The Belgian government has handed over the remains of slain Congolese independence fighter Patrice Lumumba to his family. A gold-capped tooth in a draped coffin is all that is left of Lumumba who was the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony in 1961.
Monday’s action by the Belgian government is seen by many as another step in the new move towards recognition of atrocities that accompanied the country’s brutal exploitation of the former colony. By returning the tooth, Belgium is hoping to draw a definite line under one of the most brutal and shameful episodes in the country’s bloody exploitation of Central Africa.
Lumumba was shot dead by a firing squad in 1961 by mercenaries with the backing of the Belgian government that felt humiliated by his popular speech delivered on the day his country celebrated independence. The Belgian Police Commissioner, Gerard Soete who, along with his brother oversaw Lumumba’s execution, confessed in a 1999 documentary to having the tooth in his possession. Soete refers to Lumumba’s tooth and fingers that he pocketed from the macabre manslaughter as ‘a type of hunting trophy.’
Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana, who was four years old at the time of her father’s assassination questions whether his killers were human at all, “What amount of hatred must you have to do that?” she asks. “This is a reminder of what happened with the Nazis, taking pieces of people – and that’s a crime against humanity,” she told the BBC.
Juliana acknowledges that the handing over of the tooth in Belgium and bringing it back to the Democratic Republic of Congo is symbolic “because what remains is not really enough. But he has to come back to his country where his blood was shed.”
Belgian academic, Ludo De Witte wrote a ground-breaking account of Lumumba’s murder and recounts that Soete and his collaborators wanted no trace of Lumumba left such that Lumumba is obliterated from memory. De Witte filed a complaint about the return of Lumumba’s remains to the family, which succeeded after four years in a court ruling.
Congolese historian and the country’s UN Ambassador, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja says “It is a comfort for the family and the people of the Congo because Lumumba is our hero, and we would like to give him a decent burial.”
“This is what we usually do in our culture, we like to bury our dead,” he added.
The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has declared three days of official mourning before the official burial of the tooth in Kinshasa at the end of June 2022.