Belgium on Monday handed over the last remains of slain Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba — a tooth — to his family, turning a page on a grim chapter in its colonial past.
Chief prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw gave the relatives a small, bright blue box containing the tooth in a televised ceremony, and said the legal action they had taken to receive the relic had delivered “justice”.
The tooth was placed in a casket that was then draped in the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which celebrates Lumumba, who was murdered by separatists and Belgian mercenaries in 1961, as an anti-colonial hero.
Lumumba’s assassination — and the brutal history of Belgian control of the Congo — have been enduring sources of pain between the two countries.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo reiterated that his country’s authorities bore a “moral responsibility” over the killing.
“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.”
Lumumba’s son Francois told Belgium’s RTBF broadcaster that his relatives had been waiting “more than 60 years” for this event.
“I think it will provide solace for the family and the Congolese people,” he said.
“We are opening a new page in history.”
A fiery critic of Belgium’s rapacious rule, Lumumba became his country’s first prime minister after it gained independence in 1960.
But he fell out with the former colonial power and the United States and was ousted in a coup a few months after taking office.
He was executed on January 17 1961, aged just 35, in the southern region of Katanga, with the support of Belgian mercenaries.
His body was dissolved in acid and never found.
But the tooth was kept as a trophy by one of those involved, a Belgian police officer.
The tooth was seized by Belgian authorities in 2016 from the daughter of the policeman, Gerard Soete, after Lumumba’s family filed a complaint.
– ‘National mourning’ –
The casket containing the tooth is set to be flown back to the DRC where it will be officially laid to rest at a memorial site.
The country is set to hold three days of “national mourning” from 27 to 30 June — its 62nd anniversary of independence — to mark the burial ceremony.
Lumumba’s older son Francois filed a complaint in Belgium in 2011, pointing the finger of responsibility for his father’s killing at a dozen Belgian officials and diplomats.
The investigation for “war crimes” is still ongoing but only two of the targeted officials are still alive.
A Belgian parliamentary commission of enquiry in 2001 concluded that Belgium had “moral responsibility” for the assassination and the government presented the country’s “apologies” a year later.
De Croo said Belgian officials “chose not to see, chose not to act” to stop the killing, even if they had not directly intended it to happen.
Lumumba’s children were also received Monday by Belgium’s King Philippe, who this month travelled to DR Congo to express his “deepest regrets” over the colonial past.
Historians say that millions of people were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they were forced to collect rubber under Belgian rule. The land was also pillaged for its mineral wealth, timber and ivory.