His skull was taken from the Congo as booty. Will Belgium finally return?

Rusinga Iwa Gombe, once a powerful leader of the local Congolese people, fought back against Belgian colonial invaders in the late 19th century.

He was such a nuisance to them that Emile Storms, who commanded the Belgian army in the area, said his head would be “eventually labeled small and sent to Brussels.” It wouldn’t be strange to see it displayed in a museum.”

That’s exactly what happened.mr storms squad In 1884, he murdered and beheaded Mr. Rushinga.His skull was then placed in a box at the Brussels-based Institute of Natural Sciences, along with more than 500 human bones from the former Belgian colony.

His descendants are fighting for the return of his remains, and their efforts play out against the backdrop of larger debates about European responsibility for colonial atrocities, reparations, and the return of plundered heritage. ing.

Several European countries, including Belgium, have developed guidelines for returning artifacts, but the process is painfully slow.

The return of human remains, which were often illegally and brutally removed from colonized territories by European invaders and ended up in private hands or kept in museums, is even more difficult. In Belgium, this effort is stalled by persistent resistance to addressing its colonial legacy.

Belgium drafted Law regulating the return of remainsHowever, it is likely to face a parliamentary vote only after June’s national elections. If passed, the bill would establish Europe’s second framework for the return of remains held in public collections, following a similar law passed by France in December that set strict conditions for return. become.

King Leopold II of Belgium occupied large swathes of Central Africa, including what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the mid-1880s and exploited it in extremely brutal ways for personal gain. Although there are no official statistics, historians estimate that millions of people died under his rule, died of mass starvation, disease, or were killed by colonizers.

But today, that bloody chapter of Belgian history is no longer a mandatory part of the school curriculum, and some Belgians defend Leopold as a foundational figure. Several streets and parks are named after him, as well as a square with a statue of him.

In 2020, Belgium’s King Philippe expressed “deep regret” for his country’s cruel past in a letter to the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to mark the country’s 60th anniversary of independence, but stopped short of apologizing. . There are fears this could open the door to legal action by people seeking compensation.

The conquest of the Congo coincided with the birth of modern anthropology, and Belgian scientists were busy comparing the skulls of the inhabitants of Belgium’s Flanders and Wallonia regions. Maarten Kutenier, a historian and anthropologist at the African Museum, said colonial expeditions often included doctors and were seen as opening up new opportunities for research. Belgian colonels were encouraged to bring back human remains to provide evidence of racial superiority.

The idea was to “measure the skull to determine race,” Kutuniye said.

Kutenye and his colleague Boris Wastiou broke decades of silence about the acquisition and continued storage of the remains, which were known only to a few scientists, by making the information public through academic conferences and exhibitions.

Later, the discovery of Mr. Rusinga’s skull came to light through the following news reports: news articles It was featured in the French weekly magazine Paris Match in 2018. The news reached the Democratic Republic of Congo and Thierry Rusinga, who describes himself as the great-grandson of Chief Rusinga.

The discovery prompted Thierry Rushinga to write two letters to King Philippe of Belgium asking for his ancestor’s remains, and a third letter to the Belgian consulate in his hometown of Lubumbashi.

“We believe our family has the right to claim his remains, or his remaining remains,” the first letter, dated Oct. 10, 2018 and seen by The New York Times, said. writing. In order to write a new page in history, things will happen amicably and in a mutually forgiving situation. ”

He said he did not receive a reply.

Thierry Rushinga said he was Chief Rushinga’s great-grandson.credit…Via Thierry Rushinga

In an interview with the Times, Rushinga expressed hope that there is still a chance of resolving the issue. “We asked that this be done amicably,” he said. “I hope we can sit around a table and talk about repatriation and compensation for families.”

Asked for comment, the Palace confirmed it had received one of Mr Rushinga’s letters but did not respond as it “did not include a mailing address and was not addressed directly to the Palace”.

The letter was forwarded to the palace by a Paris Match reporter and the Belgian Royal Institute of Natural Sciences, which said in a statement that “this matter is being closely monitored and handled by the relevant authorities.” mentioned in.

Questions about Rusinga’s skull prompted Belgium to attempt a complete inventory of the remains held by its institutions. In late 2019, scientists discovered them in museum and university storage spaces and set out to trace the origins of some of them.

This year, more than a year after the project officially ended, a final report listing 534 bodies from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi was released by some of the scientists who worked on the project and It was discreetly published online without informing the public.

Almost half of the remains were removed from the former colony long after the Belgian government took over from King Leopold.

Rees Buselen, one of the researchers working on the report, said that between 1945 and 1946, colonial agent Ferdinand van de Ginste removed around 200 graves from graves in Congo’s Kwango and Kwiru provinces. It was discovered that he had ordered the exhumation of several skulls.

Busseren also rediscovered the long-lost skull of Prince Kapampa, a murdered local Congolese leader in the 19th century, hidden in the archives of the African Museum.

Thomas Delmine, Belgium’s secretary of state for science policy, said in an interview that he was “surprised” by the number of bodies found at the Belgian facility. His office has drafted legislation to regulate requests for the return of human remains.

bill It would also require a formal request from a foreign government, which could seek reparations on behalf of groups that still have “active cultures and traditions.” Like French law, this law only allows compensation for funeral purposes.

Dermin said the administration consulted with the authors of the inventory report, who recommended that Belgium unconditionally repatriate all human remains in federal holdings directly related to its colonial past. .

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s government said it was surprised to learn that the law was drafted “without consulting Congolese experts or the Congolese Parliament.”

“Belgium cannot unilaterally set compensation standards,” François Muamba, special assistant to the DRC president, said in written comments to The Times.

“Unfortunately, the Belgian approach does not seem to have changed,” he added.

Fernando Numbi Kaniepa, a professor of sociology at Lubumbashi University and head of a research group working on the restitution issue, said the return of Rusinga’s skull was important for the entire Tabwa community to which he belonged.

“For us, individuals who are killed but not buried cannot rest with the other spirits of their ancestors,” said Kanyepa, himself a member of the Tavwa community. “That is why we believe that at all costs, Chief Rusinga’s skull must be returned to the community, and ultimately to his family, to receive a burial worthy of a king.”

Thierry Rushinga said that although the request would not be considered legitimate under the bill, he felt there must be “something hidden” in the failure to return the skull. . “Maybe Belgium doesn’t want to be accused of genocide,” he says. “Maybe Belgium doesn’t want to hear about this.”

The skulls of his ancestors are still kept in the archives of the Institute of Natural Sciences. Institute officials said the skulls were moved from the collection box to a separate box as a “sign of respect” at the request of the African Museum.

Aurelian Breeden I contributed a report from Paris.

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