STOCKHOLM — When South Africa opened its books on the atrocities of the apartheid era in the 1990s, a tantalizing series of faded documents reignited one of the continent’s enduring mysteries. The records suggested that a white militia, operating with the support of the C.I.A. and British intelligence, orchestrated the 1961 plane crash that killed the United Nations secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold.
Twenty years later, a team of documentary filmmakers set out to investigate the shadowy militia, known as the South African Institute for Maritime Research, and to determine whether it had really assassinated Mr. Hammarskjold. What they uncovered, if it is to be believed, was an even more shocking allegation.
In the film, “Cold Case Hammarskjold,” which debuted Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, a former militia member claims that his organization used phony vaccinations in the early 1990s to spread H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, in an attempt to wipe out the black population.
“We were at war,” said the former militia member, Alexander Jones. “Black people in South Africa were the enemy.”
Scientists immediately cast doubt on the claim, which they called medically dubious.
“The probability that they were able to do this is close to zero,” said Dr. Salim S. Abdool Karim, the director of Caprisa, an AIDS research center in South Africa. Dr. Karim, a renowned AIDS researcher who was working on the disease in South Africa in the 1990s, said a laboratory alone would have required millions of dollars and an infrastructure on a par with what the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta had at the time.
AIDS experts said the film’s claim — which arose in interviews with the former militia member, who described its activities over decades — unnecessarily gave currency to conspiracy theories. They warned that the claim could cause serious harm in South Africa, which has one of the world’s highest H.I.V. infection rates.
For many years, South African officials questioned established science and pushed herbal remedies for AIDS, even as the disease ravaged their country.
“One dangerous consequence of these allegations is that they have the potential to sow mistrust and suspicion of doctors and the medical establishment, and that they may confuse people about how H.I.V. is transmitted,” said Rebecca Hodes, the director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.
There is no consensus among epidemiologists on why H.I.V. infections are so high in sub-Saharan Africa. That disagreement, coupled with disproportionately high infection rates among blacks, gave rise to conspiracy theories, including that the disease had been created for population control.
Such theories, though widely discredited, have festered in South Africa, where blacks were subjected to atrocities during a half-century of white supremacist rule.
But rarely has anyone professed firsthand knowledge of such an orchestrated campaign to spread H.I.V. Mr. Jones, who is unrelated to the notorious American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, said he had visited a research facility and was certain that the militia ran its clinics with a singular goal: “to eradicate black people.”
There is medical reason to be highly skeptical of Mr. Jones’s account. H.I.V. is difficult to isolate, handle and culture in a laboratory. Putting the virus into a solution, keeping it viable and spreading it through injections would be challenging even today.
In the early 1990s, only a handful of laboratories in the world had the ability to conduct such sophisticated H.I.V. experiments, said Dr. Karim, the AIDS researcher.
Though the filmmakers present Mr. Jones as a self-assured whistle-blower, their notes from several interviews they conducted with him before the final taping reflect that he repeatedly denied that his group was involved in an AIDS project.
As the interviews progressed, the filmmakers posed additional questions that introduced details of possible militia activities. Mr. Jones’s responses evolved and, by the time he sat for the final interview, he professed firsthand knowledge of people and events that he had previously seemed to first learn about from the filmmakers.
The filmmakers provided the materials to The New York Times, and offered a reporting collaboration. The Times investigated the claims but did not enter into such a partnership. When asked about the discrepancies in Mr. Jones’s story, the filmmakers acknowledged that they could not corroborate the account and that the plan Mr. Jones had described might not have been medically possible. They encouraged journalists to investigate further.
“Journalists reporting on it should take care to contextualize the allegations,” said one of the filmmakers, the Danish producer Peter Engel, “and to remind readers that, even if proven true, there is no reason to turn away from modern medical clinics, which are regulated in ways which did not exist in the 1980s at the end of the apartheid era.”
Such a cautionary note was not included in the version of the film seen by The Times.
The documentary adds new details and raises fresh questions about the death of Mr. Hammarskjold, a Swedish diplomat whose plane crash has never been fully explained. A United Nations panel concluded that there was “persuasive evidence that the aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat.”
But the AIDS accusations are likely to generate the most attention. And though Mr. Jones’s account cannot be corroborated, there is support for the notion that the militia was at least interested in AIDS research. One young woman, Dagmar Feil, was killed in front of her home in 1990. Her mother told the South African authorities that she had been conducting AIDS research for the militia at the time, according to contemporaneous documents.
Much is unknown about the militia, and it is difficult to sort fact from fiction. Its leader, Keith Maxwell, had claimed that it was rooted in British admiralty traditions and traced its lineage to the early 1800s. When the Hammarskjold documents surfaced in the late 1990s, government officials and experts puzzled over what to make of them. Many dismissed them as forgeries or the product of a Soviet disinformation campaign.
Whatever the group was in that era, by the 1980s and early 1990s it appeared to be a mercenary organization. Paramilitary groups and private military organizations were common during the apartheid era, and the group known as Saimar (pronounced “Sy-marr”) advertised for military-trained men to serve in unspecified foreign operations.
Mr. Maxwell, who reportedly died in 2006, also ran medical clinics of some kind in South Africa, though he was not a doctor. And he claimed publicly that AIDS would ultimately be good for humanity and would decimate the black population in South Africa.
But his interest in AIDS is far from proof of a successful germ warfare campaign. An eccentric figure who insisted on the title “commodore,” Mr. Maxwell’s writings were rambling, fantastical affairs.
“He was a bit of a clown, but he took himself quite seriously,” said Adrian Hadland, who interviewed Mr. Maxwell in the late 1980s for the satirical magazine The Laughing Stock. Mr. Hadland, now a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, cautioned against taking any of Mr. Maxwell’s claims at face value. “I would be very careful about putting things on the line for anything to do with this guy,” he said.
The film stars and is directed by Mads Brugger, a Danish journalist who posed as a European adventurer and bribed his way around central Africa in the 2012 film “The Ambassador.” Some criticized the film and Mr. Brugger as racist, but he said he was playing a role in order to reveal hidden truths. The film critic A.O. Scott, writing in The Times, questioned whether Mr. Brugger was trustworthy.
Like the mystery of Mr. Hammarskjold’s death, the story of AIDS conspiracy theories is rooted in Cold War intrigue. It began as Soviet disinformation, with K.G.B. officers planting articles in newspapers saying that the United States military had manufactured the disease, according to Nicoli Nattrass, author of the book “The AIDS Conspiracy.”
The false reports quickly made their way to Africa, where South Africans adopted their own versions, often involving the apartheid government. The oppression from the white supremacist government, which did have a biological weapons program, made the AIDS legend believable to many blacks, Ms. Nattrass wrote.
Dr. Hodes cautioned against believing the conclusions of the Hammarskjold documentary. “Each of the components of this outlandish claim should be scrutinized through careful consideration, and verified factually,” she said.
Orignially published in NYT.