Why the Congolese hero has only one tooth left

Patrice Lumumba

Assassinated Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba has only one golden crowned tooth left.

Shot by firing squad in 1961 with the tacit support of the former colonial power Belgium, his body was then buried in a shallow grave, exhumed, transported 200 kilometers (125 miles), buried again, exhumed, It was then chopped into pieces and finally dissolved in acid.

He later admitted that Belgian police chief Gerard Soete, who oversaw and participated in the destruction of the remains, gritted his teeth.

He also spoke of the body’s second tooth and two fingers, but none of those were found.

The tooth will now be returned to the family in a ceremony in Brussels.

Soete’s urge to pocket parts of the body echoes decades of behavior by European colonial officials who took the remains home as horrific souvenirs.

But it was also a final humiliation to someone Belgium sees as an enemy.

In 1999, Soete appeared in a documentary describing the teeth and fingers he took away as “a kind of hunting trophy”. The language suggests that, for the Belgian police, Lumumba — revered across the continent as the leading voice of African liberation — is less human than human beings.

For Lumumba’s daughter Juliana, the question is whether the perpetrators were human.

“How much hatred do you have to have to do that?” she asked.

“It’s a reminder of what happened to the Nazis, taking pieces of people – it’s a crime against humanity,” she told the BBC.

A picture of a tooth in a display box

Gerard Soete’s daughter shows this tooth in a padded box to photographers in 2016

Lumumba had risen to become prime minister at the age of 34. Elected in the final days of colonial rule, he headed the cabinet of the newly independent nation.

In June 1960, Belgium’s King Baudouin praised the colonial government at the handover of power, calling his ancestor Leopold II the country’s “civilized man”.

There is no mention of the millions who died or suffered brutality under his rule when he ruled what was then known as the Congo Free State as his personal property.

This kind of denial in Belgium over the past few years portends its acceptance only now.

Lumumba was not so reticent.

In an unscheduled speech on the official programme, the prime minister spoke of the violence and depravity suffered by Congolese people.

When he finished, he delivered devastating remarks, interrupted by applause and a standing ovation, as he described “the humiliating slavery imposed on us by force”.

The Belgian was stunned, according to scholar Ludo De Witte, who gave a seminal account of the assassination.

Never before has a black African dared to speak like that in front of Europeans. DeWitt said the prime minister was portrayed in Belgian media as an illiterate thief who was seen as humiliating the king and other Belgian officials.

This December 1960 photo shows soldiers guarding then-Congo Kinshasa Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (right) and Senate Vice President Joseph Okito during the arrest of Leopoldville (Cashshasa) (left)

Patrice Lumumba (R) and ally Joseph Okito (L) arrested in December 1960

Some say Lumumba signed his own death warrant in his speech, but his murder the following year was also surrounded by Cold War exercises and the Belgians’ desire to stay in control.

The Americans also plotted his death for a possible turn to the Soviet Union and his uncompromising anti-colonialism, while a British official wrote a memo suggesting killing him was an option.

However, there appears to be a personal element to the way Lumumba has been maligned and hunted down.

The total destruction of the corpse, and a way of getting rid of the evidence, appears to be an effort to erase Lumumba from memory. Without a monument, it’s almost impossible to deny his existence. It wasn’t enough to just bury him.

But he is still remembered.

Especially his daughter Juliana – who was the main pusher in getting the tooth home and who is heading to Brussels to receive it.

She let out a warm laugh as she recalled her childhood memories. As the youngest and only girl in the family, she said she was close to her father.

Lumumba was “less than five years old” when he became prime minister. She remembers being allowed in his office “just to sit and watch my dad while he was working. For me, that was dad.”

But she acknowledged her father “belonged to this country because he died for Congo…and for his own values ​​and belief in the dignity of Africans”.

She acknowledged that it was symbolic to hand over the tooth in Belgium and bring it back to the Democratic Republic of Congo, “because there’s not enough left. But he has to go back to the country where he bleeds.”

The tooth would be taken to the vast country before being buried in the capital.

For years, however, the Lumumba family didn’t know exactly what happened to their father, as officials remained silent about the cause of his death.

Lumumba’s journey from prime minister to assassination victim took less than seven months.

Shortly after independence, the country was hit by a crisis of separatism as the mineral-rich southeastern province of Katanga declared its separation from the rest of the country.

