For the first time ever, Belgium has taken responsibility for what many describe as the massive harm it inflicted on the Central African nations it colonized for eight decades.
As part of means to reassess its colonial past, the country, on Thursday, apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of children born to mixed-race couples during its colonial rule of Burundi, DR Congo and Rwanda.
The “métis” (mixed-race) children, who were produced out of relationships between Belgian settlers and local women, were abducted from Congo and put in schools and orphanages in Belgium run by the Catholic Church, said Reuters.
This occurred between 1959 and 1962 and about 20,000 children who were born in the 1940s and 50s were affected.
“Throughout Belgian colonial Africa, a system of targeted segregation of métis and their families was maintained by the Belgian state and acts were committed that violated the fundamental rights of peoples,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said Thursday afternoon in front of a plenary session of Parliament, which had in its gallery a dozen of many people of mixed race.
“This is why, in the name of the federal government, I recognize the targeted segregation of which métis people were victims” and “the ensuing policy of forced kidnapping”, he said.
“In the name of the federal government I present our apologies to the métis stemming from the Belgian colonial era and to their families for the injustices and the suffering inflicted upon them,” he was quoted by The New York Times.
“I also wish to express our compassion for the African mothers, from whom the children were taken,” he said
The apology comes almost 60 years after the three African countries involved gained independence
Belgian colonial rule, until the late 1950s, was against interracial romance, and interracial marriage was banned. Many white Belgian men, however, married black female settlers and they had children who were seen by Belgium authorities as undermining official segregation policies and destroying the prestige and domination of the white race, The New York Times report said.
At the time, Belgium authorities also feared that the Red River Rebellion in Canada in the 1860s in which métis people revolted and overthrew the local government could repeat itself. Thus, they ordered métis children in Congo to be separated from their families, and from the black population.
Historians said that an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 children were segregated from their parents and placed in orphanages and schools run by the Catholic Church. These children were often from single African mothers as most fathers refused to acknowledge the paternity of their children.
When Belgium’s colonies gained independence, in the early 1960s, thousands of métis children were taken from Burundi, Congo and Rwanda to Belgium.
There, they were either adopted by white parents or raised in Belgian boarding schools. Many of them are still alive today. Some of the children also never received Belgian nationality and remained stateless.
In 2017, the Catholic Church apologized for its “participation” in the banning of mixed-race marriages and the subsequent kidnapping and segregation of métis children
The Belgian bishops said: “Many never knew their mother or their father, and many mothers never saw their children again. For a long time, they couldn’t fully exercise their
“We present our apologies to those people for the part taken by the Catholic Church in these deeds,” they stated in a letter.
Last year, Belgian MPs unanimously adopted a resolution that called on the government to apologise and recognize the role played by Belgium and the Catholic Church during its colonial rule of the Central African nations.
The parliament also asked the government to help the affected children find their biological parents and also gain Belgian nationality
Georges Kamanayo, one of the affected children said the apology was the “ultimate recognition of an injustice”.
“We have felt like third-rate Belgians for a long time,” he told De Standaard newspaper.
“In the colony, we were set apart from the white children. It was pure segregation. We tried to immerse ourselves in Belgium, so we wouldn’t stand out.”
Belgium had a brutal history in the Congo under Leopold II, who ruled Congo with an iron fist for more than a century.
The King of the Belgians, Leopold II, ruled from 1865 to 1909 and has been described as worse than Adolf Hitler for his genocide against the people of the Congo Free State (now Democratic Republic of Congo) who he considered as his personal property including their lands and minerals.
An undetermined number of Congolese, ranging in the millions, were killed in the hands of Leopold’s private colonial militia of 90,000 men called Force Publique, which he used to run the region that is the size of Western Europe and 76 times larger than Belgium.
The area was handed over to him by 14 European nations and the United States at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 where Africa was shared among European colonists.
His rule was a horror for the people who were tortured, raped and killed by the Force Publique in order for them to diligently collect natural rubber for export. He also collected and sold ivory before using forced labour to harvest and process rubber in the 1890s when prices soared. Thousands were also sold into slavery.
Eventually, there was international pressure against King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo and he was forced by the Belgian government to relinquish control of the colony to the civil administration in 1908
Last February, a group of UN human rights experts told Belgium that it must apologise for its dark colonial history and atrocities committed during the period.
In a report, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said Belgium must recognize the true scope of the violence and injustice of its colonial past in order to tackle the root causes of present-day racism faced by people of African descent, reports The Brussels Times.
“We found clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium. People of African descent face discrimination in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, including diversion from mainstream education into vocational schooling, ‘downgrading’ in employment opportunities and discrimination in the housing market,” Michal Balcerzak, the chairperson of the working group said.
The UN experts also raised issues with the renovation of the Africa Museum at Tervuren, saying that Belgian authorities failed to reorganize the museum enough in order to “exorcise the demons of its exploitation of the Congo.”