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

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

Enter Mobutu

Before Dr Pirquin’s departure, Joseph Desire Mobutu had been appointed chief of staff of the Congolese army with the rank of colonel. The Force Publique would now be called the Armée Nationale Congolaise. According to Close: “…Mobutu, addressing the troops in Lingala, the official language of the army, announced that they should elect their officers, designate which white officers were acceptable, and restore order in the camps.” 

But this did little to prevent the mutiny from spreading to Elisabethville, capital of the mineral-rich Katanga (Shaba) province. Secessionist Moise Tshombe, who was also a client of Close, declared Katanga independent from the rest of the Congo. This move was said to be backed by Belgium and the United States.

Belgium’s colonial policy cared only for natural resource exploitation and gave no thought to good governance. An estimated 60% of Congo’s national income came from the mines in Katanga.

While the Congo struggled with its growing pains as a newly independent African nation, Bill Close was having his own personal struggles. His dedication to Hôpital des Congolais led to a conflict with his MRA colleagues.

In 1961, Frank Buchman died and Peter Howard became the MRA boss. Howard, who had been a political correspondent and investigative reporter for the London Daily Express under Lord Beaverbrook, vocally disapproved of Close’s hospital exploits, calling it an “unhealthy obsession” and advised him to disassociate himself from the Hôpital des Congolais.

Dr Close promptly resigned from the MRA. His responsibility as the only surgeon at the hospital greatly outweighed any dictates from an evangelical movement that was unable or unwilling to see that Close was indeed following his calling in life. Bill Close’s first encounter with Mobutu occurred within the background of the unfolding violence in Leopoldville and the Congo generally.

“At the time, I had just become the physician for the First Parachute Battalion and Mobutu’s house was in the paratrooper’s camp”, Close recounted. “We were having huge amounts of trauma in the operating rooms and I had been told by the British military attaché, Colonel John Sinclair, that Colonel Mobutu was the most effective guy in the army.

“So as a sort of typical naïve American, I waved for his car to stop as he was leaving his house and said: ‘Bonsoir, mon Colonel. I am the surgeon at the Hôpital des Congolais, and I wondered if you can do something about all the violence in town so we can catch up in the operating room’. He looked at me and sort of raised his eyebrows and said: ‘Oui, c’est possible’, and then he rolled up the car window and sped away.”

Not long after that encounter, Bill Close noticed a decrease in the steady stream of trauma cases. Some weeks later, Mobutu summoned Close to tend to the medical needs of several family members.

He was asked to remove a fish bone that was stuck in the throat of one of the colonel’s great aunts. Close was also asked to circumcise a new born son, a procedure he had not previously performed. Mobutu also asked him to go and sit with his extended family as one great aunt lay dying.If Close’s bold approach to Mobutu to reduce the violence in Leopoldville and his successful medical care with his relatives won him over, then the American was equally enamoured with Mobutu’s courage and compassion.

Once there was an attempted mutiny at the police barracks. Mobutu, Col Sinclair, and Close, along with three paratroopers, went to confront the mutineers. Mobutu told the others to stay back as he walked towards the armed and angry rebels.

“Mobutu halted in front of the police. Slowly and deliberately he scrutinised the men,” Bill Close recalls in Beyond the Storm. “Then, standing at attention with his shoulders back and fists clenched, he commanded: Deposez vos armes – ‘drop your weapons’. A low murmur came from the men. No one moved.

“Their weapons were levelled at the colonel. I held my breath. Two men in the front row dropped the butts of their rifles, released the barrels, and the guns clattered to the ground. In seconds, the crashing of weapons echoed in the camp. The handful of defiant men in the front row stepped forward and saluted. The mutiny was over.”     

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