In the political chaos that followed, Belgian troops were sent on the grounds of protecting Belgian nationals, but they also helped support the Katanga government, which was seen as more sympathetic.

Lumumba himself was sacked as prime minister by the president, and just over a week later Army Chief of Staff Colonel Joseph Mobutu seized power.

Lumumba was subsequently placed under house arrest, escaped in December 1960 and re-arrested, before being held in the western part of the country.

His presence there was seen as a possible source of instability, and the Belgian government encouraged him to move to Katanga.

During the flight on January 16, 1961, he was attacked. He was also beaten on arrival as Katanga leaders considered what to do with him.

‘No trace left’

It was eventually decided that he would face the firing squad and was shot on January 17 along with two allies.

That’s when Police Chief Soete stepped in. According to De Witte’s book The Assassination of Lumumba.

Armed with a saw, sulfuric acid, a mask and whiskey, Soete leads a team to move, destroy and dispose of the remains. It was a process he later described as “going to the depths of hell”.

But it wasn’t until nearly 40 years later, in 1999, that he publicly acknowledged his involvement, and he actually still has a tooth. He said he had gotten rid of other body parts he took.

When Ms. Lumumba recalled hearing that part of her father was still there, she sighed deeply.

“You can understand how I feel about this,” she said, her voice full of emotion.

It’s unclear what Soete did when she had the tooth. A photo shows it in a padded box, but it’s unclear whether it’s on display.

But it did stay in his family.

It resurfaced in 2016 when Soete’s daughter Godelieve was interviewed by the Belgian magazine Humo, published before the 55th anniversary of Lumumba’s killing.

Black and white photo pf two men standing - one in uniform

A photo in Godelieve Soete’s album shows her father Gerard on the right with his brother Michel, who was also involved in the destruction of the bodies

She spoke of her “poor dad” who had to suffer for knowing what he did. Ms Soete also believes her family should apologise for the order given to her father by Belgian authorities.

She said he kept a private archive and while a lot was thrown away after his death in 2000, she “was able to keep some interesting stuff”.

These included the teeth she took out to show interviewers and photographers.

After De Witte filed a complaint, Belgian police confiscated it, and after a four-year legal battle, a court ruled that it should be returned to the Lumumba family.

As part of the campaign to get it back, Ms Lumumba wrote a touching and poetic open letter to King Philip.

“Why, after his horrific murder, was Lumumba’s body doomed to be an eternally wandering soul, without a grave to shelter his eternal rest?” she asked.

With the tooth returned, the former prime minister will rest in a special mausoleum in the capital Kinshasa.

“It’s what we normally do in our culture, we like to bury the dead,” said Georges Nzongola-Ntaraja, a Congolese historian and the country’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“This is a comfort to the Congolese family and people because Lumumba is our hero and we want to give him a decent funeral.”

Despite the burial, the past still needs to be considered.

DeWitt’s book broke years of official silence, leading to a parliamentary inquiry in 1999 charged with determining “the exact circumstances of the assassination … and the possible involvement of Belgian politicians”.

In its conclusions two years later, it wrote that in the 1960s, “the norms of international political correctness differed.” Still, while no documents were found ordering Lumumba’s murder, the investigation found that some members of the government were “morally responsible for the circumstances leading to the death.”

‘Need to know our past’

The Belgian foreign minister at the time, Louis Michel, then expressed his “apologies” and “deep and sincere” regrets to the Lumumba family and the Congolese people.

Speaking to the BBC in a personal capacity, Professor Nzongola-Ntalaja believes Belgium has not fully embraced its role in the killings. “Belgium refuses to take responsibility for what they know they have done – so it’s not entirely satisfactory,” he said.

Belgian prosecutors are treating the murder as a war crime, but 10 of the 12 suspects identified have died, and a decade later, the investigation is moving very slowly.

The handover of the teeth will be another element of the reconciliation process between Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo over the colonial era and Lumumba’s death.

“It’s a step – we need to go further,” his daughter said.

But she also believes there needs to be some reckoning on the Congolese side, as some of her compatriots have also been implicated in her father’s death.

“We have to accept our history – its good and its bad.”

“We need to understand our past, build our future, and live in the present,” she said.

Burying the tooth – planned to coincide with the 61st anniversary of Lumumba’s famous Independence Day speech – will provide an opportunity to revisit the past.

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