Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo handed over on Monday the last remains of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of Congo, to his descendants.
The independence leader’s only known remains are a tooth, stolen by a Belgian police officer who had dissolved his body in acid after his assassination in 1961. Lumumba was killed by the authorities of a breakaway Congolese state, after being tortured in the presence of Belgian officers.
The highly anticipated move is the latest example of efforts between Kinshasa and Brussels to improve ties, as both capitals seek to begin a new chapter that focuses on their future.
The handover “is important if we want to have a future where we work together in harmonic ways,” said De Croo. It is important, he added, “that we put words on what has happened in the past, and also put words on the role that certain Belgians have played at that moment.”
De Croo said that several Belgian ministers in the early 1960s bear “moral responsibility” for the circumstances that led to Lumumba’s murder. “It is a painful and unpleasant truth. But it must be said,” he said.
“In the presence of his family, I would like to apologize on behalf of the Belgian government,” the prime minister added.
For Lumumba’s children, who had formally asked the Belgian king to hand over his remains, bringing the tooth home means they can finally lay their father to rest.
“We have got a common history, on both sides,” said Juliana Lumumba, the independence leader’s daughter. “This is an occasion for a moment of hope, and not only regret. It is a moment of hope for Belgium and Congo to live together in harmony.”
On Tuesday, the tooth will embark on a tour of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, before ultimately being laid in a mausoleum in Kinshasa.
The handover is part of an ongoing effort by Belgium to make amends for its colonial past, which was characterized by forced labor, systematic mutilation and the death of as many as 10 million people.
Earlier this month, Belgium’s King Philippe traveled to the Congo where he emphasized the two countries’ shared future, rather than their troubled history.
Many see Belgium’s attempts at reconciliation as mostly small and symbolic, falling far short of atoning for its brutal acts in the Congo.
“We need to look to the future,” said Juliana Lumumba. “The past, we can look at it for a hundred years, it’s not going to change.”
The remains of Congo’s independence leader are forcing the country’s colonizer to confront its brutal history.