, they’re children, they have slept, and he’s a diplomat. And how can you wake children up? This is illogical. And there were Egyptian officers around Ishak, which unnerved the other officer. Because he had seen pictures of the children with Patrice Lumumba. And he said, you know, there is no way that the children in this picture are the children of this man, Ishak. But then because he was unnerved by the Egyptian officers, he just let it go. And when the children were on the plane, they felt secure and the hostess announced that they were about to takeoff and then they were told, you know, that they could wake up.

DANA BALLOUT: Once they arrived in Cairo, Ishak and the children went straight to his family home. 

NADEEN SHAKER: No one knew about the escape mission, except for the people involved, not even Abdulaziz’s wife.

SHAMS ISHAK: My mother didn’t know anything about it until they arrived to her doorstep. And when she opened the door to find him with the three kids, two boys and a girl hugging her and kissing her and calling her Mama Zizi. She was astonished and not knowing what to do. And she looked at him and then he told her, I’ll tell you later, but these are the kids of Patrice Lumumba.

BAHGAT ISHAK: I mean I should think that  my mother first was, was a bit taken aback – instead of taking care of three kids, then now she will have to take care of six kids. But, my father for her was so important, he was so much loved, that she would take anything from him. Once my father got rid of all the journalists and they had taken all the pictures they wanted to take and they left, we sat together and my father told us the story.

NADEEN SHAKER: Each of the Egyptian children was paired with one of the Lumumba kids. 

SHAMS ISHAK: So Patrice and Bahgat, my brother, they were together. They are the middle boys and Magdy, the elder, with Francois, in the same bed. And Juliana with me in my bed.

BAHGAT ISHAK: We shared beds, we could talk together. We could play together. And, they became our siblings, our brothers and sisters. 

DANA BALLOUT: Bahgat told us that it was easy for all of them to get along, even when the children did not speak the same language in the beginning – the Lumumba children spoke French and the Ishak children spoke Arabic.

BAHGAT ISHAK: We did not need a language. As children, there were so many things we were doing before they came, and when they came we continued doing the same things. Maybe some mischievous stuff with Magdy and Francois, playing football in the street and so on. But Patrice and I mostly watched TV. So this is how natural the thing is without language.

SHAMS ISHAK: But me and and Juliana because of the difference of age and because of the very kind and caring treatment that she needed, because she was very sick when she arrived, very thin, very sick. And as a girl, of course, she missed her father a lot. And my father felt that. So he gave her more care, and this arose my jealousy.

DANA BALLOUT: The children and the newspapers had a nickname for the Ishak children’s Mum: Mama Zizi. And, the home she prepared for the children was different from other Egyptian homes: she shared her husband’s passion for supporting pan-African causes and the men and women fighting for them. She would open her house to everyone from refugees to African leaders – and the place was constantly buzzing with dinner parties and festive gatherings, which the press were also invited to.

TAHIA ABDEL-NASSER: The children stayed for two years with Ishak and in the time they spent in his house, they saw many African leaders. And there were many African students and scholars living in Egypt.

DANA BALLOUT: The children were heavily scrutinized by the media. In footage from the time, you see then standing in front of these big press lights looking a bit like deer caught in headlights. Photographers were allowed in to take pictures of them getting ready for school, sitting front in their class or being led by hand by a teacher in a school line, or in the country-side riding donkeys and throwing mud in creeks.

And the Ishaks were also featured in newspaper spreads with the Lumumbas – in photo-ops of the six children together, or in more candid pictures taken of them sitting on the garden floor or learning Arabic. Shams still has these pictures in her home today.

SHAMS ISHAK: This is Juliana always holding my hand

NADEEN SHAKER: Oh that’s such a nice one.

NADEEN SHAKER: One had a caption that read: Shams teaching Juliana Lumumba the piano. 

SHAMS ISHAK: The octave… her first octave.

DANA BALLOUT: The photos and media coverage might have painted a dream-like story, but behind the scenes, there were bigger political forces at play.

NADEEN SHAKER: Tell us a little bit about the kind of press you got and why there was so much attention on the story?

BAHGAT ISHAK: Well, it was for Egypt to show the world that we are supporting African nationalism. Of course, because there was a feeling also that Lumumba was a hero. So that was the feeling in Egypt at the time. And that was how all this press was about. For us, it was annoying to have so many journalists and photographers. I remember Francois – 

DANA BALLOUT: Francois was one of the Lumumba children.

BAHGAT ISHAK: Shot one of the photographers in the leg with the rifle with the pellets, the small pellets. And my mother had to nurse him.

DANA BALLOUT: We tried to reach Lumumba’s children for the story but weren’t successful. But in digging up archives, we found several interviews where Juliana mentions her time in Egypt. This is one of them, where she’s speaking to a Congolese TV.

ARCHIVE: [Juliana Lumumba speaking in French]

DANA BALLOUT: She says, the gentleman who helped us escape from the Congo, Mr. Abdel Aziz Ishak, he created the African Association in 1948, just to let you know the environment in which we grew up. It was the heart of the African fight. So we grew up in that atmosphere. An atmosphere of struggle, of conversation around freedom, of conversation with everyone who fought of freedom, and that was the atmosphere of our home. And that made sure we never forgot who we are. And I give credit to all those people, who, even though we were going through difficulties far from home, we were still surrounded by affection from our Egyptian parents.

