Aged over 70, five mixed-race women born in Congo were torn from their mothers at the age of two or three to be placed in religious institutions and subject to state supervision. These women today accuse the Belgian state of crimes against humanity. Belgium contests the qualification.
Will the Belgian state be condemned for “crimes against humanity”? Five mixed-race women torn from their black mothers in Congo about 70 years ago demanded, Thursday, October 14, reparations to the Belgian state, accused, before the court of Brussels, of “crimes against humanity” for facts committed during the colonial era.
At the age of two, three or four years, these women, who are now grandmothers, were forcibly removed from their maternal families, then placed in a religious institution located “sometimes hundreds of kilometers away”. explained Me Michèle Hirsch, lawyer for Léa, Monique, Simone, Noëlle and Marie-Josée, all born of the union between a Congolese mother and a White, present at the hearing surrounded by relatives. “I call them by their first name, because their identity has been taken away from them. They have been speechless for nearly 70 years, unable to tell,” said the lawyer.
“A generalized system”
“During colonization, the mestizo was considered a threat to the supremacy of the white race, it had to be removed,” said Me Hirsch, speaking of a “generalized system” put in place by the Belgian state.
State lawyers were then to speak. They dispute the facts and the qualification retained by the complainants. “Crimes against humanity” are imprescriptible under Belgian law, like crimes of genocide and war crimes.
This trial is the first in Belgium to shed light on the fate of half-breeds born in the former Belgian colonies (Congo, Rwanda, Burundi), never officially listed but whose number is generally estimated at around 15,000.
Most of the children born from the union between a Black and a White were not recognized by their father, and should not mix with either the Whites or the Africans.
Consequence for many: the placing under state supervision and the placement in an orphanage through the payment of subsidies to these institutions, generally managed by the Catholic Church.
“At school, we were called ‘café au lait’. We were not accepted,” recalled one of the complainants, Simone Ngalula, in an interview with AFP in September 2020.
“We were called ‘the children of sin’. A white man could not marry a black woman. The child born of this union was a child of prostitution,” said Léa Tavares Mujinga, born to a Portuguese father and abducted from age 2 in the 1940s.
“Loss of identity”
In the eyes of the complainants, the apologies formulated in 2019 on behalf of the State by the Belgian Prime Minister must be followed by reparations. Charles Michel, now president of the European Council, then recognized “a targeted segregation”, and deplored the “loss of identity” with the separation of siblings, including at the time of repatriation to Belgium after the independence of the Congo in 1960.
“We were destroyed. Apologies are easy, but when we do something we have to assume it,” said Monique Bitu Bingi, during a press conference with the four other plaintiffs before the trial.
She denounced “a second abandonment”, when after independence, these girls could not get into the UN trucks to be repatriated with the West. The authority of the new Congolese power was contested, clashes erupted, some say they were victims of sexual abuse by the rebels.
All are now claiming from the Belgian courts “a provisional sum of 50,000 euros” and the appointment of an expert to assess their moral damage.
Thursday, the pleadings before the civil court of Brussels were not to exceed three or four hours. The judgment will be reserved and should not be rendered for several weeks.
Michèle Hirsch defends the plaintiffs alongside Christophe Marchand, lawyer for the family of the assassinated former Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, in another procedure still underway in Brussels.
They cite as an example the compensation promised by the Canadian and Australian authorities to repair the forced placement, for decades, of indigenous children in residential schools or white families.
In August, Australia announced the payment of compensation of 75,000 dollars – or nearly 47,000 euros – to many aborigines forcibly removed from their families when they were children. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called these assimilation policies a “shameful” period in the country’s history.