This interview was published in Universa-Uol, on April 25, 2021. This is a translation.
German diplomat Angela Kane is one of the main international references on Disarmament, Human Rights, and Peace negotiations. It even fell to her to continue the work started by the Brazilian Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in an attack in Iraq. Angela has led missions in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. She is a professor of Political Science in France and today, living in Austria, she is one of the members of the Center for Disarmament in Vienna. But despite her career and significant role in international politics, recently a fact from Angela’s past, which not even some of her friends knew, has put her in the spotlight.
Between 1975 and 1976, at only 26 years old, she was crucial for the investigations of crimes committed against tourists in the called “hippie trail”, which covered Vietnam, Nepal, and India and where more than 18 people were brutally murdered, victims of the French psychopath Charles Sobhraj. The story is so incredible that it became the Netflix series The Serpent, in which actress Ellie Bamber plays Angela.
Angela set aside an hour on her Sunday to talk to Universa about the series – which reduced her role significantly – and remember a little bit about how it all happened.
Looking at your career, with so many incredible examples, it seems that you have always been dedicated to making the world a better and safer place.
It all started with the fact that I was born right after the War. When I was a teenager, people still talked a lot about everything they lost in the conflict. We started to have a distorted idea of the world and that’s why I grew up with the conviction of knowing other cultures, having other experiences, and doing things.
How did it get to Thailand, where it turned out to be one of the most important pieces to discover and arrest the French psychopath, Charles Sobhraj, as shown in the Netflix series, The Serpent?
I left Germany when I went to college and went to study in the United States. There I met my first husband [diplomat Herman Knippenberg]. We got married very young, at 21, nobody else does that anymore! [laughs] We lived in Holland for a year and then a year in Paris before he entered the diplomatic career and the first post was precisely in Bangkok and everything happened. The Sobhraj case practically fell into our laps.
Is the series true to what actually happened?
Not exactly. I made a report of things that were not in line with the facts, but in the end, they didn’t change a line of what I asked them to correct. They did what they wanted. [laughs] For example, [Herman] never woke up in the middle of the night and almost shot me, it’s pure fiction.
Another thing that the series doesn’t make very clear was that it all happened in a very short period of time. We learned of the disappearance of the Dutch couple in February and in May Sobhraj left Thailand.
I did a lot more than the version they filmed. What the producers told me was that they wanted to set me aside a bit, precisely as “a diplomat’s wife”. Which I wasn’t true, I mean, I was married to a diplomat, but I was working as a freelancer, I learned the language…Angela Kane
Were you upset by the way you were portrayed?
Well, I received many compliments, because people who know me today were surprised when they found out about my role in the investigation because I was only “revealed” in the final episode [Angela no longer uses her ex-husband’s name, which is why many did not associate her with the case]. People were surprised, but it was so long ago and it’s not a subject that can be brought to dinner tables or in a cafe [Laughs]
Were you afraid to deal with this case so young?
We didn’t think about danger and we wouldn’t be targeted by Sobhraj because we had diplomatic immunity. He wanted low-profile victims, he didn’t want revenge. In fact, what I learned in that case, I later used in the peace and disarmament negotiations. You don’t think about your safety first because otherwise you’re paralyzed and you don’t do your job. There are risks, always, but they are not your priority.
Marie-Andrée Leclerc later claimed that he did not directly participate in the crimes…
At the time, we didn’t know about his first wife, the Frenchwoman, Juliette, but Marie-Andrée certainly knew about the crimes and participated in them. She lived in the apartment and she was the one who gave the drugs to the victims to get sick. She was involved, whether for love or not (I can’t say her motivation), but she confessed everything to the authorities so that she could be repatriated and die in Canada, aged 39 when she found out she was sick. And I can correct another detail of the series: she was not at all glamorous as in the series, with beautiful clothes. By the way, I was dressed in dark clothes, even with long sleeves! I would never dress in what they put on the show! We didn’t have electricity, the air conditioning was only in the room, it was very hot and we didn’t use anything with mango! I wore straps and short sleeves, never dark colors! [laughs]
By the way, I was dressed in dark clothes, even with long sleeves! I would never dress in what they put on the show! We didn’t have electricity, the air conditioning was only in the room, it was very hot and we didn’t use anything with mango! I wore straps and short sleeves, never dark colors! [laughs]Angela Kane
How did your career at the UN begin?
My ex-husband transferred to New York and I ended up starting there as a copy editor. My thought did not go beyond that of “I want a job”. Only when I was transferred to the General Secretary’s department, in less than a year, did everything take on another dimension. I met so many interesting people and discovered so much. One of my first jobs was with Human Rights issues and I knew so little at the time! I realized that it could be useful and important. But my ex-husband was transferred back to Indonesia and I worked there with the local government. That’s when I felt I could make a difference, even a small one, and I wanted that for the rest of my life.
Unfortunately, it didn’t fit with marrying a government official, plus of course other issues, so we divorced. And since then it has been an incredible experience, I have lived in Africa, in Latin America, working with Peace Accords.
Did you know Sergio Vieira de Mello and did you continue your work at the UN?
Sergio and I didn’t work directly together, but we met in meetings. He was living abroad at the time I joined the UN, and he was a great colleague. His death was very tragic and affected us a lot. It was because of his death that we [at the UN] started trying to guarantee more security for employees.
But, in peace operations, you cannot be extremely protected, you have to be in dangerous situations that are part of the job. Until then we thought that the blue flag of the UN could protect us, which is no longer true. Even before the attack on Sérgio, after the first attempt on the UN headquarters in New York, before September 11, we tried to change the security structure of the building, but we faced a lot of difficulties.
As a top executive at the Organization, what was it like to see women rise in key positions, like the ones you held?
Instinctively I always tried to hire more women because I like the dedication and loyalty of women, without wanting to generalize. Women in general were treated very poorly. Imagine that in post-war Germany, the husband had to give his wife permission to work. That hasn’t been a long time. And we lived with it.
In my case, little by little I found my voice. At first, when I spoke at a meeting, I saw men nodding their heads in agreement. Then a male colleague repeated exactly what I had said and everyone praised him. I was furious! So I gradually started saying “thanks for repeating what I said and agreeing with me”, and they stopped doing that to me. But women still need a lot of encouragement to hold higher positions, you know? I say to young women today in the workforce, don’t wait until you have 100% qualifications to apply for a higher position. Men apply with only 50% and 60% preparation. If you just try a job that you already know everything about, there’s nowhere to grow or learn, so take a risk with 75% if you’re still unsure, but take a risk because you’ll learn the rest and grow.
Your trajectory is an inspiration for women.
Great! I remember when I saw Margaret Anstee, the first woman to be appointed under-secretary of the UN. She was the first woman to wear pants to the UN in 1987! It was a surprise, none of us wore anything other than skirts. It wasn’t forbidden, but it was the code we followed. Once I saw her, I left there immediately to buy myself two pairs. Because that’s it, you can set an example as a woman with indirect things like clothes and it’s important.