ARCHIVE: [Juliana Lumumba speaking in French]

DANA BALLOUT: But as the children settled into their new lives in Cairo, back in the Congo Patrice Lumumba was still living under house arrest. His rogue chief of staff, Joseph Mobutu who was backed by the US and Belgium, had seized power, and was keeping Patrice Lumumba locked down in by his own troops and the United Nations forces. And then, on November 27th 1960, a month after the children had been smuggled out, Lumumba tried to escape himself. Here’s historian Bruce Kucklick again.

BRUCE KUKLICK: He thinks the only way I can mend this, the only way Lumumba can get back into power is to try to break out of this ring of soldiers that’s around my mansion. And he sneaks out of the prime minister’s mansion and tries to make it into the Northern provinces of the Congo. And, the Congo doesn’t have 50,000 multi-lane highways in 1960. So his enemies are able to track him once he gets on the road with a little entourage of three or four cars. He’s captured.

ARCHIVE: They caught him on his way to Stanleyville and flew him back. Patricie Lumumba, securely roped, and with him were men who served in his cabinet when he was Prime Minister. They were bundled into a heavily guarded lorry, and driven off to a place called [Binza].

BRUCE KUKLICK: And now, they throw him in jail right outside Leopoldville, Kinshasa. 

ARCHIVE: Lumumba’s bonds are tightened. They were taking no chances.

ARCHIVE: Before that, Lumumba suffered more indignities, including being forced to eat a speech, in which he re-stated his claim to be the Congo’s rightful premier. Even in bonds, Lumumba remains a dangerous prisoner.

BRUCE KUKLICK: The politicians don’t know what to do. And it slowly dawns on them that from their point of view, the only way that the situation is going to be resolved is that if Lumumba is eliminated. If he’s somehow killed, but no one is willing to do it. They’re all scared. Except that they do know that in Katanga province, which is a province in the extreme East, Southeast of the Congo, there are a group of politicians who absolutely hate Lumumba.

DANA BALLOUT: Katanga was home to a separatist political movement, backed by the West and against Lumumba.

BRUCE KUKLICK: So how do we get rid of this guy? What do we do with this guy? He’s a problem. Let’s ship him to Katanga, they’ll kill him and they’ll get the blame for it. And that’s what they do. And then once he’s there within 24 hours, they kill him.

NADEEN SHAKER: On January 17, 1961, Lumumba and two of his former ministers were captured by Mubutu soldiers and executed in cold blood by a firing squad. Present at the killings were Congolese privates who were being commanded by a Flemish Sergeant and Katanga politicians. After Lumumba was killed, instead of burying him they exhumed his body from a shallow hole and had it dissolved in a vat of acid. A Belgian policeman was brought in to carry out this gruesome task.

BRUCE KUKLICK: You can imagine what this ghastly job was. And they hacked off Lumumba’s limbs and everything. And yeah, stuck him in acid, and got rid of most of it. Even then, there was stuff left over. 

NADEEN SHAKER: The policeman held onto a small box of Lumumba’s teeth.

BRUCE KUKLICK: One of the reasons that he had done it was to prove to the powers that be in Katanga that they had indeed done their job.

BAHGAT ISHAK: When this happened, Gamal Abdel Nasser made a speech, a very eloquent one, about Lumumba. The assassination of Lumumba and he was a nationalist and he loved his people and how can this happen away from the will of the people of the Congo and so on. 

DANA BALLOUT: After the murder, the villagers involved in the capture were rewarded $8000 by the Congolese state. With the news of his murder, riots erupted in Cairo.

ARCHIVE: Finally, reaction in Cairo. Carrying Lumumba’s picture, a large crowd marched to the Belgian embassy. Demonstrators climbed the railings and began their anti-Belgian protest by kicking down the embassy shield.

DANA BALLOUT: Coming up… Patrice Lumumba’s children seek proper recognition for their father’s legacy…

[MIDROLL]

DANA BALLOUT: Lumumba was in power for 3 months, and he was only 34 when he was murdered.

According to Georges, the government tried to cover it up by saying that Lumumba and his comrades were killed while trying to break out of jail.

GEORGES NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: But nonsense. And of course, no one believed that story.

DANA BALLOUT: He told us that, later that year, the United Nations investigated the murder.

GEORGES NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: So we know that Lumumba  was brought to Katanga on orders from the Belgian government and the Belgian King over the support of the United States, CIA. So we had all of these powers that were allied against him, namely the United States, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom together with the multinationals involved in the exploitation of minerals.

LARRY DEVLIN (SPEAKING TO NPR): It came out in 1975, President Ford made a slip of tongue and let go that the CIA had been involved in assassination matters.

DANA BALLOUT: This is ex-CIA field officer Larry Devlin, in an interview on NPR. Larry died in 2008. 

