Colonial crimes in the Congo: Belgium struggles with its past

60 years after the end of colonial rule in the Congo, the Belgian king apologized for the atrocities. But dealing with a bloody story is just beginning.

By Alexander Göbel, ARD studio Brussels

In front of the Royal Palace in Brussels, Belgium’s former King Leopold II (1835-1909) still sits on horseback, cast in bronze. The 14-year-old Noah looks spellbound at the huge statue, which commemorates the man who was never in the Congo himself, but from the end of the 19th century exploited the so-called Congo Free State and had it covered with unimaginable horrors to bring back his subjects Force delivery of more and more rubber and ivory.

King Leopold II exploited the people

King Leopold II has more than ten million people on his conscience. He didn’t just let subjects chop off hands. Under his regime, baby’s arms were torn off, villages set on fire, robbed and looted: everything so that he could enrich himself personally.

Atrocities in the Congo

On the 60th anniversary of the Congo’s independence from Belgium, King Philippe expressed his “deep regret” for the atrocities before and during the colonial period for the first time in a historic step. “Our history consists of shared achievements, but it has also had painful episodes. At the time of the independent state of the Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still affect our collective memory,” said one letter. Hours after its publication, a bust of the former colonial master was removed in the city of Ghent with applause from the public.

“Statues that show him are disrespectful – towards the dead and their descendants. I don’t think this man should be honored for his actions,” says the boy who stands in front of the Royal Palace in Brussels. Noah was born to Congolese parents in Belgium. The death of George Floyd, the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the USA – all of that also inspired him: namely to read everything about Belgium’s colonial era.

Symbols for the bloody trauma

The student then started a petition. His demand: “The equestrian statue has to go, as well as many other monuments and street signs, which are dedicated to Leopold II and other colonial profiteers all over Belgium.”

Gia Abrassart, the Belgian-Congolese director of the Café Congo cultural center in Anderlecht, also considers it overdue for such statues to disappear. Because: They are marble and bronze symbols for the great, bloody trauma.

There is a plaque on the equestrian statue in Brussels. It says that the mining union “Union Minière du Haut Katanga” has given the material to the Kingdom of Belgium. Copper and tin – evidence of the exploitation and forced labor of the local Congo population.

The mining union has now become the Belgian metal company Umicore, which in turn is one of the main sponsors of the Royal Africa Museum in Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels. Critics say that the colonial spirit lives on in him to this day.

So many people have enriched themselves in the Congo. But what about financial compensation?

“Belgium must be asked to pay for all the crimes sooner or later,” says Gia Abrassart, director of the cultural center.

Abrassart is not just about money, it is about justice. For profound processing. The cultural activist believes that the truth and reconciliation commission decided by the Belgian government is a good signal. She hopes that such a commission will be appropriately diversified.

The colonial past should no longer be hidden and falsified, but must finally be found in Belgian textbooks, for example – and without mercy. Gia Abrassartm says: “What we need is nothing less than a collective and cross-generational memory therapy. Think of a family constellation – just that the family here is all of Belgium, which has to face its colonial past,” says Abrassart.

Petition for the 60th Independence Day

In this complicated “family”, it is mainly people like little Noah who are starting out – with a loud “No” to the hated Leopold statues. More than 80,000 people have signed Noah’s application – he wants to hand it over to the Belgian government on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence.

Noah’s mother is very proud: “Noah has initiated something important. He is aware of his roots. We come from the Congo, our skin color is black, racism is our everyday life, and these statues do not represent us. My son has an interest in his action a courageous sign of hope. If he can think so far at 14, there is no excuse for anyone not to do that. “

The tagesschau will report on this topic on June 30, 2020 at 8:00 p.m.


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