Mon, 15 Aug 2022

Sixty-one years after Belgian mercenaries and separatists murdered Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, Belgium officially returned his tooth, his only remains, in a televised ceremony on Monday.

"I think it will provide solace for the family and the Congolese people," Lumumba's eldest son Francois told Belgium's RTBF broadcaster, adding that the family had been waiting more than 60 years for the event.

"We are opening a new page in history," he added.

Relatives, including his son Francois, were given a bright blue box containing the tooth, which was placed in a casket, draped by the Democratic Republic of Congo flag. The casket will be flown back to the DRC for an official interment.

Belgium's chief prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw, who handed over the relic, said that the legal action the family had pursued against a number of Belgian officials and diplomats had finally delivered "justice."

Francois filed a legal complaint in Belgium in 2011.

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Saying that the country's authorities turned the other way and did not act to stop the killing, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, apologized to his family at the ceremony on behalf of Belgium.

"I would like, in the presence of his family, to present in my turn the apologies of the Belgian government," he said.

"A man was murdered for his political convictions, his words, his ideals."

This is the second time the government apologized; a Belgian parliamentary commission of inquiry in 2001 found that Belgium had a "moral responsibility" for Lumumba's assassination. It apologized in 2002.

First prime minister

Patrice Lumumba became the Congo's first prime minister after over 100 years of brutal rule-first under Belgian King Leopold II, then under the Belgian government, until what was then known as the Congo Free State gained independence in 1960.

Congolese at that time were forced to labour in the numerous rubber plantations. Belgium also plundered the numerous minerals, timber, and ivory. Many groups rose up and were killed. Those who were forced to work had their hands cut off if they did not make their quota, were directly killed by the their overseers, or died of disease.

Historians, including Adam Hochschild, author of "King Leopold's Ghost" who investigated the atrocities in his book, indicate that 10 million Congolese perished under the hands of the Belgians.

As the newly-independent country's first prime minister, Lumumba was a fierce anti-colonialist. Both Belgium and the United States originally worked with him, but he fell from favour with his pro-Congolese policies.

Shot by separatists and Belgian mercenaries in the southern Katanga region on 17 January 1961, they dissolved Lumumba's body in acid. The 35-year-old was never found. However, Belgian police officer Gerard Soete, who was involved in the murder, kept Lumumba's tooth as a trophy.

Belgian police seized the tooth in 2016 from Soete's daughter.

A hero

The Democratic Republic of Congo considers Lumumba as the anti-colonialist hero and father of the country. This assassination and the cruel Belgian past has remained a source of pain for the Congolese.

The casket is slated to receive a hero's welcome and will be officially laid to rest at a memorial for Lumumba.

The DRC will hold three days of national mourning from 27 to 30 June to mark the burial ceremony. Its 62nd independence day, 30 June, will coincide with the ceremony.

Although there is an ongoing investigation into "war crimes", only two of the targeted officials are still alive.

Lumumba's children were received by Belgium's King Philippe on Monday. He had gone to the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this month to express his "deepest regrets" over Belgium's past, but did not apologize to the people of the DRC.

Originally published on RFI

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