LARRY DEVLIN (SPEAKING TO NPR): I’d already had orders before the assassination came up that we should do anything we could to remove Lumumba from power. At the time, I certainly felt very strongly that Lumumba was a danger, indirectly, to the United States because the Soviets were very clearly setting out to establish a position, if not of control, at least of great influence within the country. And it was part of job to try and prevent that, in fact it was a very key factor in my assignment.

DANA BALLOUT: The Lumumba children, who were 10, 8 and 5 years old, and still living at home with the Ishak family in Cairo, they weren’t told about their father’s murder. The oldest, Francois, heard about it in school from another student, and when he heard the news, he burst into tears. 

NADEEN SHAKER: Just last year, a Belgian judge ruled that Lumumba’s gold-plated tooth be returned to the Congo this summer, which had been kept as a family heirloom by the policeman according to news reports. That is after years of Lumumba’s family lobbying for its return. 

DANA BALLOUT: On June 30, 2020, on the sixtieth anniversary of Congolese independence, Lumumba’s daughter Juliana – the youngest daughter, who was close with Shams – she wrote an open letter to the king of Belgium pleading him that her father’s remains finally be returned to his homeland. This is an excerpt of the letter that Juliana reads out in a video.

ARCHIVE: [Juliana Lumumba speaking in French]

DANA BALLOUT: To tell your majesty how much our hearts buckle under the weight of unspeakable afflictions, we remind you that since January 17, 1961, we have had no information to determine with any certainty the circumstances of our father’s tragic death, nor what has become of his remains. The years pass, and our father remains a dead man without a funeral oration, a corpse without bones. So why, after his terrible murder, have Lumumba’s remains been condemned to stay a soul forever wandering, without a grave to shelter his eternal rest? We appeal to you to imagine, in these moments which so break our hearts, the added torments which we are inflicting on ourselves through this request, as we build up our hopes that we might give our father a burial to immortalize his memory. Despite living with these scars of colonialism, and through the horrific public spectacle around their father’s murder, the Lumumbas grew up to be public figures in their own right, in Egypt and worldwide. 

BAHGAT ISHAK: Juliana was assigned as a minister of information and then a minister of culture in the Kabila government. And then when she left that she was assigned as the head of the African African Union Chamber of Commerce in Cairo. And she came and she stayed at the villa with my mother, and seeing Juliana, after all those years, it was a beautiful memory for me.

TAHIA ABDEL-NASSER: And  Francois used to play football and he was on the Zamalek team and with the generation of Farouk Gaafar, but he did not continue.

NADEEN SHAKER: Francois returned to Congo in the 1990s, and created a small Lumumbist political movement against Mobutu. Patrice loved Egypt and lived there the longest — for 34 years. He was invited by the Mobutu government many times to go back to the Congo and he refused but eventually going back and working as a government clerk in Kinshasa. He left Egypt around the early 2000s.

DANA BALLOUT: But the Lumumba children and the Ishak children, they stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. Bahgat and Patrice Junior, like their fathers, were particularly were close.

BAHGAT ISHAK: He was online with me on Skype and all that. And we used to talk and laugh and tell stories and memories and all that every day. He was my soul brother. He was not only my adopted brother. I mean, I would be telling him something and he would say, I feel the same. And what about so-and-so? And so on, I say it is exactly the same. So for us, we were like twins, Patrice and I, and I miss him very much.

DANA BALLOUT: By the 1970s after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death, Egypt’s foreign policy priorities were changing direction and turning away from the solidarities that had been so central in the fifties and sixties – Pan-Africanism was sort of dying out. And shortly afterwards, Mohamed Abdulaziz Ishak – Bahgat and Sham’s dad, who orchestrated the escape plan and took the Lumumba children under his wing  – he was dismissed from his post at the foreign ministry. He died in 1969.

NADEEN SHAKER: In 1999, Belgium ordered a probe into its role in Lumumba’s death and actions in the Congo. The parliamentary inquiry eventually determined that the government was “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death, but failed to connect itself to the murder. In 2002, Belgium released a formal apology to the Lumumba family, which the Lumumba’s did not accept. 

DANA BALLOUT: This episode of Kerning Cultures is produced by the Kerning Cultures Network, which means we’re part of a bigger network. We have 11 shows in total, in Arabic and English, that are fabulous, and we encourage you to check them out. Today’s episode was written and produced by Nadeen Shaker and edited by Dana Ballout and Alex Atack, with additional support from Zeina Dowidar, Shraddha Joshi and Percia Verlin. Fact checking by Tamara Juburi, and sound design and mixing by Alex Atack and Mohamad Khreizat.

NADEEN SHAKER: Thank you to Zainab AbdulAziz, Shams Nour Abdulaziz, Bahgat AbdulAziz, Tahia Abdul Nasser, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Hamdi Shaarawi, and Bruce Kuklick for generously giving me their time and speaking to me for this story. 

DANA BALLOUT: If you liked this episode, please share it on social and with your friends, it really helps these stories reach more people. That’s it for our season. We’ll be taking the next few months off to work on a new season. In the mean time, we’ll be back in your feed every now and then with bonus content and episode updates. Thank you so much for tuning in to Kerning Cultures this season. See you in a few months. We love ya.

[OUTRO STING]