How Glenn Close’s father became Mobutu’s personal doctor

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How Glenn Close’s father became Mobutu’s personal doctor

Moral Re-Armament

In 1950s America, and in the climate of the post-World War II optimism, Bill and Bettine Close became part of the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) religious movement that was started by Frank Buchman, the American Lutheran minister whose preaching centered on personal change through the application of what he believed to be the four absolute moral standards: honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Buchanan believed these would create a “force: of men and women capable of changing the world.” Years later however, the MRA shifted its focus from personal change to what Dr Close said was “a highly vocal anti-Communist lobby”.

At the time of his MRA activities, Bill Close had only six months left to complete his surgical residency at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York. And against the advice of his professors (and some MRA leaders) who implored him to at least finish the residency, he remained steadfast and left.

“The prospect of a ‘world mission’ that would change people and nations impelled me to resign from my surgical residency at Roosevelt six months early and commit to MRA full time”, he explained in his 2007 book, Beyond the Storm: Treating the Powerless and the Powerful in Mobutu’s Congo/Zaire. “But ‘singleness of purpose’ and ‘boundless enthusiasm’ labels pinned on me by my teachers in England, joined forces with the glorious feeling of being ‘called’, and plugged my ears to good sense.”

In May 1960, the MRA developed a plan to send a team from their group to Congo to help with the smooth transition from the then Belgian Congo to the independent nation now called DRCongo.

At the time, Chief Kalamba was the grand monarch of the Lulua community who inhabited the areas near the Lulua River, between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers in southern Congo. He and his personal assistant, Lwakabanga, were invited to the MRA headquarters in Caux, a Swiss village located just above Lake Geneva.

At the meeting, Chief Kalamba was persuaded that MRA might be useful in helping to resolve the bloody conflicts between the Lulua and their bitter enemies the Baluba. Convinced, the Chief invited an MRA team, which included Bill Close, to fly immediately to the Belgian Congo.

“I was chosen to go because I was bilingual in French and English, and had a black medical bag. Anyway, I wanted to get out of the headquarters and do something useful,” Bill Close told this writer in a 2007 interview from his Wyoming ranch. No sooner had Bill Close stepped off the 707 jet airliner in Leopoldville (Kinshasa today), then all hell broke loose. In June 1960, when the Belgian Congo became independent, Patrice Lumumba became the country’s prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu its president. However, not long after that the Congolese army mutinied against the Belgian officers who still controlled it. General Emile Janssen, the Belgian commander of the Force Publique, told his Congolese troops that for them nothing would change after independence, not even their ranks.

Soldiers in the Congolese army stationed in Leopoldville broke into the armories and went on a rampage. Bands of armed soldiers roamed the streets stopping Belgians or pulling them out of their vehicles in a frantic search for firearms and valuables.

Reports of murders and rape spread across the city. The result was a massive exodus of Europeans from the city. Bill Close estimated that some 3,000 Europeans boarded ferries and barges from Leopoldville heading to Brazzaville, capital of the neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville just across the Congo River. But not long after the mutineers blocked this escape route. Bill Close and many others found themselves trapped in the melee.

“The whites who had not fled to Brazzaville hid behind shutters, fearing more violence,” Bill Close told me in the 2007 interview.

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